Asbury First United
Some time ago, a family assembled around the bedside in the last hour of their loved one’s life. One said, “I don’t know if I believe in heaven.”
How are we to think about heaven?
One way to think about something is to think about its opposite.
Our Bible uses the word heaven in opposition to the word earth. Heaven is up there. Earth is down here. ‘Heaven and earth are full of thy glory’. ‘As the heavens are high above the earth’. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ Heaven represents the ultimate or penultimate reality of the physical world in the Bible, as it does in the ancient philosophers.
But we are today reluctant to think that heaven is up there. For we know that ‘Up There’ is the moon, the Milky Way, and the expanding, even infinite, universe.
Our Bible also speaks of heaven in contrast to hell. Now the comparison is not between up and down, as much as it is between lasting good and lasting bad. Heaven is good. Hell is bad. But we also have some question about these inherited, mythological accounts of hell, as well as similar accounts of this Heaven. Harps, wings, clouds…fire, forks, tails…Good we acknowledge. Evil we acknowledge. Hell as the absence of God, or of good, we acknowledge. But hell as eternal torment, administered in punitive ways by a divinity of somewhat unpleasant temperament, this hell we question.
Here is a third contrast. Not heaven and earth, nor heaven and hell, but heaven and hurt. It is at the heart of Corinthians and the marrow of the Easter gospel that ‘something happened’. Not up and down, nor good and bad, but now and then. This contrast is built on time, rather than on space or on morals. Heaven is then, earth is now. A belief in heaven, then, is a trust in what is ‘taking place’ over against a knowledge of what is ‘in place’. What is taking place, contrasted with what is in place. What is at hand as contrasted to what is in hand. (I am indebted here to the work of my teacher, Dr. Christopher Morse). Now we see in a mirror dimly, then face to face.
Heaven is both near and different, utterly close at hand, yet completely different from anything in hand. ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ ‘The reign of God has come near to you.’ ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. ‘The Lord is at hand…’And yet…there is nothing in our hands like what God hands us. The resurrection is Christ’s victory over death, when no other victory avails.
1 Corinthians 15 prepares us for the lifelong work of response to the question of heaven, in the form of Paul’s long chapter on resurrection, a portion of which we heard just a moment ago. We have begun with reference to an actual experience in life. Paul tells about resurrection largely on the basis of experience. And while heaven and resurrection are not equivalent terms, in the basic sense of freedom from death they do go together.
The Apostle Paul writes in the year 54ad. This text addresses the following questions in the life a frisky congregation.
We are in a time of transition. What kind of person should lead the church? How shall the church be lead?
What is true wisdom?
What do we mean by ‘spirituality’?
In what may we take pride?
How do we figure out how to treat people who mistreat others and so discipline misbehavior?
What use is the court of law to us?
Is marriage bane or blessing, sinful or soulful?
May one eat food sacrificed to idols, and otherwise enjoy the larger culture (movies, theater, wine, clothing, trips)?
What is the extent of freedom?
How much disorder is good in worship?
What is the relationship between women and men in the church?
The Bible may be more relevant than you think…
Last, Paul writes to address an argument in the church about resurrection. (This is utterly fascinating in itself, since it shows that not 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion there was already church disagreement about resurrection!)
Paul sits at the bedside, in earshot of the question of knowing and believing, of heaven and resurrection. He takes your hand and remembers your experience in receiving an inherited tradition: dead, buried, and raised on the third day. He mentions to you, hand on shoulder, the centrality of resurrection to the whole of Christian preaching. When your mother dies, things get very personal. He pauses to place this account of resurrection into an apocalyptic frame, which he probably brought with him from Judaism, but notices your flagging interest in the history of religions. So, as he did with circumcision in Galatians, and as we are perhaps inclined to think he often did in polemic, Paul lets the whole Gospel ride on this one point, at this point. He recites names of people you also have heard of—Peter, James, others. With you, perhaps asking for your experience too (what is your actual experience of life, death, love, the numinous?), he recounts experiences of others, who have known an appearance, apostles, individuals, and groups, even himself. (This is our one and only primary source reference to a personal experience of the Risen Christ). He points to popular religious practices (the experience, apparently known in the Corinthian church, of baptizing in the name of the dead). There is a lengthy pause. Then he dramatically asserts his own experience of suffering, and risks of death, as sure evidence of the power of resurrection. He pointedly equates denial of resurrection with license to do as we please. Paul even takes up, less intelligibly, and more mystically, the further question of how resurrection happens. He then more philosophically, and lengthily, assesses our experiences of the glories of nature, the created order, the firmament, the physical body. The passage is based on experience. While he starts with his own experience, he leans heavily on yours.
Then his conclusion. Listen for what is not said, too. Paul also, for all the experiential assurance of the chapter, clearly announces that he tells of a…mystery. Not a fact. A mystery. Not a miracle. A mystery. Not a wonder. A mystery. Not evidence or verdict. A mystery….Behold I tell you a mystery…
To announce this mystery, the New Testament in general, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, convey three different accounts of resurrection. Peter (representing the first three gospels) emphasizes a physical resurrection, an empty tomb, more than resuscitation, to be sure, but physical nonetheless. Paul emphasizes a spiritual resurrection, known in revelation. John announces an existential resurrection, one that fills all of life and creation, that was presaged by the raising of Lazarus, one that makes the cross itself a glorification, a completion. Peter shows us an empty tomb. Paul blows the trumpet of heaven. John acclaims a full heart. All three emphases, perhaps providentially provided to reach the varied hearts and minds of various women and men, all the spots on the personality map, affirm that something happened. Something for dreamers, doubters and doers. Something for engineers, philosophers, and politicians. You may ask if they are all on the same page. In good Methodist fashion we reply, “They are singing out of the same hymnal: Sings Peter, ‘ours the cross, the grave, the skies’; sings Paul, ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free’; sings John, ‘he walks with me and he talks with me’.”
What the church has tried to name, over the centuries, on Easter, is that something happened. Something physical, something spiritual, something experiential. There is room for your particular temperament here. To some measure, they must all be true. For the physical resurrection, the resurrection of the body, at the least is attested in the ongoing life of the church. And the spiritual resurrection is at least attested in the preaching of the faith. And the existential resurrection is at least attested in unexpected, undeserved, real love. Something happened….The church is alive. The future is open. Love is real. Look at the difference heaven makes..
1. An Empty Tomb
First, the church is alive.
Especially when we come to celebrate the life of a dear sister or brother in faith, we have a powerful experience of the church alive across the river of death. The church is the body of Christ. We affirm a bodily, physical resurrection, tasted for a time in church.
W S Coffin taught many of us this physical resurrection truth through the power of faithful preaching, and the power in preaching faith. This week he died. With his burial, his voice and words move out of the swirling eddies in the river of life and loss, and out onto the higher ground of memory. His words carry at least as well from the other side as they did on this side of the river…
There is more mercy in God than sin in us.
To age is grow from passion to compassion.
When my son died God’s heart broke first.
The separation of church and state is not the separation of a Christian from her politics.
Lent is the time to get rid of your guilt.
I’m not OK, and you’re not OK. But that’s OK.
Courage is the most important virtue because it makes all the other possible.
Rules are signposts not hitching posts.
The woman most in need of liberation is the woman in every man.
Hell is truth seen too late.
The trick in life is to die young as late as possible.
The longest, most arduous trip in the world is the journey from the head to the heart.
It is often said that the Church is a crutch. What makes you think you don’t limp?
Good preaching is never at people, it’s for people.
To me it is hard to believe a loving God would create loving creatures that aspire to be yet more loving, and then finish them off before their aspirations are complete. There must be something more….
Of course life after death can no more be proved than disproved. ‘For nothing worth proving can be proved, nor yet disproved’, as Tennyson said. As a child in a womb cannot conceive of life with air and light—the very stuff of our existence—so it is hard for us to conceive of any other life without the sustaining forces to which we are accustomed. But consider this: if we are essentially spirit, not flesh; if what is substantial is intangible; if we are spirits that have bodies and not the other way around, then it makes sense that just as musicians can abandon their instruments to find others elsewhere, so at our death our spirits can leave our bodies and find other forms in which to make new music. (Citations from memory and from Credo).
Made like him, like him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies
2. A Trumpet Blast
Second, the future is open.
There is a spiritual resurrection in your future.
In March, we met a psychiatrist who said his work is to offer the possibility that stories might have a different ending. You know that story of your life at its worst, the one that seems to have the same ending no matter how you live and how you tell it? That story can have a different ending, another conclusion. It can.
Your repeated narrative of inherited addiction can be overcome in sobriety.
Your national adolescence in forgetting the limits of power can be overcome in a more collegial, more humble, more mature foreign policy.
Your preemption can give way to response. Your isolation can give way to community. Your imperialism can give way to justice. We can learn lessons from our experience.
Your religious amnesia about what is fun in faith—giving and inviting—can be lifted like a fog at dawn, and you can sing our your soul.
Things can, and will in Christ, be better for you and for us. That repeated tale of employment and unemployment, love and loss, relationship and rejection. The cycle can be broken, when what is in place is invaded by what is taking place.
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond---
Invisible as music—
But positive, as Sound---
It beckons and it baffles—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity must go (E Dickinson)My chains fell off
My heart was free
I rose, went forth and followed thee
3. An Existential Awakening
Third, love is real.
Love is not façade, but God, an experience of God, an existential resurrection.
One hot afternoon, a meeting of 30 Methodists was squeezed into a room fit for 25. I ended up crowded over against a dear elderly woman from New Orleans, 2-5pm. The room was full of flesh that one only reluctantly added any spirit or word. Side conversations disappeared with the disappearance of personal space.
After the 3 hour meeting and sauna, though, I was given a religious experience. If you need evidence of resurrection, consider the unlikely prospect of a religious experience in a church meeting. It is a remarkable thing to be given a religious experience at a church meeting. I over hear in it the resurrection distinction between what is in place and what is taking place. In place are all the systems and structures of a world that forgets the poor, children and the isolated. Taking place, as heaven’s future moves toward us, here and there, are foretastes of glory. Not many. Not planned. Not finished. Not overwhelming. Here and there. Now and then.
My seat mate is Nancy Carruth, a longtime lay leader in southern Methodism. She has lived her life in New Orleans, which the gracious solemnity of her slow speech would clearly tell you. As the room emptied, we got acquainted. She unraveled a long chain of stories about her beloved city. About unspeakable devastation. About the profound sense of Good Friday loss still holding her region. About the eclipse of places of memory. About the swamped Hotel Ponchetrain. About hearing, a month earlier, her first symphony since the flood, held in the sports arena. Her account was given with grace…
I was stunned when suddenly her narrative moved a continent away and two decades into the past. She readily began to tell me about the whole miraculous creation of Africa University more than twenty years ago, to which she had given so much. The initial dream. Tom Trotter’s dream. The scores of meetings. ‘Some even in rooms more crowded than this’. The attempts to raise money, for a new venture, in an aging church. The conflicts. The decisions of the United Methodist Church to build a continent wide first class university in Zimbabwe. Imagine getting 10 million people to agree on something… The planning. The diplomacy. The gradual excitement. And then a moment in time, when what is taking place, heaven, invades what is in place, here and now.
I loved Tom Trotter and thought the world of him. I will never forget the day we rode for the first time toward the site of Africa University, after so many years of long distance work. We came around the bend—and there it was…We saw the new buildings, shining…I was just overcome. I was so emotional. Tom wasn’t any better, sitting right next to me. Just a puddle of tears. Such a moment…. I will never forget it….’
And I will never forget her. She is so like so many of you. In faith she named what is ‘taking place’ (God’s future)—Africa University, in contrast to what is in place (our hurt)—Katrina. Her self forgetfulness, in story and in life. Her joy at the radiant memory of giving, without denying the hurt of loss. Her natural testimony of faith, which placed the radiant memory of a resurrection moment, like a garment on top of a hard experience in the present, as a means to confess…as if to say…
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning… In the cross of Christ I glory, towering oer the wrecks of time…
Suffering produces endurance, endurance character, character hope, and hope does not disappoint…
He walks with me and he talks with me
He tells me I am his own.
The church is alive. The future is open. Love fills the heart. Something happened. Foretastes of heaven. Call me crazy, but if the heavenly banquet has this menu, perhaps we need over these few earthly years to acquire a certain taste for certain things, faith and hope and love.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;
It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;
But when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.