Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A man died and went to heaven where he met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Peter welcomed him with a clipboard saying, “You need 1000 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all of the good things you’ve done, and I will give you a certain number of points for each item. When you reach 1000 points, you can come in.” The man nodded eagerly, “Well, I was happily married to the same woman for fifty years and was never unfaithful to her, not even in my thoughts.” Peter noted, “That’s wonderful. That’s worth two points!” “Two points?” the man sighed. “Well, I attended church all my life and gave my ten percent tithe faithfully.” “Terrific!” Peter replied. “That’s definitely worth a point.” “One point? My goodness! Well, what about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for the homeless?” “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he answered. “TWO POINTS!” the man cried. “At this rate the only way I can get into heaven is by the grace of God!” Peter exclaimed, “Now that’s what we’re looking for! Come on in!”
I imagine, no passage of scripture has inspired more funeral sermons or jokes than St. John’s, “In my Father’s House are many rooms, if it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you.” Yes, I have preached scores of funeral sermons on this passage. And I have heard just as many jokes about the rooms in heaven, where the Lutherans, Baptists and Roman Catholics all have their own rooms, and they each believe they’re the only ones there.
Of course, many people today, even non-believers, assume that heaven is simply the final reward granted to all of God’s people when they die. They ponder the question: What will heaven be like? They talk about heaven as an imaginary place, as if to say heaven is simply human invention, a never-never land for adults, a realm of dreams. Yes, in heaven we will spend our time sitting on the edge of a cloud and playing a harp, perhaps strolling the golden streets, fishing in streams just outside our bedroom windows, and picking flowers in a massive celestial garden.
As Christians, however, we believe that heaven is more than a reward. Heaven is a destination better by far than any we have seen or heard or imagined? Saint Paul writes, “No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” Heaven is a home where the Father will dwell with you and where he will wipe every tear from your eye. Heaven is a home where there will be no pain or sorrow. Heaven is a home where God will make all things new. So why are you still here? If heaven is your final destination, then why aren’t you on your way?
My friends, as Christians, I am convinced that you and I have been destined for the gates of heaven. We have been created in God’s image to dwell with him in his eternal home, and we have been given the free will to stay the course. But sometimes we can become so stymied at the crossroads of life, that we lose sight of our destination. That is the challenge for every believer.
I remember, one summer evening, years ago, early in our marriage, when Janna and were driving to her parents’ home in Duluth. The traffic on I-35 was horrible. It was bumper-to-bumper and reduced to one lane. The late afternoon sun was beating in the windows. And so we neared Forest Lake after only thirty miles on the road, I decided we would veer off the freeway and drive to Duluth cross-country. I didn’t have a map in the glove compartment, nor a GPS in those days, but I figured with Janna as my co-pilot, we would make it to her parent’s home in plenty of time. Within minutes, I was so pleased that we had abandoned the main road, that I turned to Janna and said, “Well, I don’t know where we’re heading, but we’re certainly making good time.” Five minutes later we drove over the bridge to Wisconsin, and we ended up in Duluth two hours later than expected.
My impatience and loss of direction is what the disciples were experiencing in St. John’s 14th chapter. The events of the Last Supper depicted in the previous chapter, after all, had not unfolded as the disciples anticipated. They watched awkwardly as their master had washed their feet, and then ate with them. In the middle of the meal, he abruptly told them about his imminent betrayal at the hand of the one who was sharing his bread, Judas, who then departed them. Jesus went on visually shaken as he announced that his ardent and loyal disciple Peter would betray him. Finally, he predicted his own departure. “Where I am going, you cannot come.” It is any wonder that the disciples were upset and confused? That is why Jesus offered his word of comfort, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
No doubt, the disciples were inwardly questioning their own course of direction for the future. They certainly understood by Jesus’ words that in a very short while, the world they knew was going to collapse in chaos. They would soon be hitting the road alone. Perhaps with the other disciples. Perhaps not. So how could they keep moving forward together in the right direction without Jesus? How could know the way and was it worth it?
Surprisingly or perhaps not, both Thomas and Philip spoke the most poignant questions and received the most important answers from Jesus. Thomas questioned, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going? How can we know the way?” To which Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to father and except through me.” And Philip received the powerful promise, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater work than these.” That is an impressive challenge and responsibility for those whose destination and goal is to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.
That is what I believe Jesus is trying to teach us. Heaven is the destination of our lives, and not simply the reward. It challenges how we look at the disappointments and challenges of life. Of course, there will be unmarked stretches where faith and trust in God will be needed to inspire and encourage us. There will be moments when we will feel there is little hope and no sense of direction. I know that personally. 40 years ago, when my Confirmation Pastor, Carl Borgwardt died at 54 years old on the handball court, the congregation wondered how they could move on. But the familiar words he preached came back to the church as a word of comfort and strength. “Death” he said, “is not a tragedy for those who live in the hope of Jesus Christ.” I was reminded of this story again, when a dear friend was diagnosed with hodgkins-lymphoma. He faced his diagnosis with an uncanny strength, as he remembered the words spoken to him by his own mother when he was young, “Oh Richard, there are worse things than death.”
Why is this so true, you may ask? The past three decades of parish ministry have taught me, that when you believe that there is a destination calling you homeward, then you can affirm your faith in the loving purposes of God. Yes, when you can trust that there is a heaven at the end of life’s journey calling you, then you can press on with confidence, even when the shadows are long, and the valleys deep and mountain paths steep, doing the works that are needed for the sake of building up the faith of others. When you trust that there is a promised heaven destined for you, then the unbearable can become bearable and in the midst of darkness, you can see a glimmer of hope.
In his parting words, Jesus offered his disciples a glimmer of hope, and a glimpse of the heavenly home waiting for them. “I will prepare a place for you.” And even now, he is preparing the path for you to follow. You needn’t worry about directions, overgrown trails or even predators along the way. Jesus is preparing a place for you. You need merely begin the journey. And as Jesus assured his disciples, “I will come again and take you to myself.” Yes, Jesus will come again, so that where he is, you shall be also.
Until that day, my friends, you are destined to do great things. So let Jesus be your Way your Truth and your Life, so that by God’s grace, your heavenly home will not be just your final reward, but let heaven be the destination which gives meaning and hope and wonder along the way. And when you arrive at the Pearly Gates, may St. Peter greet you warmly casting aside his clipboard and shouting. “Welcome. Come on in.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.