WHERE I STAND ON HEAVEN… I THINK
I had the privilege of presenting this sermon to the Parkside Coummunitiy Church congregation on January 9, 2011. It was the first time I spoke in a casual, “Here’s what I think” manner and I believe it was well received. For that reason, there are comments made in the sermon itself that are not found in the text below. Nonetheless, the text speaks my heart and mind and I hope you find it interesting and valuable.
Isaiah is a person who is found in history, a Biblical prophet who lived about 750 years before Christ was born. When Isaiah declared, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold….”it is God saying, “Here are my people, the people of Israel – the Jews (as opposed to the non-Jewish or Gentile). Scholars debate if Isaiah is writing of all of Judaism or of an idealized sub-group.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice. He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
WHERE I STAND ON HEAVEN... I THINK
There are many people who think they know everything. This is very annoying to those of us who DO know everything. And especially annoying to those of us who thought we knew everything, but are now not so sure.
What I do know is that I love Jesus Christ and I know Jesus loves me as sure as if I was his own – because I am.
But when you have the privilege of preaching, part of the responsibility is to study the Scriptures, sometimes for the first time, often not. But every time I study the Scripture, I learn something new.
There is a practice against which I have spoken – the practice of “proof texting.” This means you take a belief and then find something in the Bible to support your belief. But as my Dad use to say, “Even the devil can quote scripture.”
But in this case, my “proof texting” came to me in the opposite direction. I came to Christ in High School, through the Young Life program, which is when I began reading the Bible. In reading the Gospels – which, by the way, I recommend – I came across John 14. In that passage, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“NO ONE comes to the Father except through me.” If you want to know God – Creator God, perhaps best known for his work “In the beginning…” – to know this God, John 14 tells us that Jesus says the only way to know God is through Jesus the Christ. So by this one text, I base a belief that those who are not Christians will never know God. And that’s troubling to me. There are people in my life – people I love – who follow the path of Judaism. These are good people – people I love. When I say I would trust my life to them,. that means nothing. I would trust my DAUGHTER’S life to these friends. By my interpretation, these people will never know God.
There are Muslims who feed the poor, Buddhists who pray for peace, Free Thinkers who clothe the naked and Hindus who visit the sick and imprisoned. Are they not to know the peace that comes in knowing God through Christ? Not so long ago, I would have said, “Sadly, yes.”
Now, I am not so sure. The curse of education, I guess, because there is great comfort in believing in what you believe and not letting facts get in the way. It is even more difficult when we are faced with new interpretations of our faith.
Which brings us to our New Testament text. In Luke’s book, The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10, Luke gives what is believed to be an abridged version of the Apostle Peter’s speech. If you know your comic strips, it is always St. Peter at the Gates of Heaven, deciding who enters heaven and who heads for, shall we say, a warmer climate. This is also based on scripture, specifically Matthew 16:19. Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In other words, Peter is, in fact, the gatekeeper to heaven as we understand it. So he speaks with authority in his message from Acts.
Peter seems to be speaking to Gentiles – non-Jews who would not know the story of Jesus as well as the Jews of the day would know it. To that end, Peter goes into a lot more detail than would normally be expected, had he been speaking to his Jewish brothers. Part of his speech concerns the baptism of Jesus by Jesus’ cousin, whom we know as John the Baptist. Let me share that brief story before I read from Acts. The story is found in both Luke 3 and Matthew 17 and for today, I am reading from Matthew 17: Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
That is quite a story. Peter speaks on this to, as I said, a Gentile and probably multi-racial audience. In the earliest days of the church, immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection, many of the Apostles believed the message of the Messiah was to be given only to the Jews. This is in spite of Isaiah’s prophecy that “he will bring justice to the nations.” Not the nation of Israel – but the “nations.” Giving the message of Jesus to Gentiles was quite controversial amongst the Apostles.
Peter says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, (my note: Israel is another word for the Jews) announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, (here Peter is talking about Jesus’ adult ministry) beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”
Peter continues, “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Remember how I said Peter was most likely speaking to a non-Jewish audience. We may think of religion as “either you believe in God or you don’t” and then we go from there. In the time Peter gave this speech, you had people who believed in the deity of Zeus, Hermes, Artemis and other gods, Roman soldiers who followed Mithraism, whom they believed to be a creator and protector, others who believed in Zoroastrianism or gods of Arabia, Egypt and countless others. The idea of a single God, as most people believe now, was just one of many faiths. So when Peter speaks to the Gentiles, he speaks of a known concept to them, but it is likely not their way of faith.
Peter tells them that this God of the Jews is no longer just for the Jews, but for everyone and that we should respect him and follow his teachings. He calls Jesus “Lord of all,” a phrase which was originally a pagan title but hence taken by the followers of Christ, so it is not the first time they have heard this title, though likely the first time they have heard it in relation to Jesus of Nazareth.
Peter speaks of Jesus’ anointing by God and his subsequent miracles as if they were accepted facts. His crucifixion and resurrection would also be widely known, if not necessarily believed. But Peter’s faith is convincing, especially when he speaks of one who was dead – there is no question that Jesus perished on the cross – and who not only rose again from the dead, but ate and drank with them. This is important in Peter’s evangelizing, as he makes it clear, this was not a ghost or a spirit – someone who doesn’t need food or water. This was a living man, the Christ anointed by God, who had returned from the dead. If this were true – and I absolutely believe it is true – it would give a lot of credence to what Jesus said while on earth and what his apostles and followers professed in his name at that time.
Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, who began with a dozen men who shared his vision, is the true son of God. As a Congregational denomination, our church and our faith tell us that our belief is in one God – a God who is made up of CREATOR, CHRIST AND HOLY GHOST. Not three separate parts but each one God, all making up our God. It’s complicated and I don’t pretend to be able to explain it at all, let alone in a few phrases. So does it take a confession of faith in Jesus the Christ to ensure eternal life in a Christian heaven? I still believe so. My studies – and my faith – continue to tell me that when I die, eventually I will be in heaven, described in a myriad of ways but mostly as a time of peace and love. It makes me feel good that eventually I am again going to see my Grandfather, my Aunt Mary, my nephew Adam, my friend Cory – my Dad. That is my future. I’m in no hurry for it, thank you very much, but I take great comfort in knowing what lies ahead. I believe this is the path open to all who profess Jesus as the Messiah.
But what about my present? What about those I know who do not follow my faith? What about my neighbors, whom Christ tells me is everyone?
Every positive religion has heaven. imagine that all at once, everyone is called up to heaven. I think of it as people going to the mall – all the heavens lined up and you go to the one in whose faith you followed. Native Americans have Aba, the creator of earth and the lord of heaven, where the dead live in bliss and tranquility. Swahilis believe in a Paradise where human spirits exist in perfect harmony, Buddhists enjoy Sukhavati, an enchanted world of fragrant flowers in lush gardens, before being returned to the reincarnation cycle. Some believe that going to the mall itself is heaven, but pick a faith and chances are there is a heaven. I believe in my Christian heaven and the rewards that wait there for me as a result of my professing Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah – the Christ. But there are so many other beliefs – what are we to do to reconcile them while on earth?
What we do is what God taught us to do – to love our neighbor. Most every faith has a Golden Rule – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is so simple – and so difficult. Yet, we are all in this together. If you choose not to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as your Messiah, that does not mean you cannot follow his teachings. Even if you are of a different faith, you are not excluded. Peter says God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Is fearing or – I prefer “respecting” God and doing what is right enough for entrance into heaven? It seems that if Peter, the heavenly bouncer, says you are in, you’re in. This is contrary to my belief as I hold it now, but I offer it as a path for discussion and learning.
In the meanwhile, what about those who are not believers in the Christ? Many faiths are based not on a Supreme Being, but are more internal, such as many eastern religions or they are based on no faith at all but solely on science. Regardless of the foundation of your beliefs, these good people can and do follow teachings similar to Christ’s – to love and to serve each other for a better world. Those who believe in a Creator God will still follow God’s lessons, as given to us in the Ten Commandments and in the Hebrew Bible’s admonition in Leviticus to “Love our Neighbor.” They know, as Isaiah prophesizes, that a Spirit will come down to bring justice to the nations, a Spirit that will not come as an invading army, who will not “shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets,” but who will “open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” This is my Christ – the Christ of prophecy in the Old Testament and whose story is told so beautifully in the New Testament. He is the Messiah who “accepts from every nation the one who … does what is right.” His message is a quiet one of peace and love. If we all followed his teachings – Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Druids, Free-Thinkers, Scientologists, Romani – the list could go on all day – if we all follow the teachings of, if not belief in, Jesus of Nazareth, there would be what I consider a Christian heaven. The difference is, it will be a heaven on earth. Just as in our Christian heaven, where we will know and share love, so today, here on earth, we must know and share that love. And as a step towards heaven on earth, I say to you, individually, “I love you.” It is a love given to me by the grace of God through our Lord, Jesus Christ and it is a love made to be shared. But before you go out into the world to share this love, take the step right now.
Right now, there is someone near you. And whether you share a life with the person next to you in the pew or you can’t even remember their names, please reach out right now and tell your neighbor, “I love you.”