At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Heaven, it is something so much more than a place where we go when we die. It is so much more than something that angels sing in and the righteous dead rest in. Heaven is a place and Heaven is a mode of being. There is, on one hand, the literal Heaven in which God, the Risen Lord, and all the company of the saints inhabit presently in sweet anticipation of the day when Heaven and Earth are one. On the other, there is the Heaven which is lived, the bringing down of God into the world, creating little pockets of Heaven here on earth.
We in the Church respond in many different ways when Heaven enters the conversation. Some of us dream of reunions with family members, others see golden streets and pearly gates, others wish we would focus more on the here and now, and still others – God-fearing or otherwise – are just not sure what they think about Heaven. Today we are not going to go through and work against anyone’s conception of Heaven, so don’t you worry, but I do want to take this time to talk about it generally, about what it is, and what we can look forward to when our time on this earth is over.
Heaven, as we call it, comes from two main words in scripture. שָׁמַיִם or shamayin in Hebrew and οὐρανός in Greek. These words generally mean sky, they are words that can mean, the place up above where God lives, but also just mean the place with clouds and stars, that place way up there. This does not mean that the Ancients believed that, climbing up high enough they would find a castle sitting on a cloud or some cities nestled among the moonbeams – like us, there was an understanding that while it is easy to talk about God being in the sky, God is somewhere else entirely, we talk about the sky because it is visible, it is a constant reminder of who God is and how great God can be.
The idea that God is somewhere else, close but simultaneously apart from us, is not something which is discussed only in terms of humans either. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in meditating on the Psalms discusses a Rabbinic tradition which goes something like this – “As humans look up to Heaven to see the work of God, so the Angels look down to the earth.” God is so transcendent, that even the angels look somewhere else and say, “God is there, God is doing things that we cannot even imagine!”
Now, this is not in the Bible of course, and upon hearing it you might have the same reaction I did. “If the angels live in the presence of God, worshipping at the Throne of Glory day and night, how can they not know where God is!” It’s a fine question, but let’s turn the lens back on ourselves and ask the same question. Why is it that we, those blessed with the image of God, the redemption of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and all the sacraments of the Church are unable to see God?
If we take scripture seriously in its claim that we are Temples of the Holy Spirit and image bearers of the Divine – then we must believe that each and every person is an image of God and each and every Christian contains the actual fullness of the Holy Spirit. That means that as we sit here, an assembled body of the Church, the Holy Spirit is working within and between us. The pulse of life, that which gives the entire universe being and meaning, is here among us. Take a deep breath now, breath deep in the knowledge that we are not simply looking at images of God, but that deep within us is God.
This is the way in which Heaven breaks into the now. With the reception of the Spirit, those of us who previously looked like God are now made to be in unity with God. Now our work is transformed, our lives and our bodies slowly transformed into that Spiritual Body which Paul speaks to us about. We are people on the move, people in the midst of change, we are the Body of Christ for the World.
What is important to remember, is that we do not take on this identity because of our own work, but only because of God’s mercy. Nothing about us or about the work we do could ever save us. However, the reception of the Spirit into our lives propels us to act. In our Baptism in the Methodist Church, we take an oath to:
Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness. Reject the evil powers of this world. Repent of our sin. We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
This is what we do in response to Christ’s saving works. We are pushed into the realization that evil is not the final victor in this world and that we ultimately will win out in the battle against it. We are called to participate in that struggle, and in so doing propel the world into a state which is a bit closer to heaven, a bit more like what God intended. In doing what is right, in fighting for a just world, we begin to resemble the God within us more and more.
These are the ways that Heaven is a thing we take part in now, but it is not the only way. There is also the reality that it is a place of rest, a place that we can enter into when we lie down our head. When we confess Christ, and in our final moments look up to Heaven we hear the same thing which was said to the penitent thief, “Today you will be seated beside me in Paradise.” When we leave this mortal body, we enter into eternal life in the presence of God. This is when we enter our rest, in that moment when we “fall asleep.”
We talk a lot about how we cannot wait for the moment when we are united with those who have gone before us, but I tell you that they are still with us. I do not mean that they are sitting in the pew beside you or that they have some ghostly existence, but I mean that as members of the Church they continue to be with us as siblings in Christ. When we gather here to worship, when we pray to God, when we take Communion, in all these things the whole assembly of Heaven does so with us. To live is Christ, to die is gain. We gain an immediate understanding of God like we’ve never known before, but this does not mean we cease to love those we leave behind. We continue to love our neighbors after they die, and they continue to love us – that is the blessing of eternal life.
What we see in Revelation is all the gathered Saints worshipping God for all the work which God has done. They are redeemed in the blood of Christ, they are free to serve God in eternity, to praise and rejoice in God’s presence forever. In this moment the Church is visualized as an entire group gathered in Heaven, but know that every time you worship – you are part of the numberless crowd. This gathering of the saved is not just for the end of the present age it is carried out again and again, with every prayer and every hymn.
This gathering takes place across time and space, in Heaven and on Earth. The promise of God is that, eventually, we will be united not only in Spirit but in physical presence. One day, Heaven and Earth will be made new, there won’t be a need to see God as somehow far away from us, God will be directly in front of us. The full mystery of God will be laid in front of us, and we will begin to understand what it really means to know God. When all who have died are raised again, they will be given their old bodies, now made perfect, and they will gather together. Will there be reunions with loved ones? I imagine so, all of eternity among a finite number of people, it would be impossible not to run into one another.
The redemption of our flesh and of the world means that what we do now matters, there is a future for every flower we plant, every tree we trim. Likewise, every good thing you do for someone has eternal consequences – love the sick, the poor, the broken-hearted, they will be perfected in the next world but the work you do for them will go with them into the next world. If we do not feed those who hunger, elevate the status of the poor and oppressed, and comfort the brokenhearted – then not only they, but we too will be missing out when we enter the world to come.
There’s a lot we do not know about Heaven. The descriptions we are given and the time tables that come with them are not made to be understood any one way. Some people see Heaven as the City on a Hill, others as a vast open plain, and still others simply as a crowd surrounding the throne of Glory. All these are scriptural; all these are valid not because Heaven is whatever we want it to be, but because it is something far beyond our understanding. It is now, it is not yet, it is here in this room, and it is far away and unknown.
Heaven is most simply described, not in terms of Greek or Hebrew etymology, but in the simple phrase, “Heaven is where God is.” By extension, one could say, “Heaven is where Love is.” God is among us, God is within us. Let us be sure to make Love work among us. Let us make the innermost parts of us conformed to Love. This gives us the power to repel evil and this is the blessing of God for all ages. – Amen.