Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C. on November 22, 2015.

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The End (and the Beginning)
(Revelation 1:4-8)

(In part, using “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” a sermon by Sam Wells,
preached at Duke Chapel on December 3, 2006)

SA warning: this sermon is long. The topic, as you will soon hear, is heaven, and it just takes a while to say what needs to be said about heaven. So, with that head’s up, let’s go.

Steven Wright is an unusual comedian. He delivers one-liners that all depend on some sort of creative twist. Such as…

  • I sat down at a café and the menu said breakfast anytime, so I order French Toast, during the renaissance.
  • I spilled spot remover on my dog. Now he’s gone.
  • I was at the grocery store buying 11 things I needed. The sign at the checkout said “eight items or less”. So I changed my name to Les.
  • I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize.

I am going to come back to that at the end of this sermon, but I am afraid my set up is going to be much longer than just a few words.

Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, which means it will be the first Sunday in the Christian liturgical calendar. That makes this Sunday the last Sunday of the Christian year. It is a little odd that we don’t have a traditional Christian holiday on this day (“Christ the King” Sunday just came about in the 1920s). It’s as if the year ends with a whimper, rather than a bang.

Even so, I think it is worth it today to talk about endings, because endings are important. How things end matter. In a simple sense, the score at the end of a game matters. Reaching the end of marathon matters. In a more meaningful way, the end of degree program matters – so much that we give it a special name, graduation. How a job comes to an end matters, whether it ends poorly with being fired, or ends well with retirement or moving on to a better opportunity. And much more meaningfully, how relationships end matter. Sometimes young people who have dated seriously, and perhaps even loved each other, find that for some reason they just can’t sustain that relationship for the long haul – and that can end badly, with one person hurt and unable to find another healthy relationship, or it can end more hopefully, with thankfulness for the time they had together, but openness to again finding a deep connection to another. And the final end matters as well of course. Our deaths. We all know this, but perhaps for pastors it is especially clear, we can die poorly, and we can die well. When it comes to dying poorly, it seems that things have change in our culture. Stories and books from years ago tell of people who die in fear – unable to let go, fearful of what comes after death, unsettled and without comfort. Today I think people are less likely to die in fear, but far more likely to die in denial – without any sense of the significance of their own deaths, and thus little sense of the significance of their own lives. As a pastor, I feel it is much easier to deal with fear than with denial.

Dying well is really a beautiful thing, a hopeful thing. When people are able to accept death, and accept their own death, they are able to celebrate their lives, to honor and conclude their relationships, to be at peace not only with what they have done in life, but more importantly be at peace with who they are as death comes near. Stanley Hauerwas, one of my seminary professors, says that the Christian life is really just training in how to die well. And of course, part of dying well is living well – not in the simplistic sense of living morally pure, but living with faithful purpose, with integrity, with joy, with real love for God and family and neighbor and stranger. I have been blessed many times by being with people as they die well. Endings matter.

But we may as well take the next step today also. I have called our deaths an end, and surely they are, but our faith proclaims that death is not THE end. There is something beyond. We call this something “heaven.”

When we talk about heaven, it is important to say that we are in the realm of speculative theology. Speculative theology doesn’t just mean that we are merely speculating about it. It means that we recognize that we ultimately don’t know. Even with all that people say about “near death experiences” – or people who have “died” and then been brought back – and I think we should be very skeptical about such things – even with all that – we can’t “prove” anything about heaven. We can’t prove that there is anything after death at all. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about it. We speak not from “fact,” but from trust. We speak not of “proof,” but of the witness of scripture.

And, honestly, I am not sure, but what I say now may upset you, or trouble you, or confuse you, because so much talk of heaven has, in our culture, gone dreadfully wrong. I’m afraid much of what is said about heaven these days, has little to do with what the Bible teaches, nor with the core of Christian faith.

So, here goes with three things heaven is not. Heaven is not the continuation of a person’s eternal soul. Countless people over the centuries have taken comfort in the belief that, while their loved one’s body lies decomposing in the grave, his or her soul goes marching on. I’m sorry to tell you, but this isn’t a belief rooted in Christian theology. The dualist idea that we are essentially physical bodies and spiritual souls, which become detached at death whereupon we continue simply as spiritual souls – this idea is one that arises among the Greek philosophers centuries before Christ.

It’s not something the Old Testament comprehends. For the Bible, humans are one in life, body and soul, and one in death, body and soul. Death is real. When Canon Henry Scott Holland said in St Paul’s Cathedral on Pentecost 1910 the words, “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room… Life… is the same as it ever was. There is absolutely unbroken continuity,” he was certainly offering words of comfort, but he wasn’t preaching orthodox Christian theology. Can anyone look at Jesus on the cross and say “death is nothing at all”? Can anyone look at the aftermath of a suicide bombing or a mass shooting, as we have just seen in Paris, and Beirut, and Nigeria, and not long ago in Newtown, CT, and imagine the words ‘I have only slipped away into the next room”? Our death is the end of us. Our hope lies not in pretending otherwise, but in knowing that our death is not the end of God.

Here’s the second thing heaven is not. Heaven is not our reabsorption into the infinite. This idea that when we die we blend back into the ground of being is a mixture of the simply biological assumption that we dissolve into the soil and the quaintly spiritual notion that we become part of the ether. Just as the champion of the eternal soul argument is Henry Scott Holland, so the great exemplar of the reabsorption argument is Mary Frye. Maybe you have heard her words at a funeral recently: “I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.” Again, these are comforting words, but they seem to have come out of a world view that has stopped caring whether a belief is true so long as it’s comforting. Note that, like the Scott Holland piece, God is wholly absent from this understanding of heaven. Jesus seems to have achieved nothing of any significance in his cross and resurrection, at least as far as our death and life thereafter is concerned.

Perhaps the reason that the verses usually entitled “Death is nothing at all” and “Do not stand by my grave and weep” have become so enormously popular in our contemporary culture is that they offer pictures of continuity beyond death that require no belief in God or reference to Jesus whatsoever. The trouble is, they do so by denying the reality of death, and the pictures they offer, of heaven as a waiting room or as a disembodied wind, are so bleak as to offer little or no real hope at all.

The third thing heaven is not is simply the reconstitution of our fleshly bodies. This is less of a mistake than the first two, and it may sound obvious in an age where cremation of dead bodies is relatively commonplace, but it’s still worth stating. The funeral sermon that says “I’m sure Peggy’s up there now watering and pruning her roses just as she did down here” seems to be assuming that heaven is basically a continuation of our present physical life in all its prosaic mundanity. To be sure, heaven is a physical existence, but the bodies of the saints are not simply embalmed versions of the ones we have here. The idea of the Rapture is one that likewise overstresses the physical continuity of heaven. It’s said in some circles that the Rapture is a good thing because it would whisk away all the fundamentalists and leave everyone else to get on with things, but that still distracts from the fact that the Rapture offers an impoverished picture of heaven.

So these are three things heaven is not. What’s wrong with them is that they make no reference to the scriptural notion of heaven, have no place for God, and specifically have no relationship to anything brought about by Jesus. I wish I could say they were harmless but I can’t, because in fact they distract attention away from the Bible, away from God, and specifically away from the God we meet in Jesus. The Bible doesn’t speak much about heaven as the eternal dwelling place of Christians. Instead it speaks of heaven as the place where God dwells. And this points to the crucial difference between a Christian notion of life after death and the ones I’ve been describing. For Christians, there is only one thing greater than the overwhelming horror of death: and that’s the overwhelming glory of God. The popular verses I’ve quoted lose their credibility when they deny the overwhelming horror of death, and they lose any sense of wonder when they ignore the overwhelming glory of God. The Christian hope is that after death we come face to face with the wondrous power and love and passion of God, an experience we could liken to a tidal wave or a raging fire or a dazzling light: and yet because of Jesus that overwhelming glory doesn’t destroy us, sinners that we are, but transforms us into the creatures God always destined us to be. After death we face neither the oblivion of physical disintegration nor the obliteration of spiritual destruction but the transformation of glorious resurrection.

As we turn now to the three things heaven is, we realize that we find those things not by massaging our own bodies or souls for continuity, but by looking to what we are shown of the character of God, and discovering that God’s purpose is to model our transformed character on his.

So the first thing heaven is about is worship. It’s no coincidence that one scriptural picture of heaven is of a choir, because a choir are a wonderful picture of what it means to have a body of your own but find your true voice in a much greater body, a body where your voice sings most truly in harmony with the voices of others, where you find your voice most fully in words of praise and thanksgiving, where you are lost in concentration and where every detail matters, where you rejoice at the gifts of others which only enhance the gifts that are your own, where fundamentally you are all turned to face the source of your gifts and the focus of your praise. The reason we put so much effort into worship at Union Church is because we believe the way we worship is the most significant way we depict and anticipate the life of heaven. Every Sunday Christians gather together and depict and anticipate the life of heaven. That’s why worship matters so much – because in eternity, that’s all there’ll be. And worship isn’t just some abstract ideal. Everything depends on who we worship. And the book of Revelation makes it absolutely clear who we worship – we worship the Alpha and the Omega, the First, the Last, and the Living One, Jesus, the one who gave his life because God loved us too much to leave us to oblivion and obliteration, the one whose resurrection gave us the life of heaven for which we long and on which our hope depends. What we strive for in worship is that every ounce of our energy and concentration is focused on the God we find in Jesus Christ so that we are truly lost in wonder, love and praise – because that’s what heaven is like.

And here’s the second thing heaven is about. Heaven is about friendship. Jesus said at the Last Supper, “no longer do I call you servants – I call you friends”. The heart of God is three persons in perfect communion. And yet at the table there is a fourth place – a place left for us to join the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is heaven – the experience of being invited to the table of friendship to join the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At last we discover, not just what God can do when left to do it on his own, but what is possible when in perfect communion humanity and all creation join the everlasting dance of the Trinity. If friendship is what heaven is about, that means not just friendship between God and us but friendship between us and one another. And this is what the book of Revelation points us to when it talks at the very end of the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. At the very end of the Bible we have this picture of Jerusalem the new city, coming down from heaven. In other words cities are not essentially transitory, dirty, soiled things that are transcended by the coming of heaven. There will always be a city. Learning to live together as friends is at the heart of preparing for heaven, just as worship is. That’s why fellowship, friendship, is at the heart of what we do as a congregation.

And the third and final thing heaven is about is eating together. This is maybe the most common picture of all in the New Testament – heaven as a great feast, a banquet celebrating the marriage of heaven and earth, the perfect union or communion of God and all God’s children. Just imagine a fabulous meal where there were no allergies, no eating disorders, no inequalities in world trade, no fatty foods, no gluttony, and no price tag. The reason we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and why some of us think we should do so every Sunday, is that the Lord’s Supper is where food, friendship and worship all come together. We are made friends with God and one another when we eat together in worship. In eating together we recall the transforming meals Christ shared before, during and after his passion, and we anticipate the great banquet we shall share with him. Communion depicts what creation was for and what it cost. And when we gather together as two or three or twenty or two thousand and make new friends by eating together we are celebrating a little Communion with God, a little icon of the Trinity at table together, a little glimpse of heaven.

This is what heaven is. Worship, friendship and eating together. Don’t settle for anything less. Don’t pass into the next room or become a thousand winds that blow. Don’t leave the central claims and shape of the Christian hope behind you in the face of death, just when it really matters. Enter the life that God has prepared for you, the life that Jesus laid down his own life to open up for you. Remember that Advent is about anticipating heaven, and spend your Advent getting your worship right, your friendship right, and your eating right.

There are many things I haven’t talked about, even in such a long sermon. I haven’t talked about whether heaven comes to us on the day we die or whether we await our resurrection on the last day. I haven’t talked about near death experiences and whether they tell us anything about life after death. I haven’t talked about how we preserve our individual identity and personality when we’ve been so thoroughly transformed. I haven’t talked about whether the end of the world is coming soon or is millions of years away. I haven’t talked about them because I don’t think, finally, they matter all that much. Like the popular verses, they’re all about us, whereas what we’ll discover is that heaven is all about God. There’s a great sense of mystery about heaven, but I think the scriptures tell us all we really need to know. They tell us what matters. What matters is being overwhelmed by the power and love and glory of God, now and for ever. Heaven isn’t a half-hearted reward for those who have lived a life of grudging misery, and it isn’t an automatic entry into a revolving door of thudding dullness. Heaven is being overwhelmed by the horror of death and then finding not oblivion or obliteration but a further overwhelming. This second overwhelming is an overwhelming by the glory of God. It’s a transformation into the life that the Father gave us, Jesus lived, and the Spirit infuses in wondrous worship, loving friendship, and a feast of praise. That’s what matters. In the end, that’s all that matters.

(On to a visual aid activity that ties back to the Steven Wright introduction, but which doesn’t really work in print!)