Big Questions: And What’s This About Heaven on Earth?
We sing of a church seeking to continue the story of Jesus by embodying Christ’s presence in the world. We are called together by Christ as a community of broken but hopeful believers, loving what he loved, living what he taught, striving to be faithful servants of God in our time and place. Our ancestors in faith bequeath to us experiences of their faithful living; upon their lives our lives are built. Our living of the gospel makes us a part of this communion of saints, experiencing the fulfillment of God’s reign even as we actively anticipate a new heaven and a new earth. A Song of Faith, The United Church of Canada
This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life. My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours. 1 John 5:11-15
My task today is to take a theological concept that is deeply embedded in our collective memory and try to help us see that the way it’s talked about most of the time is not just unhelpful but actually theologically incorrect and contrary to how Jesus saw the world and led his followers to be.
I’ve poked around the edges of this subject before, but now, I’ve decided that I need to tackle it head on… the error of heaven. Yes, the error of heaven and eternal life – using the two sections above from A Song of Faith and the text from 1 John… hang on…
I’ll start with the negative, the error as I see it, and transition to the positive.
Christianity is not about getting to heaven when you die. It’s about a new way of living now.
Christianity is not a hope for everything being better in the future. It’s about awakening to God’s realm that already surrounds us and working to reveal fully – now.
Christianity is not about what can be someday. It’s about what ought to be now, and what our role is in helping make that happen.
Christianity is not about eternal life. It’s about eternal life!!! (that’ll make more sense in a few minutes – I hope!)
Four weeks from today, Lent (and this sermon series) will be but distant memories and we’ll find outselves in the liturgical season called Easter. Remember, it’s not just a single Sunday, it’s a whole season. Easter as a season is about the core theological truth and necessity of dying and rising. It’s about the end of what was and the beginning of what can be. It’s about turning from a former way and embracing a new way. It’s about old life being renewed and replaced by a new kind of life.
But what does that new life look like? What is its character? What makes the new life better than what was? In a word, it is eternal.
1 John 5:11 And this is what God has testified: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in Jesus.
This is one of those examples where how you interpret a word or two makes all the difference in the world.
What has God given us? Eternal life! Ok, so what does that mean? What do you mean when you say the words “eternal life”? We use those words all the time. Everybody knows what eternal life means, right?
Unfortunately, it is far too often used incorrectly. Let’s look at each word.
Eternal does not mean the afterlife. Eternal certainly includes the afterlife – in fact, it literally means age-long, unending, everlasting time – but that means a kind of time that has no beginning either! Not just no ending, but no beginning. It’s a timeless time. To be eternal absolutely does NOT mean that when you die you start living forever in a new way. Well, ok, I guess it does in a way but that’s such a tiny fraction of the concept.
Eternal time stands in direct opposition to ordinary, brief, workaday, temporary, limited, fleeting, counting the days until you retire (or the hours until the sermon’s over) time.
I’ve spoken before about the difference between the Greek words chronos which is measureable clock time and kairos which is a special holy moment in time. Now this is another kind of time – it’s called aiónios which is about the quality or character of the time.
It’s eternal time which has no beginning and no end, and in which every moment is connected to every other, and in which Divine Presence is sensed and savoured more fully because it functions in deeper ways than limited clock time is experienced.
Maybe this will help: in English we say “love” but in Greek they have several different words for different aspects of love. Agape is the spiritual, God-centred love that is far deeper and higher than any of the other aspects of love.
So, aiónios (or eternal) is to time as agape is to love – God-centred, holy, on a whole other plane of experience.
Now let’s add in the other word, because eternal is usually paired with the word life. The Greek word here is zoe which means life as in vitality, animation and not just the biological sense of having breath and a heartbeat – it’s not the opposite of death. Zoe means the life we live in both physical and spiritual ways! So again, it’s about a spiritual quality to life.
Put the two words together and what is eternal life? It’s a quality of existence that involves your whole being and spirit, and has no beginning and no end, and is marked by an all-encompassing sense of being God-centred and God-immersed.
Another way to say all this is to call it the realm of God.
What does life lived in the realm of God feel like? What character does life lived in the realm of God have? It has the character and feel of eternal life. Eternal life and the realm of God are absolutely synonymous.
1 John 5:11 And this is what God has testified: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in Jesus.
Please notice that this sentence is in the present tense and not the future.
God has given us eternal life. Not “will give us”, not “eternal life starting when you go up yonder”, not “a ticket to heaven punch-able upon death.” That is a theological error.
Simply and clearly put – for people who claim the love of God and give their lives to following the commandments to love, love, love – to love God, love people, and love one another – for people of faith eternal life starts NOW!
Heaven (that sense of being utterly and always enfolded in God’s loving arms) is right here. Now. The realm of God is realized right here. Now.
Verse 11, God has given us eternal life, and this life is in Jesus. Again, it is present tense.This eternal life IS in Jesus – not ‘will be in Jesus’ someday, it IS in Jesus.
1 John 5:12-13 Whoever has Jesus has [eternal] life; whoever does not have Jesus does not have life. I have written this to you who believe in the name of Jesus, so that you may know you have eternal life.
Now. You have it. Just like Oprah said – you have eternal life, and you have eternal life, and you have eternal life! Now!
Ok, now the hard part. Once you realize you HAVE eternal life, what are you going to do with it? How then shall you live?
Obviously, your own personal actions and interactions will be marked by an ethic of love, love, love – of communion, compassion, and connection – of worshipping, serving, and supporting. We know all that.
But how shall we live out there? How do we help reveal God’s realm? How do we help to bring about a world of justice and peace and goodwill? It’s really not all that complicated. It’s just hard.
If my world, my reality, my approach to life, my way of being, my set of values, my spirituality, my sense of God’s Presence – if MY life is transformed by the Easter resurrection movement of dying to how I saw the world, and lived in the world, and turning and recalibrating and being renewed and reborn into a new way, Jesus’ Way, God’s way, a way marked by love, love, love – a way that has the character of the eternal because it’s a way and a truth and a life utterly enfolded and immersed in God’s love – if that is what it takes to change and transform me and you, then that is what it will take to change and transform the world.
And it also must be said and emphasized that this movement does not just happen once and for all time. It has to happen every morning when we wake up and commit ourselves to it once again. It has to happen every Sunday when we gather in spaces like this and are refilled and refueled with spiritual passion and conviction. Resurrection doesn’t happen once – it happens constantly – it happens now. And now. And now.
If you want a world that is filled with peace and justice and compassion and love then in addition to acting for justice, and taking stands against the powers and principalities that oppress and diminish people, you also, at the same time, and even more vociferously, need to be fully engaged in a passionate and all-encompassing program or strategy or endeavour of opening individual people to that same transformative journey that you travelled, and continue to travel.
In other words, the only way to transform the world is to transform individual people! In other words, it’s about evangelism! The world will never change until the people’s hearts are changed.
Systems that are unjust will never fix themselves. It will only happen when the people within those systems are so moved by love that they cannot stand to see the system be perpetuated anymore.
Part of that is consciousness raising. Part of that is education. Part of that is social activism.
But the core of the change will only come when the participants in the system are moved to dismantle it.
Systems don’t have hearts that can be broken open and moved – people do.
Name any problem in the world – whether it’s injustice, or the environment, or violence, or poverty, or any –ism you can imagine – the only way to ultimately address those problems and the things that underlie them is to change the hearts of those who perpetuate or enable or are indifferent to those problems.
Until hearts are strangely warmed the world will remain sadly cold.
Personal spiritual transformation and ever-deepening faith formation are the only things that have the power to reveal the realm of God.
We, people of faith, you and me, are the living embodiment of God’s realm, enjoying, and revelling in, and savouring the overflowing benefits of abundant, eternal life. Now.
Claiming God’s love has transformed and is transforming us.
Professing or confessing that Jesus is Lord for us, guide, mentor, saviour – that Jesus’ Way is our way – has transformed and is transforming us. Experiencing dying to how we used to be and being spiritually resurrected and reborn day by day into this renewed life that is marked by the character of the eternal has transformed and is transforming us.
If that’s what it takes to get you and me to live differently in the world, don’t you think that’s exactly what needs to happen to everyone out there?
Only changed hearts will change the world.
Change their hearts and the world will change!
Please do NOT hear this as me saying that everyone has to be a Christian – and a Christian just like I define it. That’s another error.
You and I understand this turning and resurrection in terms of the Jesus story because that’s the story we’re immersed in. It’s our story, so it’s up to us to claim it – if we desire that transformation for ourselves.
The resurrection movement of dying and rising may take shape in all kinds of other stories too. Not just ours. It’s not up to us to sell “our” way. But it is up to us to evangelize – to share the good news of Jesus and his way – to inspire transformation. Offering our own story of ongoing struggle and transformation is certainly the most authentic way we have to inspire – but it’s not the only way.
Let me take you back to the text that was read before I began preaching, the writer says,
Whoever has Jesus’ [spiritual movement of resurrection] has [eternal] life [here and now]; whoever does not have Jesus’ [pattern of ongoing transformation] does not have life. I have written this to you who believe in the name of Jesus, so that you may know you have eternal life. So that you may know the peace and joy that transformation brings.
So that you may know the delight of living aware of the kingdom of God that you’re already immersed in. Now!
You who know eternal life now are called to savour it, and to share it. So go and change the world by helping others know it for themselves. Now! Amen.
Please, if you’ve read this far, email your thoughts on this weeks Lenten Reflection Question: How has your experience of God (and God’s people) changed you?