God at the Movies: Heaven is for Real

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1 Corinthians 15:12-19, 35-58

I love the story I heard about the preacher who was preaching on heaven… he asked his congregation: “Raise your hand if you want to go to heaven.” Everyone raised their hand except a little boy sitting up front. The preacher was confused… he stopped and said,

“Son, don’t you want to go to Heaven?” The little boy replied: “Yes Pastor… but I thought you were getting a van load to go right now!”

I actually remember my preacher Lee Stoffel tell that story when I was a teenager.

… and truth was… I didn’t want to get on the bus… there was too much life to be lived… Back then… going to heaven was an abstract thought or issue to be discussed in the future.

It’s not so abstract anymore at my age. And every day is one day closer to my own death. The closer you get to death… as you get older… or the closer death comes to you through illness or the death of loved ones… the subject of heaven becomes much more important…

So, what is heaven like? My friend Steve Eason was wondering the same thing recently as he preached on this topic. He said: Where is this heaven and what is it like? Wouldn’t you love to know? What is your image of heaven?

It sounds crazy when you say it out loud, but here’s what I’ve grown up thinking.

Heaven is up. I don’t know how far up, but it’s up there somewhere! (The other place is down. I don’t know how far down.)

There’s a gate and that’s where decisions St. Peter makes as to who gets in or not. 24/7 no Christmas break…

And there are clouds in heaven – lots of clouds. It’s almost like everything is floating. That would be weird.

And then I suppose you see people you know but I’m not sure how that works. Would my mother look like the 80‐year old woman she was when she died or will she look like she’s 35?

Maybe she’ll look totally different, but I’ll still know her. I’m not sure how all that works. I’m also not sure what people do all day, or even if there is a day! Just sitting around sounds boring too. But then again, going to work wouldn’t sound like heaven either!

Jesus says he goes to “prepare a place for you,” and it’s said that “there are many mansions in heaven,” so I assume we have places to stay, but Jesus also said there is no marriage in heaven, so who are you going to live with? Having a mansion all by myself sounds pretty lonely! (All my kids aren’t coming back home are they?)

And then there is the fact that we’re talking about “forever.” That’s 10 million years times a billion and then do it again! Wouldn’t you get tired of doing the same old thing, living in the same old house and seeing the same old people? If heaven is heaven, it can’t be boring, drab or dull. There’s got to be more to it than what I think.”[1]

Steve wonders as we all wonder sooner or later: What is heaven like? Which is why movies like, Heaven is for Real… are very interesting to us… offering some hope that when our time on planet earth is over, it doesn’t mean an end to our personal existence… There is something more awaiting us…in the “Sweet by and by” as they say.

Heaven is for Real features the story of four year old Colton who is dying… as surgeons operate on a burst appendix. When Colton comes back from the brink… he talks about an unexpected thing that happened to him… he has been on a trip to heaven. He details time with Jesus… he meets his great grandfather and a sister with no name who died in a miscarriage… Everyone in heaven is young… lots of animals. Heaven is a lot like earth, except more colorful and beautiful.

What is heaven like? What happens after you die? What do you think?

The question of life after death and heaven was a lively question in the time of Jesus and Paul as well. In reading the gospels and letters like Corinthians, it is clear that there are some in the Jewish and Christian community who are not sure that “heaven is for real”… Some people are saying there is no resurrection of the dead…. No life after death… After you die, you are gone, finished, dust. You live only in the memory of those who knew you. They are raising questions like “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” In those days there was debate on what happened after death. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection of the dead… Pharisees did… this no doubt had influence on the debate…

Paul writes to address this issue… and he is clear… there is a resurrection of the dead… After all, if the dead are not raised, he says, well then, Christ was not raised either.” Then he seeks to answer the question we seem to be asking: what kind of body will we have in heaven… what is it like?

Paul answers using a metaphor of a seed…. In fact, he is rather blunt about it almost implying that they have asked a stupid question: “Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body… So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is own in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Paul’s answer to those who question life after death or who want to know what heaven is like tells us a few things:

First it tells us that there is continuity between our life here on earth and our life after the resurrection. When we talk about the resurrection of the body… my theology professor John Leith taught us to say, you could also speak of the resurrection of the person… Whatever makes Jody, Jody will continue to exist. Maybe not in a body of flesh and blood—that is a body appropriate for an earthly existence… but in some form of a spiritual body—appropriate for a heavenly existence. In the resurrection we are still us… the unique people God created us to be… and not just merged with some cosmic soup where we lose our identity. We will be different… transformed… but we will still be us. We may not know what that will be like… just as when you look at a seed, you cannot imagine what it will look like when it is grown. But we will still be us!

That tells me there are still relationships in heaven. That is a comforting image in the movie. Now those relationships are different. Jesus says that in heaven people are not married or given in marriage… in our marriage ceremonies we even say “til death do us part’… But that does not mean we do not live in loving relation with others.

In fact… the hope is that we will be in loving relationship even with those who on earth were our enemies… or who drove us crazy… that all of those things we say and do to each other… all of our selfishness and childishness and ego… that mess up all of our relationships – that will not be a part of our life in heaven. I think that if life in heaven were simply an extension of our life on earth… filled with our struggles and brokenness… then it would not be heaven… that would be hell! Maybe that is what hell is… our failure to let go of our sins and struggles forever. Heaven is heaven because we give up selfishness and in return receive love… we give up pride and get acceptance and grace… We give up jealousy and greed, and receive fulfillment and peace…

But there is one more thing we receive in heaven that is not mentioned by Paul at the moment… but is mentioned by John in the book of Revelation. I love the vision John has of the new heaven and new earth… I read this at almost every funeral because it is so beautiful:

In his vision, he says,
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples,
And God himself will be with them;
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new”

You know, the best part of heaven is not being with your family and friends… that is great… don’t get me wrong… but the best part is union—or should I say reunion with God…

The God who created us for intimacy until we messed that up… that God will make everything right between us. We won’t be crying anymore because we will be home with God… We will be for eternity in the presence of the one Jesus revealed to us: the God who is so much in love with us… so forgiving… so caring… that to be in God’s presence is to be at complete peace and joy… A place where God has removed everything so painful about living in this life…

This week I was moved to hear the story on NPR of Jenni Rowland… a 31 year old fighting a hard fight with head and neck cancer for four years. At one point, the interviewer asks her: “Do you believe in heaven?” Jenni says, “Yeah, definitely even more so now… Not that I believe in it more… but I am more excited about the possibility of heaven…Because honesty this is hell.. so thinking wow, there is a place where I am not in pain and I’m constantly having to think ‘this is bad news… this is good news’ … where I am not constantly thinking “this is gonna’ hurt or this hurts”…Not having to worry about any of that… Thinking about the quality of life… I cannot imagine that it would be what it will be had I not had these health issues. So, just knowing in my heart that there is this place where none of that will exist…That sounds like a place where I want to be…

There is always that, “Well, you have to die before that happens” But now that I think my mortality is possibly more imminent… it is not so much the dying that I am concerned with, it is just that dying is the middle man between where I am and where I look forward to being…”[2]

O, I love that!

What Heaven will look like… what that existence is like… truth be told… is very hard to know. Paul even says it is a mystery. But from what Jenni and Paul and John says, it is a much better existence than we can ever imagine.

That’s what a friend of mine tries to tell children when he talks to them about death and he describes heaven to them–—especially when they are grieving the loss of a parent or friend:

He says,
“Years ago I came up with the idea that if we could give a microphone to a baby who was just about to be born (and if they could talk), we could ask them,

“What do you think it’s going to be like out there after you are born?”

The answer would probably be something like…
‘Well, I think it’s going to be this big, dark place with lots and lots of warm fluid and the sound of my mommy’s voice. There will be a golden cord from my belly button to my mommy that will never be broken and I can roll and kick and sleep a lot.’

A baby couldn’t possibly imagine what the world outside the womb will be like. They have no concept or experience of things like; air, color, people, language, lights, music, art, the ocean, the stars, the sun and the moon! There is nothing out here that is like anything in there! And on top of that, we cut the cord!

If we experience such a transition from the womb to this world, I can only imagine the same thing will happen from this world to the next. More than likely, heaven is not like anything we now experience. We project onto it what we know because in our wildest imagination, we cannot conceive of the creativity of God in heaven.

In fact, one of the things I say to the kids is,
“If God has been this creative here, how much more creative God will be in heaven?”

In other words, look around and behold the work of the Lord. How can anything be less than this? Whatever heaven is, it can’t be boring. It can’t be colorless. It can’t be void of love and relationships. It may not be what we imagine, but it will reflect the very nature and character of who God is.”[3]

I like that image… I think Paul would like it… I know Jenni like it… because truth is… while some may have a glimpse of heaven through near death experiences… even they are only glimpses at best… Truth is… we don’t know on this side what heaven will be like… but this we do know… that the God who created the world, created us… that the God who loved the world, loves each one of us… and knows each of us by name… that the God who so loves us that he sent the Christ to teach us how deep and far and wide that love goes… that the God who raised Jesus from the Dead… that God can be trusted to raise us!

Which is good news not only in the life to come… but truth is… I think it is good news in the life we live right now. We can face our lives with great faith knowing that there is nothing in life or in death that will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 


[1]Sermon on Heaven at MyersParkPresbyterian

[2]Jenni Rowell interview- Life Interrupted- Strangers

[3]Ibid, Steve Eason.

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