John 14: 1-14
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. men.
Recently, one of you asked me a question that I could not get out of my mind. You asked “Why don’t we talk about heaven much?” And there was something not just about your question but also about the tone in which you asked it that has stayed with me. I heard something in your voice. I heard a yearning in your question that made me wonder. Why don’t we talk about heaven much?
After all, so many Christians do. For many, heaven is what it is all about. For many, heaven is what helps them endure the trials of this earthly life trusting that one day they too be released from suffering and come home to a beautiful place of peace, beauty and joy everlasting. For many, heaven is very much front and center and ever present on the mind. I remember someone saying to me once, “the hereafter is what I am here after!”
But while we do pray every Sunday to “our Father, who art in heaven” and ask that “the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It is true that we don’t tend to talk about heaven here much. Perhaps it is because for many of us, heaven just seems too far away. Too vague. Not something we really know much about and so why even speculate. And then there is all of that worrisome theology about who gets to go to heaven and what happens if you don’t
But the yearning in your question stopped me and made me wonder. Because I believe it is a yearning we all share – a yearning to come home.
Our lives are so crowded and so noisy, aren’t they? There is so much to do and not enough time to do it in. We ask more of ourselves and each other and grow more and more frustrated when we cannot seem to stay on top of it all. In the crush of our crowded lives, don’t you yearn a bit for a more expansive Way? Don’t you yearn to exhale and stretch out a bit and be at peace? And it is not just that we are so busy, it is also that we are so alone in our busyness. We may live side by side with family and friends but is it all really parallel play as they say, when we are side by side but doing our own thing and not really interacting or sharing with those around us in creative and meaningful ways. Don’t we yearn for connection? Don’t we yearn to feel treasured and cared for, known and valued? Don’t we year for a place and time when all our needs are met?
I can remember so well when I would come home after a year being away in college. I can remember how good it felt to see the familiar things of my room. To have a place to put all of my belongings and to feel my mother’s delight in having me at home!
Recently I was asked to give a talk at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. It had been a long time since I had been down to the area around Boston Medical Center where the program is housed. I was struck as I walked the blocks from the parking garage to the building by so many who were wandering the sidewalks with garbage bags full of their belongs in tow or sitting up against buildings waiting for the shelters to open again in the evening. Displaced people. People without homes.
And I thought about the yearning in your question and how our inner lives can feel sometimes a lot like what it is to be being homeless. While most of us do have houses, there can be something inside us that is homeless still. We wander, restlessly, aimlessly even, tired and yearning to know what it is to truly be at home.
Several years ago, Mark and I traveled to Italy. One of my favorite things to do wherever I go is to duck into churches. As you can imagine there are lots of churches in Italy, and we ducked into quite a few. But there was one church that I will never forget. It was on one of the islands off Venice. It was a small Romanesque church built at the end of the first millennia. It did not look like much from the outside, but as we stepped inside through a rather ordinary looking doorway, it was as if we stepped into a bit of heaven right here on earth.
Inside was very simple, sparse even. There was nothing particularly spectacular to look at. No gilded angels or soaring ceilings. But there was a palpable peace in that place. There was an expansive calm and stillness that was incredibly comforting. Sitting quietly in that place I honestly felt wrapped in the presence of God’s love. It was wonderful. I can honestly say, that even though I had never been there before, I felt as if I were at home. So clear was the sensation that even though it has been ten years now since I was there I remember the feeling as if it were yesterday.
When I was ready to go, I stood up, turned around to head back out through the little doorway and then was stopped dead in my tracks. All the peace of the place drained straight away and I felt something like nausea rise.
For there on the back wall of that lovely space, there emblazoned on the wall of the only way out of that small sanctuary was this terrifying mosaic of Jesus as judge, sitting on a mighty throne with a host of angels and those destined for heaven on his right hand and those who were not on his left being tormented in gruesome ways by terrifying devil like beasts. And just in a heart beat heaven was gone.
We may long for something of heaven. We may long for that place of peace, of coming home, but there always seems to be a wall there between where we are and where we yearn to be. A wall of time and space, a wall of judgment even, a wall even of exclusion as we hear Jesus words “No one comes to the Father except through me.” We may long for home, but fear it may never truly be ours. So best not to talk about heaven much.
But Jesus did. Jesus talked a lot about heaven.
Heaven is on his mind this morning as we hear him talking to the disciples in the upper room that night. They had just shared a meal together, and had just shared bread broken and cup poured. The hour was growing late and Jesus knew that his betrayal was coming and that soon he would be taken from them. He knew that all of this was going to shake the disciples horribly, that they will be troubled, and afraid and that they will think their entire world is falling down around them and there is no way out. He knows that they will feel lost and overwhelmed and that they will turn from each other and even from him.
Jesus knows that the disciples in the midst of all that is coming will feel a deep yearning to come home. And so he tells them. “Do not let your heart be troubled”. “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
And then he goes on to assure them, that not only will there be a dwelling place for them at the end of time, but more remarkably that that dwelling place already dwells within in them.
Theologian Karoline Lewis in her commentary on this passage writes “If we keep reading beyond verse 6, we realize that the Father has already come, is already present, in the life and ministry of Jesus. When Jesus says “If you know me, you will know the father” it is not a condition but instead a statement of fact. Perhaps a clearer way to hear it would be “if you know me, which you do, then you know the father.” “From now one you do know him,” Jesus says “and you have seen him.” Jesus words are one of comfort, not condition for the disciples. There is nothing uncertain for their present or their future because of the certainty of their relationship with Jesus, of his clear and abiding love for them. Of that, Jesus wants them to be secure. Heavenly life is life shared with God. Whether at the end of time, or in the midst of our time now.
You asked me “why don’t we talk about heaven much?” Turns out, I think we do. Every time we talk about loving God and our neighbor with everything we’ve got, we are talking about heaven. Every time we open our arms and our hearts and welcome in the wayward wanderer that is in all of us, we are talking about heaven. Every time we notice that someone is missing or that something is missing in one that may be with us, and cross that distance between us to find out why, we are talking about heaven.
Now I am actually quite fascinated by and convinced of the heaven that awaits us all at the end of our time, but I am even more fascinated by and convinced of the heaven I see alive and well among us as we come home to each other and come home to our God right now. And it turns out that the Way to heaven is pretty straightforward and not scary in the least. They way to heaven is love, whether that heaven be at the end of time or in our time right now.
So let us love as God loves. Let us be with each other as God is with us. Let the yearning of our hearts be fulfilled. Let us come home. Amen