Heaven . . . it’s something preachers don’t preach on often because they’re scared of what sacred cows in the congregation they might step on.
Heaven . . . it’s what theologians, teachers, preachers and cult leaders have written theories of for centuries –often making charts of who’s in and who’s out.
Heaven . . . it’s the starting point for a lot of good jokes. So I couldn’t help myself but tell one this morning, maybe you haven’t heard it.
An 85 year-old couple, having been married almost 60 years, died in a car crash. They were in good health the last ten years mainly due to the wife’s interest in health food, and exercise.
When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen and master bath suite and Jacuzzi. As they “oohed and ahhed” the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. “It’s free,” Peter replied. “This is heaven.”
Next they went out back to survey the championship golf course in the neighborhood. Peter said they’d have golfing privileges everyday.
The man asked, “What are the green fees?”
Peter’s reply, “This is heaven, you play for free.”
Next they went to the clubhouse and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out.
“How much to eat?” asked the old man
“Don’t you understand yet? This is heaven, it is free!” Peter replied with some exasperation.
“Well, where are the low-fat and low cholesterol tables?” the old man asked timidly.
Peter lectured, “That’s the best part…you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like and you never get fat and you never get sick. This is heaven.”
With that the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Peter and his wife both tried to calm him down, asking him what was wrong.
The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault. If it weren’t for your blasted bran muffins and tofu salads, I could have been here ten years ago!”
And it’s true we all have desires for what heaven will be like one day (calorie free for sure!)
We have hopes for who will not be there (people we don’t like very much of course).
And if we are truthful we might even have fears about what our passing over to the other side will mean for our bodies (Oh God, please let me have a good death!)
And I’m with you. It’s so mind-boggling—how our bodies’ lives could reach the end of their existence but our souls could live on eternally. And it’s natural to have a lot of questions as to how this actually happens.
With all of this true, we’re in good company this morning with our lection from I Thessalonians. This church was also curious about the life beyond. Not only for their own experience, but also for those who had gone on before them. When they died, they wanted to know exactly what happened!
And so Paul has some words for them.
Which were: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as other do who have no hope.”
The church at Thessalonica expressed concerns to Paul about the life to come, not in a theoretical, “Well, what if?” kind of way but out of a particular situation in their community.
People in their church had died. Jesus hadn’t come back yet. They wanted to know what happened to those they loved. They were concerned about where they were.
But before we dive into what exactly what Paul’s words could have meant, consider this:
Paul, as a teacher, preacher and great evangelist of the early church, is often treated as a systemic theologian. In the centuries since that we’ve studied his correspondence, we’ve often used his words as prescriptions.
When we have questions on prayer…. Paul has an answer on that.
When we have questions on marriage . . . Paul has an answer for that.
When we have questions on tithing . . . Paul has an answer for that.
But, was the intent of letters Paul wrote to churches like Thessalonica? Is a systemic theologian who Paul most wanted to be?
At heart Paul was a pastor. And as a pastor, when his congregation was hurting, he hurt. When they felt anxious, he worried. When they were sad, he grieved alongside with them.
So as a pastor, Paul wrote letters about particular situations in the churches where he ministered. And to the Thessalonians, Paul had a lot to say about standing firm under persecution.
In Thessalonica, following Jesus was not the norm. And as new converts to the faith, they had a hard reconciling the teachings of Jesus to what would become in the afterlife.
So what does Paul do?
He acts like any good pastor would and helps them find hope.
He writes them a “Pastor’s Pen” newsletter column.
And it went something like this (hold your breathe with me here because it is going to be a long sentence): “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Whoa. What a description!
For Paul gives us some pretty triumphant images to work with here.
Jesus as chief commander . . . the archangel’s call . . . sounding trumpets . . . those who have died rising again!
Or in other words, Church at Thessalonica, don’t worry. Those who have died will be with Jesus too at the end of time, just as those of us who are alive.
Yet, while it’s nice to feel like there are some answers what happens in the life beyond, is this how you and I are to read this ancient text?
There are a couple of things I feel like I think we should consider at this juncture about the nature of scripture in general.
First, throughout the Bible, apocalyptic literature (which is what this part of Thessalonians is) existed to encourage those who were enduring persecution.
Most scholars agree that texts like these weren’t designed to be fodder for the Left Behind books that would appear on our shelves in the modern era. (Richard Hayes’ Moral Vision of the New Testament is a great text to check out). The point was NOT to tell us who’s in and who’s out when our days on earth are through.
But, when writers like Paul or John (the author of the book of Revelations) write about “end times” it always comes in the context of providing hope for the suffering. Saying to a group of people beaten down and afraid: “This world is not all there is! There’s more to come! So stand firm under trials!”
Second, apocalyptic texts like this one from I Thessalonians are a great opportunities for us to consider how it is we read scripture in the first place.
And the way I see it, we have two options as we read the Bible:
- We can believe that scripture is the inerrant word of God, without fault or errors. We can believe that human hands wrote scripture as God’s mouthpieces. And, as a result, very detail of scripture then applies to our lives. If the Bible says it, we must do it.
- Or, we can believe the scripture is a story, an ongoing tale of what God’s interaction with God’s people has been over the centuries. We can be ok with the Bible having errors and as a work of human hands. We read scripture in the larger context of what the text means as a whole about God’s plans for us all.
So this morning, I return to the original question I began this sermon with: “What happens when life is over?”
If you are in camp 1 and believe Bible is without errors and every letter of it is meant to be direct instruction for our lives, then, I Thessalonians 4 is for you a picture of what is to come. The angels, the trumpets and so on . . . this will all be apart of the picture when life is over.
So, if this is you, I would suggest for you some study this week of the texts throughout the New Testament where “heaven” and “the life to come” is mentioned—to really get the bigger picture of what a literal description of heaven is about.
But keep in mind if this is your approach—you can’t pick and choose what you like and don’t. Under a literal reading of scripture ALL the texts apply—even the ones you think you might like very much about women covering your heads in church, not working on the Sabbath, and praying without ceasing.
But if you are in camp 2 and you believe in scripture is a story, the ongoing revelation between God and God’s people then, I believe I Thessalonians 4 is for you an invitation to know God’s ways through the body of literature that is the Bible. It’s an invitation to ask as you read: “What do I believe the character of God to be?”
Is God a God of love? Is God, a God of peace? Is God, a God of provision?
For as you get to know who God is, you can make hypothesizes for what might be true for all eternity as well. You can trust that as Saint Julia of Norwich once said, “All will be well. All matter of things will be well.”
At this point of the sermon, I leave you to make your choice as to what you believe the afterlife might be all about.
But in the spirit of Paul’s pastoral letter, I want to close this sermon today with a letter of my own.
To the Federated Church in God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and Peace be with you.
I always give thanks for an opportunity to share the word of God with you. I thank you for your willingness to receive my husband and I into your fellowship. We love sharing our Sundays with you.
Yet, has come to my attention that may of you have questions about heaven and the life to come. I do not want you to worry or to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died.
I can offer you this, my friends; we don’t have to fear death.
Our bodies are temporary but our souls are eternal. Our Creator God is good. And I believe that when the moment comes when I breathe my last, I believe the Spirit of the Lord will help me be at peace. And I believe the same for you.
The verse of scripture I find myself hanging onto the most—for right or wrong—are the words that say, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.”
But you might wonder, what does that mean? What will that look like for me, Pastor?
As I have grown in my life and faith, most of all, I know that there’s a lot I don’t know. So I don’t want to give you specifics for even with my preacher superpowers (this is where you are supposed to laugh) because so far God has given me no details. (And frankly, I’d want you be question my judgment if I said I did).
Life to me is more of a mystery than it ever it is very certain. The ways of God always surprise me. But, I know God loves me and loves you. Nothing can ever separate me from that love.
And for me, this is all I need to know.
Will there be physical streets of gold up there? And a mansion with my name on it? Will there be a cookie bar with as much ice cream as I can eat?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
But in the end, I think it doesn’t matter so much.
I don’t think when I find myself in the life beyond I’ll care much about the things I’ve spent so much time worrying about here on earth. All that will matter to me, I think, will be the glorious face of our Lord and being in God’s presence forever and ever without end.
So don’t be afraid my friends. Take heart. If you want to know more what heaven will be like, spent your time on this planet pursuing the things that intersect your life with God’s.
Love your friends.
Cry with the brokenhearted.
Give more than you receive.
Honor your body.
Seek justice for the voiceless.
And in doing these things, I believe, you won’t have so much time to fret over what will happen when life is over—for you’ll be living in the kingdom of God already.
A kingdom that connects you to all the saints that have gone before and the saints that will out live you in centuries to come. A kingdom that is full of the best that this life can offer: kindness, joy, companionship and hope even in the dark hours.
Thanks be to God for the kingdom of God in heaven and on earth.
Blessings on all of you as you read these words. Send my love to all the children too. Your pastor, Elizabeth