“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Paul said (1 Cor. 15:19). As people of a resurrected Lord, we claim that death does not have the last word, that there is more than we can see, and that death is not the end that it appears to be. But what does that mean? What is our hope?
Standing in a long line, our feet hidden by fluffy clouds, outside of a gate made of actual pearls that reaches high beyond the scope of our vision, we approach the oldest looking man we have ever seen.
Long white beard down to his belly, white robe tied with a golden rope, huge feather pen in his hand. He is leaning over an enormous volume, on a podium in front of him, and as each one approaches, he fans through the tabbed pages in search of their name. If he finds it, the gates slowly open, and the person walks into a shining light. If he doesn’t, he points his arm, and the person is dropped out of the bottom of the clouds like a trap door, to eternal torture.
Once generously inside, we find that the very pavement beneath our feet is solid gold bricks, in a crosshatch pattern. There are mansions everywhere, in neat rows along the street, everything is bright, in some hue of either yellow or white. Angels flit around adorned with floating halos and holding harps, and there in front of us, is our name on the mailbox of the house of our dreams.
Is it something like that? Of course not! we shake our heads and smile. But, if not quite this cartoonish, I’ve heard lots of similar versions of heaven, or the end, that is too not far from this either. And so often our messages about what comes after this life are so wildly disconnected from this life as not even to feel hopeful, and also, to be honest, not entirely appealing either.
One afternoon when I was fifteen years old, I was sitting in my living room, looking out at a beautiful rainstorm. The grass was bright electric green, and wrapped in the sheltering steel gray sky, everything else in the neighborhood seemed put away and quiet, and I was surrounded by the consistent loud drumming of the drops on the roofs of houses.
The phone rang, and it was a friend of mine, (a moody broody friend of mine). With some measure of desperation in her voice, she asked me if I thought there would be rain in heaven.
We reflected on all the things we had heard about heaven, and it seemed quite unlikely. But in the middle of that particular spring rain, something didn’t seem right about that at all.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling God’s command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds! (Psalm 148)
In this season of resurrection, we’ve sought to look for the living One among us, to see where God is at work in the world and in our very lives. To notice that which we fail so often to recognize because it is comes in love and laughter and redeeming joy and true connection and kindness and justice and other ordinary everyday miracles.
We’ve heard people’s stories of resurrection – like Peter, who is redeemed in the welcome and the sending, the come and have breakfast, and the feed my sheep. Like Mary, who hears her savior speak her name, and Thomas, whose doubts are put to rest in the invitation to reach out and touch, and trust. We’ve heard stories of resurrection in Joyce’s family relationships, and in Amy’s neighborhood barbeque, and in Callie’s surprise calling to help children get ready for their forever homes.
But what is the world’s story of resurrection?
What about the earth and her creatures and the whole harmony of life?
What does God have in store for the big picture, for this whole world that God created and loves?
There is so much wrong in the world. And it’s before our eyes every moment, so much so that to make it through a day takes a certain amount of numbness or denial, or it would crush us.
More than 800 million people on earth are hungry every day.
One in four women on the face of the earth has been raped.
48 million people in the United States are living below the poverty line.
Every year more than a million people die of AIDS in Africa alone.
We live on land that was settled by displacing its inhabitants and herding them into reservations.
We live in a country built on the exploitation of African slaves.
We live in a church that killed and coerced people into believing its truth.
We consume natural resources leaving nothing for future generations.
Parents beat their children who grow up and beat their children.
We reflect the values of the culture we are raised in, innocent children spat on Jews, innocent children repeat the hateful words of their parents, innocent children grow up to shoot others in their schools, workplaces, or homes.
We perpetuate evil, we breed it and nourish it even while we fight it and attempt to escape it.
We wound with our words.
We enter into relationships, knowing that therein lies an encounter with God, but all relationships are polluted with pain, and we hurt the ones we love.
Marriages fall apart, loved ones die of cancer, tragedy comes in seemingly infinite ways.
There is so much pain. There is so much injustice. There is so much fear.
But there is rain.
And even in tears, there is something comforting, something that tells us we are alive. And this is what my friend was getting at, I think.
Right now, in the world as we know it, these things are so entwined: beautiful music is composed by madness, breathtaking art is created in anguish, and in the most horrendous of circumstances, real connection is often found.
My friend on the phone had decided that she would rather not go to “heaven,” if in its sanitized perfection it left out those things. If there was no rain. And I was almost inclined to agree with her.
But if we’ve seen anything in the character of God, we’ve seen again and again, in God’s deep adoration and commitment, and God’s relentless self-definition as the One who is with us and for us, that it is utterly incongruent for God to give up on this world, or any of us in it. Ever. This is God’s Story; this whole big wonderful and broken world belongs to God. Nobody loves all of this like God does. And God will never abandon it. God will never abandon any of us.
The end of things is not a trade off. It is not an escape for humans to a happy place in the sky, a departure from here, never to return.
And it isn’t God giving up on this cosmic failed project, wiping the slate clean and starting fresh.
The end of things is a new beginning for all things. It is Resurrection writ large. God says, “See! I am making all things new!” You me, this tired earth and its broken creatures and all creation, made new.
And like the Creator who walked the garden in the cool of the evening and the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, God will come, and then God’s forever home will be here, where God’s heart is. With God’s people, in God’s creation. And when God does, “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
The passage goes on from here to list all the things that will not be part of this new beginning – the things that will forever be destroyed as in a “lake of fire” – all that injures, damages, erodes, breaks down and harms life and relationship with God and each other will forever be purged from the earth.
And it will be Life: as it should be. It will be both the righting of all wrong, and deep, unparalleled intimacy between God and humanity, God and creation, each of us and all of us, belonging to each other as we are meant to, all life in harmony.
And all living creatures “ will join us in cacophonous singing.” (1) And along with Mary and Peter and you and me, “and all witnesses of the resurrection, with the earth and sea all their creatures, we will praise our Creator and join the unending hymn.” (2)
At the end of the Narnia books (3) is another picture of the end – a little different than the mansions in the sky on golden streets motif. It is described this way:
“The New Narnia was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean. It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right forehoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, thought I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”
He shook his mane and sprang forward into a great gallop – a Unicorn’s gallop, which, in our world, would have carried him out of sight in a few moments. But now a most strange thing happened. Everyone else began to run, and they found, to their astonishment, that they could keep up with him: not only the Dogs, and the humans, but even fat little Puzzle [the donkey] and short-legged Poggin the Dwarf. The air flew in their faces as if they were driving fast in a car without a windscreen. The country flew past as if they were seeing it from the windows of an express train. Faster and faster they raced, but no one got hot or tired or out of breath at all.”
That day when I was 15, I wish someone had been there to answer my friend and me in our teenage wonderings about heaven. I wish someone had been there to say heaven is the new beginning, the resurrection of all, and one day all living things and all those gone before will be redeemed. I wish someone had said to us:
In heaven, there will be rain, but no flooding.
In heaven there will be sunshine, but no parched desert.
In heaven everyone will have what they need, without taking from others, or killing to eat.
In heaven the least will not be trampled on, they will be first.
In heaven the weak will be strong, and the silenced will have a voice.
In heaven there will be no disease, no injustice, no betrayal.
The earth will be free from abuse, and people will know no pain, sorrow, or death. In heaven, our Creator will finally come home to earth, and dance with us in the rain.
And what we experience now as beauty, joy, release, justice, and peace, are momentary and passing views of the real life that awaits us right here, just further up and further in, which will never diminish or disappear.
This is the hope embodied by you and me, the resurrection people of the living Lord.
* * * * * *
But you know this already. You already are witnesses. So listen now, Listen, as this community that lives this hope, tells of this resurrection promise. (This was followed by an audio recording of people in from our community, answering the question, What is Heaven to you? They answered things like:
Fellowship of all of us after this life, togetherness, peace.
A feeling of warmth, acceptance and unconditional love.
Family get together. Nothing to be afraid of. A reunion. Welcome.
Love, peace, beauty, serenity, community.
Closeness with God, with everything and everybody, loving, sharing, helping, affirm our connection
Being in God’s loving embrace.
Peace on earth. No violence.
Everything close to God. Experience being with God.
Paradise. Being with those I love and have missed. All my questions answered.
(1) quote from Revelation scholar Barbara Rossing
(2) from the Lutheran Easter Eucharistic prayer
(3) The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis