Heaven according to photos and films and poetry may be a scene of majestic mountains rising from placid valleys and fertile fields fed by a winding stream or river; or a sky filled with back-lighted billowing clouds against an expanse tinted with breathtaking hues of colors; or a seascape mirroring the rays of a rising or setting sun; sights that turn our senses away from violence and ugliness and fill us with feelings of happiness and peace.
Heaven according to Jesus is where God resides, where God dwells, a residence that is not so much a location as a relationship. Heaven according to Jesus is not a massive hotel located somewhere in outer space, but at the address Jesus gave when others said He was “from Nazareth,” and He changed it to read “from God.”
Then, when sitting around the table with His closest friends at what would be His last meal before His death, He said He was going “to God,” leaving them for a time to make arrangements for them, and all future followers.
The way He said it was,
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again and will take you to myself,
so that where I am, there you may be also.
“Where I am you may be also,” – with the understanding of “place”
as spoken or written in Aramaic or Hebrew and then Greek is lost in English that lacks the words to express “place” as “an abiding with;” as a residence that is a relationship.
A pastor who bought a house wanted to know its history and was told by a daughter who lived there in years past that her parents had purchased the plot of ground where they build the modest house, large enough for the two of them, with a first floor, living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and an attic over head.
Then they had their first child, a son, and then the daughter, which meant they had to enlarge the house by raising the attic to a full second floor with bedrooms and a second bathroom.
The daughter said, “We have a photo album showing the changes through the years.”
But, each photo had family members in the foreground so it was difficult to notice the changes that were made to the house. (Adpted from "In My Father's House..." Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2014.
The pastor realized that the photo album history of the house was a picture of Jesus’ family, the church. It’s not the place; it isn’t a building with a history; it’s the people. It is as our children sing to us and teach us to sing:
The church is not a building;
church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!
Or the finger play that has us going through motions of (do as say) folded hands, “This is the church” with index fingers raised “This is the steeple” and thumbs together “Open the doors” and then with clutched hands turned upward and fingers wiggled “See all the people.” – Jesus’ people who let Him abide in them, take up residence in them.
There, in that relationship, heaven becomes a real place with real people, living out a God-commissioned calling:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
God’s own people,
in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
First it was the disciples who heard Jesus’ promise, and now us, giving our life to Him so He may abide in us to fulfill our calling as His Church: a colony of heaven on earth, a little island of sanity where people live with the “mind of Christ.”
Heaven, here and now, with Jesus finding ways to be present in our messy and messed up earthiness which some work at escaping through séances and a dream world or a far off place, self-built to be a heaven on earth isolated from everyone else rather than Jesus’ choice of abiding with His followers who as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Take up space on earth.”
Followers who wear broken halos and smudged reputations, who “spend too much and share too little; judge too many and love too few;” who give others the reason to say,
“Show me a church where ministers aren’t self-serving; where
hypocrisy has been purged away; where love is genuine, and
I’ll become a member.” (Quotes from Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad, Day 1, 1996)
The wonder of it all is that Christ has chosen to abide with such people, and that heaven according to Jesus is His chosen relationship with those who are not fit to be chosen, to abide with the homeless, the broken-hearted, the seemingly heartless and unredeemable, who, in response welcome others as they have been welcomed, forgive as they have been forgiven, and find in Christ the way into God’s presence that is large enough to have room for all God’s children; the church, a preview and a foretaste of that day when earth will be heaven and heaven be earth in God’s re-creative act to make all things new.
Till then, there is no need to search and wonder, for Jesus’ word is,
“You are already home. You are with Me and I am with you.”
In the evening as the sun is setting, I often look across the street, beyond our house, and see the hues in the sky displayed in an undesirable beauty that rises above a day that may have been dark with shortcomings and fears.
It falls like a benediction pronouncing the truth of a God determined to bring light out of darkness; it is a call to let God be that abiding presence brought near in Jesus, theway into the reality of heaven, for as Catherine of Siena said,
“All the way to heaven is heaven because he said, ‘I am the way.’”
We don’t need to wait to breathe our last breath. Heaven is found in company with all who welcome Jesus’ abiding presence; heaven according to Jesus. AMEN.