Mention heaven… and we all have ideas that come to mind.
Pearly gates. It may be the common misperception of pearly gates from Revelation – which actually are 12 gates to the New Jerusalem, the city which comes down out of heaven and is a part of the new earth, with each gate made of one large pearl. (Rev. 21) And the whole idea misses the point of the Book of Revelation – which is that God’s people are the jewels of righteousness that God desires, and Israel and Jerusalem will be restored. It isn’t about opulence at all. But that is one idea that we have when heaven is mentioned.
Feast. Another is that of a feast. A feast where all are welcome and everyone has enough. Where the last shall be first and the first shall be last.(Matthew 22)
2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. 4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Worship. For others of us, mentions of heaven conjures endless worship, where we sing praises to God continually. Revelation chapter 19 talks about people from every nation, language, people and tribe coming together in rich harmonies of praise – rather like Pentecost. Ministers like to joke about congregations that want worship to be over in an hour being very unprepared for heaven.
We may have different ideas – but we share an avid curiosity about what will happen after we die and, if there is a heaven, what it is like.
I. This longing to know about heaven is not unique to our time and place. It seems to be a universal question wrestled with by humanity since ancient days. Is there life after death? What is it like? Who will be judged worthy of bliss and what will befall the unworthy?
Nicodemus may have had some of these questions in his mind. Nicodemus was a religious leader, even a member of the ruling council. He comes to speak with Jesus at night, surely a symbolic device in John for Nicodemus being “in the dark.” And the conversation reads a bit like the Abbott and Costello comedy sketch for “Who’s on First?” Nicodemus never does seem to understand what Jesus is saying. Jesus understands Nicodemus – but Nicodemus has no clue what Jesus is talking about. He keeps taking Jesus literally, trying to connect what he is saying about the new birth with the physical birth process.
But Jesus takes the time to sit down and talk with Nicodemus. He gets personal with him. Jesus knows that Nicodemus has been involved with religious leadership too long. His faith has gotten wrapped up in the traditions and rules of the ruling council rather than the true faith that is based on water and the spirit. He’s all bound up with position and privilege and has lost sight of the point of it all – having a relationship with God, honoring and serving God. In the dark indeed.
Nicodemus would likely have been concerned about WHO would be allowed into heaven. He probably had a good working definition of a righteous person, one who would be worthy of heavenly reward. Poor Nicodemus! He has been following Jesus’ ministry closely enough to understand that he comes from God, because the miracles and signs are indicators of that. He may have come to see if he can recruit Jesus for the council. It would be one way to add to their prestige and eliminate what looks like a coming conflict with a man that -- perhaps others can see too, comes from God. (John 3:1-2)
And then Jesus starts speaking of the things Nicodemus doesn’t understand, as to someone he cares enough to take time and pains with. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3: 3)
There are two ideas here that would likely be problematic for Nicodemus. 1. First, that seeing the kingdom of God is a personal matter – not whether or not you are a Jew, or particularly a Pharisee among Jews. The Pharisees were the truly observant religious Jews – those who went above and beyond the requirements. Nicodemus would likely have had trouble with the idea that the ability to see the kingdom of God isn’t ethnic, or national – and that what is required is something new: repentance and spiritual rebirth. Not regular attendance in worship and tithing, not following all the religious laws – not something you can put on the calendar and check off when complete. 2. This idea of being born anew, or born from above is a new one. The common phrase used in our time – to be “born again” – is an inadequate translation of the text. In Greek, the word is anōthen, which has double meanings of ANEW and FROM above. We need BOTH meanings to understand what Jesus is saying.[i] Born anew means a spiritual rebirth. Born from above means that our home, our allegiance and our focus is from and on God – not things of earth. Our very identity is rooted in a different place of origin. Nicodemus is in the dark on this too.
Nicodemus knows the original language of the conversation. He would know the meanings of anōthen but he still doesn’t get it. He focuses on the literal meaning of birth. He is in the dark. But Jesus explains that this means being born of water (baptism) and the spirit. Jesus is trying to explain that people won’t enter the kingdom by living a good life or obeying all of the rules of the faith, but through a spiritual rebirth.
Who will enter the kingdom of heaven? Jesus tells Nicodemus: The one willing to be spiritually reborn, to live life very differently. The one who is open to God changing and reshaping their lives.
II. If we were with Nicodemus, talking with Jesus in the dark, we might have more questions. What does rebirth look like? What does it take? How can this be?
The new birth isn’t like a facelift of a tech upgrade – cosmetic improvement or updating of what already exists. Nor can it happen by a few New Year’s resolutions to be a better person. We are talking more about reconstructive surgery. It’s a fundamental change of who we are – starting over – more like a Zaccheaus life change that involves a change in how we conduct our business, what we do with our money, making restitution where we have gained at the expense of others, and focusing on God instead of ourselves. The Bible talks a lot about dying to self so we can live for Christ.[ii] This isn’t easy. Death and New Birth go together.
When I was in ninth grade, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. When I learned about his life and death, I understood what being a Christian meant much differently. And I thought I understood. Certainly I understood better than I had before that faith is something that costs us – and the commensurate gains aren’t assured. Many years later I was serving two churches and working on my Ph.D. and Carol was really sick – and during the hour drive I prayed through some music. There was one song by Twila Paris that challenged me on every hearing. The chorus said, “ I said I belonged to you, but in a secret room I kept a secret list. I said anything for you – anything but this. Anything but this. You knew it all along. You knew it very well. The sturdy walls I hid behind were nothing but a prison cell.” And on every playing, as I prayed I realized more things that I had NOT turned over to God. I would stop the song and offer them up to God. But on the return trip, as I prayed I would discover something else that was on my secret list. Like layers of an onion, the Spirit kept peeling me away, challenging me to give those secret things up to God. Born of the Spirit – it isn’t a one-time thing. It’s guaranteed to be difficult.
Like a doctor sitting down and looking us in the eye to say, “You need open heart surgery or you will die, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth. You are going to die. You need to be born from above and born anew.”
III. When we focus on who will be in heaven or what heaven will be like – we are really asking the wrong questions. We would prefer to ask THOSE questions because they are more comfortable than the ones we SHOULD be asking – “How can God’s kingdom in heaven come on earth, and what would that look like? What does heaven ask of us now?”
WHO. I did the study this week to share the passages of scripture which show God’s concern for people outside the Jewish tradition, outside the chosen people. There are lots of examples – from God’s promise to make Abraham a promise to all nations in Genesis, to Revelation when all nations and the kings of the earth are gathered together in worship of Christ. If you are interested, or if you tend towards an exclusive view of who will be in heaven, let me know and I’ll email you the information. WHO will be in heaven seems to be a distracting question, not an important one.
WHAT heaven is like is another distraction. The ecstatic descriptions of heaven in scripture come mostly from the apocalyptic literature – which has its own symbolism, purposes, and rules for description. Jesus didn’t actually describe heaven much in his ministry, or in the post-resurrection experiences – he was focusing on equipping the disciples for ministry – which may in itself be an important clue. Reading post-death experiences is interesting, but may be another distraction.
WHERE heaven is located is another distracting question. We don’t believe any longer, at least most of us, in a three-story universe where hell is under the earth and heaven is above the sky. We can ask “where” but the question seems to go no-where.
THE $6,000,000 Question is instead “What is heaven’s process, project, or program for our earth?”[iii] When heaven is “woven into earth,” to use Wendy Farley’s phrase, what does it look like? And how do we take part in that? We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” without, perhaps, knowing what we are asking for. On THIS the scriptures are clear. The kingdom of heaven on earth was glimpsed in the presence of Jesus – where there was healing for brokenness, where the hungry were fed at a table where everyone was welcome, where the powerless had their needs met, where the outcast were welcomed at the table and into the fellowship. Jesus had very particular views of heaven and of the purpose of living. He was, after all, a poor Jew born in Herod’s reign of terror. As an infant he was a refugee in Egypt. He grew up in a small town of working poor in an occupied country with an extortionate overlord. His view of heaven was Justice – even a place where the beggar Lazarus was honored while the rich man was in torment because he hadn’t shared his bounty.
When we focus on THESE things, we become uncomfortable. Jesus had a different set of priorities than our own most of the time. Jesus was concerned more about the poor, weak and marginalized than about protecting anyone’s self-interest. He would be concerned about people fleeing from violence in their own countries, about children separated from their families, falling ill and dying because they do not have soap. James Forbes, preaching on Matthew 25 said that “no one will get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”[iv] These ideas make us uncomfortable. We would much rather work up an argument about who should or should not be residents of God’s kingdom – as if we were God to make that choice. But it takes the burden off of our own behavior, our own failure to live by Jesus’ values.
We have misunderstood the purpose of heaven. The idea of heaven is not primarily to comfort us. It’s to REMIND US – perhaps to inspire us too – but to REMIND us of God’s design for creation. We need the reminder because God calls us to work with Jesus, by the power of our baptism and the Spirit, to continue the ministry of Jesus, and to anticipate the kingdom of heaven in our personal and political life, in mission and ministry, and in what John Wesley called “holiness of heart and life.”[v]
We need to be reminded to fulfill our calling. We should be so engaged in the work of Justice that the world will not look or feel the same. We should be so focused on the pressing issues of justice: reversing the widening gap between rich and poor and ending the scandal of extreme poverty, preventing genocide in Darfur, reversing global climate change and the threatening environmental disaster, tackling global food inequalities and the rape of other countries’ resources by the most developed nations. IF we can do these things, we will “yank bits and pieces of heaven closer to this earth. We will provide a foretaste of what is already promised and made possible by Christ’s victory over death, sin, and injustice. We are called to follow Jesus into the highways and byways of this world, seeking to embody the kingdom’s values and creating kingdom space here on earth.”[vi]
My friends, very truly I tell you – thoughts of heaven should break our hearts wide open, so they might be remade from above and from the inside out. Thoughts of heaven should change our lives so that we live with allegiance to kingdom priorities, and spend our lives creating kingdom space on earth. In the name of Jesus our Lord…Amen.
[i] NIB. John volume, 555.
[ii] Paul Lewis Metzger, The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town, 64.
[iii] John Dominic Cross, The Greatest Prayer, 118.
[iv] Quoted in Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, 16.
[v] My rewording on NT Wright’s conclusion after hearing Crossan speak in March 2005. Explained in N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 46.
[vi] Adam Taylor, “Just Son. What does Jesus’ Message of the Kingdom Have to Do with Justice?” in The Justice Project, 43.