Sunday, June 2, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
I was raised with very vivid images of heaven. There was a lot of talk in our church about the way you lived your life and how you would be rewarded, or not, in eternity. The righteous would go to heaven – a land of endless delight. And the wicked would go to hell – a place we shuddered to think about. And because we talked about it all the time, it became my primary concern to end up on the right place. When I was in the 5thgrade or so, I had a very memorable dream that I actually made it to heaven, which was a big surprise. The even bigger surprise was that heaven looked exactly like my elementary school gymnasium!
That was a little disappointing as the heaven talked about in church had streets of pure gold. In our heaven, we all would receive mansions of our own, made of the finest alabaster, encrusted with jewels. In our heaven, we would literally shine like the sun. We would be as powerful as Jesus. We would sing with the angels. There would be no more sickness, no sorrow, no death. Everything wrong would finally be made right.
That was a powerful message for people of my father’s congregation – populated, as it was, with the working poor, and the sick, and the forgotten, and the despised. For those folks, this life wasn’t so great. But heaven would be. And so heaven was their goal.
Some years ago now I was driving home from a church retreat with one of the leaders of my congregation in Manhattan. This man is a theological sort, having a seminary degree and a PhD in philosophy. We were talking about all sorts of things, when I made a casual comment about heaven. Suddenly, there was a heavy silence in the car. I finally looked over to see if he had fallen asleep only to find him starring at me slack-jawed. “You mean you actually believe in heaven?” he asked. I was so taken aback by the question that I stuttered and stammered and finally said, “Yes, I do!”
I’ve met a lot of church people like him since then. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe you are not at all sure of what happens to us when we die. Or maybe you feel sure that nothing happens to us when we die.
Recently, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times interviewed the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary in New York. I know Serene and know that she has a new book coming out, so I wanted to read what she had to say. Kristof asked her, among other things: “What happens when we die?” And here is what a seminary president had to say: “I don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife. People who behave well in this life only to achieve an afterlife, that’s a faith driven by a selfish motive: “I’m going to be good so God (will) reward me with a stick of candy called heaven?” “For me,” she continues, “living a life of love is driven by the simple fact that love is true. And I’m absolutely certain that when we die, there is not a group of designated bad people sent to burn in hell. That does not exist. But hell has a symbolic reality: When we reject love, we create hell, and hell is what we see around us in this world today in so many forms.”
I read her comments and I remembered my conversation with David, and I came to this inevitable conclusion: I must not be very theologically sophisticated - because I do believe in heaven. I may have left a lot of my childhood religion behind me, but not the foundational idea that love never ends. I remain convinced that there is another reality just beyond our ability to perceive it with our senses.
And that, it seems to me, is what Scripture teaches. Dying upon the cross, our Lord Jesus turned to the repentant thief and promised: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That seems pretty clear. So I believe in heaven, but I’ve also come to see the idea of heaven as multi-dimensional. Heaven is not simply a destination for eternity. The Bible itself speaks of heaven as future tense, but also present tense. It speaks of heaven as “there” and “here” and all around us. The same Jesus who told the repentant thief that he would be in Paradise that day (some sort of destination in the near future), also said: “the Kingdom God (another phrase for heaven) is already inside of us (here, now).” And, it seems to me, that’s the part of the message that the church has so often ignored. It’s way easier to talk about an afterlife than it is to talk about radically changing this life. And maybe that’s what Dr. Jones was trying to get at. Working to get into heaven cancreate a self-centered faith. But working to unleash heaven on earth – well, that’s another proposition altogether. And while that might sound far-fetched or impossible to you, that is exactly what Jesus taught us to prayer for: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earthas it is in heaven.”
So what would that look actually look like – heaven on earth?
The book of Revelation is a book of endings. It’s an apocalyptic vision of how all things consummate – a new heaven and a new earth. It’s an odd and wondrous and often hard to understand book. And therefore, I almost never preach from it. But this week, as I read the twenty-second chapter’s description of heaven, I couldn’t help but also remember Jesus’s words: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”
And how is heaven described in Revelation 22? “The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty… come. Let anyone who wishes… take the water of life as a gift.” Everyone, anyone, take the water of life as a gift. That’s what heaven (there) looks like. And that’s what heaven (here) looks like.
For the past year, we’ve been turning our attention to what it means to “Draw the Circle Wide.” In our boards and committees and staff meetings, we have been seeking ways to expand our welcome. We’re in the midst of considering becoming an official Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ – a national designation that proclaims that all are welcome to follow Jesus with us. And while throwing our doors open is wonderful in concept, it can also be a bit frightening in practice. And some might wonder if we are open to everyone, will we actually stand for anything? I think that’s a good question, worthy of pondering. And here’s my take on an answer: if we do it right, if we are prayerful and faithful, if we seek to follow Jesus as we draw the circle wide, then what we will stand for is heaven on earth. Everyone, anyone, take the water of life as a gift.
In a world of division and suspicion and hatred and fear; in a world of scapegoating and backstabbing and lies and manipulation; in a world where we cannot even have a civil conversation about our common civil life; First Congregational Church of Cheshire could reflect a different reality called heaven.
On the front of this building we boldly proclaim: “You are our neighbors. No matter who you vote for, your skin color, your faith, or who you love, we will try to be here for you. That’s what community means. Let’s be neighbors.” Is that just some sentimental, politically correct pabulum? Yes. Unless, of course, we live it out. Unless, of course, we put flesh and bones on those words. Then it is nothing less than God’s will realized, “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
“The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty… come. Let anyone who wishes… take the water of life as a gift.”
“Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim?’”, Nicholas Kristoff, The New York Times, April 20, 2019