August 23, 2015
THE WORD Matthew chapter 16, verses 18-19:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
We now fast forward in time to ease drop on a conversation between Jesus and Peter. They are standing at the gates of Heaven as they speak.
“The Keys” by John Bell and Graham Maule
Peter: Eh ... Jesus?
Jesus: Yes, Peter?
P: Eh ... I’ve got something to tell you.
J: Well, what is it?
P: Eh .... I think I’ve lost the keys.
J: You think you’ve what???
P: I ... I think I’ve lost the keys.
J: Where did you last see them?
P: I think I left them in the door.
J: (producing keys) Are these them by any chance?
P: Oh, Jesus, thank goodness for that. Where did you find them?
J: I found them where you left them ... in the door.
P: But what were you doing at the door?
J: Oh, I thought I’d just slip outside for a minute and look at the new
P: Did they recognize you?
J: Peter, did they ever? No. In any case the new arrivals always expect
everybody here will be dressed in golden wings and a white nightgown.
So, before I went out, I changed into jeans and a cowboy hat.
P: You what???
J: No. I’m just kidding. I went the way I’m dressed just now. But nobody
recognized me, even though I knew them all. And their faces when they
got near the pearly gates ...
P: Oh, don’t tell me. Gabriel and I have a great time guessing who’s who
when they come to the door.
J: Guessing who’s who?
P: Well, guessing who’s what ... or who was what.
J: I’m not any clearer.
P: Well, for example, when Presbyterians come ... I mean when ex-
Presbyterians come... and you greet them with a smile, they think
there’s something wrong. You would think they expected Heaven to be
a painful place.
P: Then there’s those UCC women. They’re entirely different. Whenever
you open the door to UCC women, they try to sell you a ticket for a
fundraiser of some kind.
J: What about Catholics?
P: Oh, you always know when the Catholics have arrived. They’re hardly in
the door when they’re asking for your mother.
J: Yeah, she got a great fan club.
P: But, you know, Jesus, the people I really like to welcome are those
who’ve had a hard time in life ... the ones who were ignored or turned off
by the Church, but who still remembered you ... the ones who looked
down all the time they were on earth, because nobody ever said , ‘Look
up,’ ... nobody ever said, ‘You’re important,’ ... nobody ever touched
them or listened to their story.
J: I know what you mean. I met a woman like that the other day. She was a
widow. She had once done something wrong in her early days. And
though I had forgiven here, nobody else did.
I looked at her eyes and remembered all the people who had made
her cry. I looked at her hands and remembered all the good work she
had done which no one had thanked her for. I looked into her heart
and remembered how it had been broken and yet how it had cared
And I said to her, ‘Sarah, there’s some people I’d like you to meet.’
And I was just about to introduce her to Martha and Lazarus, when she
took my hand and said, ‘Jesus, I’ve had three surprises since I came to
Heaven. The first was finding all the people who are here. The second
was finding all the people who aren’t here. And the third surprise was
finding that I was here myself.’
P: Well ... of such is the Kingdom ... eh?
J: Yes ... of such is the Kingdom. (pause) Here, Peter, I’d better be getting
back to the top table. I’ll see you later.
P: Eh ... Jesus ... the keys?
J: (gives them to him) Sorry, Peter.
P: Thank you, Jesus.
THE MESSAGE Rev. Susan
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like the image of heaven I had as a child. I was raised Catholic and there was lots of talk about heaven and hell. How many of you were raised to believe in a very visual image of heaven and hell? - or even purgatory or limbo if you were Catholic? Those were a little murkier. (show of hands) Walk into Catholic or Orthodox churches and cathedrals and the images are right there, in living color, on the walls and ceilings and domes.
Those images get stuck in our heads, even if our rational minds later reject them. An older woman I was mentoring while I was in seminary told me how the fear of hell was drilled into her as a child. Now she intellectually rejected that idea, but the fear was harder to dispel. As she got older and knew her years were numbered, she kept worrying “What if...?”
My Protestant grandmother always told me “I don’t believe in hell. I believe hell is right here on earth.” I’ve grown up to agree with her. But what about heaven? You hear a lot of Christians, and Muslims, talking about going to heaven. More talk about going to heaven than to hell. That makes sense. Heaven is portrayed as a lot nicer place to visit. But where is it? What is it? I don’t hear anybody talking about that. When you were growing up, where did you believe heaven was? (in the sky)
That’s where the earliest Hebrew scriptures put it. Heaven was an upper part of the cosmic ocean, which enveloped the earth. It was made up of water. There was like a ceiling or canopy stretched across the cosmic ocean to prevent water from overflowing onto the earth.
It was described in various ways: as a metal strip, a curtain made up of gauze or muslim, a stretched skin or embroidered garment, a blanket spread out, as a mantle or wrap in which God enfolds Gods self. These images are found in many ancient cultures.
They referred to heaven as a firmament, or celestial dam. God resided there. It was punctured in intervals by “windows of heaven” through which rain was released. These waters were also conceived as being stored in skins or bottles which were tilted and emptied by God at God’s pleasure.
Humans did not go to heaven in ancient Jewish thought. They went to sheol after they died. It is a place of darkness to which everyone went, regardless of the moral choices they made in life. This was a place where they were removed from the light of God. It was a kind of nothingness. When Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 200 BCE, the word Hades (or underworld) was substituted for sheol.
If your life was miserable, like that of Jobs’, then I suppose this might be a relief, but if not, it sounds like a rather bleak ending. And how could you reconcile those who led a good life with those who caused suffering for others, going to the same place?
The prophets took this on as they began to develop Jewish escatology - that’s a view of what will happen at the end of time. They looked beyond the present and the immediate future to a great day when God would triumphantly intervene to establish sovereignty. This would be a day of judgement for all nations, not just Israel. Beyond that a new and golden age of universal peace and harmony under the rule of God would prevail.
This was the prophets attempt to reconcile their faith in a good God with the experience of evil and suffering in the world. This is all described in various apocalyptic literature. Some of it looked for the golden age to be realized here on earth. Others look to the establishment of the eternal kingdom in heaven. They were living in hope that this would happen soon.
This is the world of thought that John the Baptist preached when he told his followers to, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is the world of thought Jesus was born into. He talks about the kingdom of God, or heaven, all the time. Those expressions are one and the same.
Scholars disagree if he is talking about end times, or here and now. Progressive scholars like Marcus Borg claim that Jesus is talking about creating that kingdom right here and now, in this life. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”(Matt. 6:9-10)
Regardless of what happens at the end of this world as we know it, life as we know it will come to an end for each of us when we die. It’s something many of us don’t like to think or talk about much. Our culture teaches us to fear it. We all know what happens to our bodies when we die, but what happens to the rest of us - to our souls?
Jesus gives us a glimpse in John 14:1-3: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 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 also be.”
For years the ancient Israelites believed God resided up in the sky, somewhere past that celestial dam. Then they carried God around in the ark of the covenant and put God in a temple until it was destroyed. But today we’ve travelled out there in space, shooting pictures of galaxies millions of light years away. Today the idea of the heavens, that infinite universe out there, is just as overwhelming and unimaginable to us as their primitive ideas were to the ancient Israelites.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, “But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, or ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.””
Many research studies have been done, hundreds of people interviewed who have had near death experiences, books written on what happens when we die. It’s a topic humans have been obsessed with throughout history. What do you believe? What happens when you die? Where do you go? And if you have no idea, then what would you like it to be?
I invite you to talk for about five minutes and then our table hosts will share with the larger group.
I have no answers for you to these unanswerable questions. But I would like to share a few words with you from Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who practiced for years at Brigham and Women’s and the Children’s Hospitals and Harvard Medical School. He wrote a book entitled “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife” after he woke up from seven days in a coma brought on by a rare bacterial meningitis. You may have heard of him.
While lying in the coma, his mind, his conscious, inner self traveled to another, larger dimension of the universe, one his scientific mind never would have dreamed existed. There he encountered beings different than anything he knew on this planet. He writes: “It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it - without joining with it in some mysterious way… Everything was distinct, yet everything was also a part of everything else…”
During this journey a three part message came to him: “If I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
In trying to explain this experience from a scientific mind, now infused with spirituality, he writes:
“Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity - that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.
Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also - I know now - defined by love. The universe as I experienced in my coma is - I have come to see with both shock and joy - the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.