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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
What will heaven be like? If you want pure belief and an honest answer, children are the best people to ask. What will heaven be like? “It’s where girls get turned into angels . . . and then God tries to do the best he can with the boys.” What will heaven be like? “There are no doctors or lawyers in heaven. . . . They don’t need them because God does all the healing and because all arguments are against the law.” The answers range from profound, to endearing to just plain heartwarming, Children see houses made of clouds, pearly gates, and country landscape filled with lots of toys. They characterize heaven as “magical.” As one child said, “I think it’s gonna be like the most perfect place in the universe because God’s there and he won’t let there be anything bad, unlike earth, where there’s all these bad things here.”
Unfortunately, our view of heaven often changes as we grow older. The innocence we once knew as children diminishes, and the promise of heaven which gave us hope may disappear completely as we become adults. Of course, the reasons for that loss of innocence are many. The death of a loved one may be too recent in your experience. The grief is too great. You are still wrestling with the shock of their death and the absence of their loving hand in your daily sojourn. Or maybe you are battling with God and his divine wisdom in disrupting your life together and calling your loved one home. Or perhaps, you are struggling with your own sense of loyalty. It seems unfaithful for you to let go of the one you have loved and has loved you. You don’t like the notion of moving on, as friends and family encourage you to do, but you do want to move forward again.
My friends, on this All Saints Sunday, I would like to share with you my conviction, that there is nothing in life as powerful as the promise of the resurrection. Others may be content with the comfort of immortality, but as for me, the promise of the resurrection, the promise of being raised from the dead, is one truth that offers consolation and hope, far beyond any assurance this world offers.
Questions about heaven and the resurrection are not new. In our gospel lesson this morning, grown men were arguing with Jesus about heaven and the resurrection and the dead. In St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus always seems to be caught in a disagreement with the religious leaders. And in the days before his death by crucifixion, he was engaged in and argument with a faction who did not believe in heaven or the resurrection at all. “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” It’s a little bit of seminary humor, but to differentiate the Pharisees, from the Sadducees from the Herodians, we were taught, “The Sadducees didn’t believe in heaven. That’s why they’re sad, you see.”
Of course, the Sadducees were Jewish, but some Pharisees did not think so. And all because of that one fundamental conviction –the resurrection of the dead. It was a matter of the interpretation of scripture. While the Pharisees and Herodians read the Prophets and Psalms as scripture, and it was in those books that they found justification for trusting in a resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees read only the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and there was no mention of the resurrections there.
The more Jesus spoke of the Son of Man being raised from the dead, the more the Sadducees needed to trap him. So they challenged Jesus with a case meant to make resurrection look ridiculous: One Bride for Seven Brothers. The Sadducees, however, were not really interested in human loss and grief; they were asking him about the financial inheritance of the family for a barren woman. Which of the brothers would receive the woman’s portion of her family’s inheritance in heaven? Jesus dismissed their challenge completely. In the age to come, he said, the whole financial institution of marriage would be unnecessary, and this woman would not be passed along as property. Indeed, Jesus said in the age to come people “would not be able to die.”
Even if this passage doesn’t paint a picture of what heaven will look like, it does insist that the resurrected life will be different from the life we know. Jesus was underscoring for the Sadducees that eternal life will not simply be an endless state of “more of the same.” But rather, the resurrected life will be qualitatively different. The ordinary events and relationships which are so important in this mortal life, marriage, childbirth, graduations, retirements and so on will not continue to define our eternal lives.
Now you may be wondering if Jesus is stating that you won’t know your spouse, your parents or your loved ones in heaven. This is certainly an understandable next question given Jesus’ words about not marrying and his emphasis on the qualitative difference of the resurrected life. Jesus, however, doesn’t answer the question directly, but he offers the profound assurance that the relationships of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will remain in the age to come. Your love ones will know you and you will know them- and you will experience something greater by far than anything you have known together in this world.
I wish that all our biblical questions about death and heaven had easy answers. When a seven year-old was asked how heaven began, she answered, “A lot of people in the ancient years were crying because their grandmas and grandpas were dying, so God said, ‘All right already, you win!’ . . . And so he made heaven a beautiful place and he let the grandparents stay there forever.” Unfortunately, scripture is a little more vague and complex. The passages we would like to find aren’t there. Though children still find them As one 6 year-old chimed faithfully, “God is sitting in heaven, but he isn’t on a throne or anything, no sir. He’s sitting in a garden playing with the children and the animals and letting them climb on him.”
As Christians, we believe in a heaven that is more than mere immortality. Yes, we may affirm that the soul, that spiritual element of every person, will persist beyond the physical death of the body, but we also confess something more. We believe and trust and confess that while we may truly die, there is also a promise of a true bodily resurrection of the whole person which will be united with God and reunited with us. The resurrected and restored person, whom you love, and who loved you, will be there to greet you in God’s eternal kingdom. That is the assurance of Christ’s own death and resurrection. That is heaven. It is that final resurrection that will bring an end to all of your grief, your tears, and your suffering.
I wish that in the difficult times of life, when we are grieving the loss of loved, and our own loss of direction and future, that could trust in God’s words and that we could be more like children expressing their confidence in the promise of heaven. Young Michael said nonchalantly, “Most of the people I know believe in heaven. . . . You might say that we’re just kids, but then maybe God just talks to us more often.”
My friends, whatever the limits you may experience in describing what heaven will be like and in the resurrected life, remember this passage and live with confidence that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Christ from death and that he promises to do the same also for you and those you have loved. For God is the God not of the dead, but of the living, both then and now.
Or as 8 year-old named Peggy was asked, “So is there any special test to get into heaven?” She answered boldly, “No. God just kisses you and says, ‘Welcome aboard.’ “ May that be your hope and your confession as you continue on your journey as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen