When it comes to church, I'm a lifer. I can't remember a time when I didn't go. Oh, my first couple of years of college I slept in on Sunday mornings, but whenever I was home, I was at church. In fact, you might say I've always felt at home at church.
Growing up in West Virginia, going to church - even a United Methodist Church - meant hearing about Hell. Our pastor at Trinity UMC, Harry Jenkins, wasn't afraid to talk about hellfire or brimstone. The main point of this, I suppose, was to convince us that Hell was a horrible place we didn't want to visit, let alone get cast into for all eternity. And his vivid descriptions of this place sufficient scared us kids more than enough to say whatever prayer we were told we needed to say in order to escape the Lord's wrath, and Satan's dungeon. But the upshot of this was that we only really thought about Heaven as the eternal alternative for Hell. We'd draw pictures and give descriptions of what we thought Heaven would be like, and like most everybody, we described it in anthropomorphic (using our human experience) terms.
Heaven has streets of gold.
Heaven is filled with big houses each of us gets to live in.
Heaven has basketball courts where pick up games never end, golf courses where there are no brown patches, and beautiful ponds filled with fish.
Heaven has the most wonderful food that won't make you fat.
Heaven never has a night and a chorus of angels sing all of the time.
Heaven is the place where all our loved ones went after they died, and we'd get to see them again.
On and on, we'd make guesses about what Heaven was like, always describing in earthly terms. Andrew Peterson, one of my favorite artists, once wrote a song called, "Land of the Free", where he muses that a young girl living in poverty was actually more fortunate than her more affluent neighbors to the north because she would have an easier time envisioning a Heaven that was better than life on earth. Because that's how we tend to do it... we describe Heaven as an other-worldly place in earthly terms, and largely terms defined by what we like most in this life. Thus, for musicians, their favorite players and composers are waiting in Heaven for an eternal jam. Artists dream of painting with those who they have idolized. Writers dream of picking their favorite author's brain. And on and on it goes.
That's what Heaven has always been... an other-worldly place, filled with worldly kinds of things. Strange to think that the best things in the universe are simple those few things we know now in this life, and this place, but that's how people with a limited scope of understanding work. We can imagine a bambingle sandwich as being the greatest sandwich ever, cause we don't know what's on a bambingle sandwich (or even what a bambingle is). We are limited by what we know.
As I got older though, as I began to take the Bible, and particularly the words of Jesus, more seriously, I found out that for Jesus, while the question of who'll go to Heaven and who'll go to Hell was addressed by him (as an aside, he almost always describes Hell as the reward for a self-centered life that ignores the needs of others, particularly those are the most destitute... but more on that later in this sermon series), for Jesus, Heaven isn't just an otherworldly place totally disconnected from where we are now. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is near.
Very near. As close as his presence.
Now, I don't want to minimize the issue of the afterworld, and the centrality of Jesus to that issue. Don't hear that, cause that's not what I am doing here. I very much believe in the words of Jesus when he says to the thief hanging on the cross that this very day he would be with him in paradise. The idea that we know that our lives are largely unworthy to be rewarded with paradise is important. It's generally people who think their lives, the decisions they've made, have been a boon to all humanity who tend to do the most damage. Think of yourself as being supremely right, and in turn you have no problem with eliminating people who you think are wrong. That's what Stalin thought, to the tune of over 50 million people dead.
The idea that we aren't perfect, and in fact, are quite imperfect, and thus need some help in understanding and realizing what perfection is, is something that we shouldn't give up as Christians. Christ not only "gets what we deserve" in terms of his condemnation, but by accepting that gift we pledge to turn our lives in a direction where the pain we cause ends with the cross, needs to be at the core of who we are. The idea that those relationships we treasure in this life are so sacred, so important, that we live now so as to honor others so that we might be in relationship with them in eternity is a powerful concept.
My grandfather died of a form of lung cancer. He was not an old man, passing in his sixties. Our family misses him very much, and we get together we often wonder, if he were still alive, how much joy my sons, his great-grandchildren, would have brought to him, and how much, in turn, they would have lionized him. He was a very good man. He spent most of his life helping other people in a multitude of ways. Whether or not it was through his work assisting pensioners through his position in the UAW, or helping friends who had become disabled or homebound, or by donating gallons of his blood to the Red Cross, or doing all the other good stuff I'm sure I'll never fully know, my grandfather never took for granted the concept of the Golden Rule. As a matter of fact, I'd say that he tried to treat people better than he expected them to treat him.
Because his cancer was initially treated, shrunk, and progression slowed down (with not much hope that remission was possible), my grandfather had a little less than a year to process his own life and death and what it might mean. And while he never was much of a church-going person (which was a shame because any church in this community would have been a much richer with his presence), he had a great deal of respect for the Bible and what it had to say about the afterlife. Not just because he was afraid of going to Hell (although I'm sure that was a part of it) but because in my conversation with him, he knew that when it came to perfection he just didn't measure up. He was a man who didn't believe he was perfect, and he while he had done what he could to make amends for the mistakes he knew he made, I think he knew that in some cases, he just couldn't. Somewhere in there, God had to extend to Dean Diehl, mercy, and Dean knew it to be true. And so, after much conversation with our pastor, with us, and my Uncle Bill's pastor, my grandfather was baptized the night that he died.
Baptized because he knew he needed grace and mercy, just like the people he had helped needed grace and mercy from someone willing and able to help. Baptized because he loved his family and friends so much that he was willing to do what it took to spend eternity with them. Baptized because he wanted all of us who knew and loved him that he believed that what God thought of him, mattered. Baptized because it brought him peace of mind. My grandfather was a great man because he thought it owed it to the Lord to be a great man. Baptism at the end of his life was simply the exclamation point he decided to add to that concept.
If only more Christians would see their relationship with God in that light... as a relationship where the best given demanded the best that could be given back... how great would the church be?
But without really knowing much of anything about the Bible except that which he caught in the occasional service, conversation, or what he heard on TV, my grandfather had a concept of Heaven that was more closely aligned to Jesus' than even some of the greatest biblical scholars, pastors, and most fervent church-goers of his era.
You see, while we can't understate the importance of understanding Heaven as an otherworldly place, we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking of the moment we make some kind of commitment to Christ as the moment we got our "Get Out Of Hell Free" card. Understanding you need mercy and grace that only a perfect sacrifice can provide is important. But too often, the repentance, the turning away from the way we've interacted with others previously, gets lost in this concept. Worse yet, our lives can end up being spent simply trying to get people to say a few magic words to get the same "Get Out of Hell Free" card we have. Miss the need for repentance, for living a new way that honors and respects others, while demanding the best out of ourselves, and you miss the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ.
I mean, what's the point of Jesus telling Peter in Matthew 16 that he had been given the keys to the kingdom, and that what would be unlocked or locked on earth, would also be unlocked or locked in Heaven? It's a strange statement, and one we don't generally talk about much because it compels the reader to make a connection between what happens on earth and what happens in Heaven, as if the two were inter-connected somehow. As if they were so closely tied together that somehow the separation between the two is hard to discern. Not like a state or county boundary which is marked with a line, or maybe the gulf between nations separated by a great ocean, but rather a place so close that if you took a step in a different direction you might be passing from the one to the other, and maybe not even know it.
You know he was an alcoholic. My grandfather, he was an alcoholic. He had lived a childhood marked by a father who was largely not around, and an alcoholic himself, which emptied into the horrors of fighting as an infantryman in the European Theater during WWII. High School seniors... right now you are starting to think about prom and graduation parties. Maybe going to college or getting a job. My grandfather and many of his classmates at South High School were drafted about now, trained to go fight in a trench with a gun and a bayonet, facing mortar fire and the reality of a tank only yards away pointing it's muzzle at them so as to take their lives. He came back an alcoholic, and when my mother was two, after living an unpredictable life with a drunk, my grandmother gave him an ultimatum.... get sober, or get lost.
For those of us who knew him, or came along later, I suspect we'd have to say that the Kingdom of Heaven was as close as the rest of the bottle of ripple that got poured down the drain that day. As close as the beer that wasn't purchased at Northland Lanes on bowling night.
Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near. How near is it, really, for you? Is it some musty possibility you'll have to face years down the road? Is it some story you thought someone dreamed up to try to scare people into becoming religious?
Or is it as near as not taking the next drink? As near as not letting another minute living a depressed life where the way you are trying to live isn't working? As near as realizing how short time, and how little an opportunity you have to shower others with the kind of mercy and love, you yourself so deeply desire?
How near is the kingdom, where Christ, the Prince of Peace, reigns as king? Because how near the kingdom is how near you believe God draws to us, and how much God cares about what happens to people in this life.
How much God cares about what happens to you.
In service tomorrow, I'm going to (hopefully if I can get things to work properly) show a clip from the movie, Amazing Grace, where abolitionists approach William Wilberforce, a politician serving in Parliament, about enlisting into their cause. A cause they believe to be God's. A cause so important that Wilberforce, simultaneously, would be on the payroll both of Parliament, and of God, in place where earth and heaven intersect.
I can relate to this because, as a pastor, I've always felt like I was on God's payroll. I get paid to preach, teach, and pray, among others things. It's a concept pretty easy to keep straight. But what if real estate agents were on God's payroll. What about managers of all kinds? Business owners? Attorneys? Teachers? Secretaries? Retirees? Students?
What would it mean to be God's payroll, living where earth ends and Heaven begins? This where we begin the series, "Jesus Speaks (What's He Saying To You?)... pondering what it means to be in the presence of the Master as we spend the precious minutes our lives.