November 10, 2013
Do you think about heaven very much?
There have been a slew of books recently about heaven by people who claim to have been there during a near death experience. Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven continues to sit atop the NY Times Non-fiction Paperback Bestseller’s List.
The Sadducees bring up heaven to Jesus because they do not believe in life after death. They are a Jewish group, connected with the Temple and the priesthood who are the elite. The Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is their guide to everything and it says nothing about resurrection.
For them, when you’re dead, you’re dead—and there’s no problem.
The Sadducees know Jesus believes in the resurrection, just like the Pharisees do, so they show him his error by creating this bizarre scenario based on Deuteronomy 25:5 that says “the wife of a deceased husband shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her.”
They say this woman goes through 7 brothers without having a child. They ask Jesus, “If there is a resurrection then who will this poor woman belong to in heaven?”
Jesus says, in great relief to women everywhere, she will belong to none of them, because in heaven there is no marriage because there is no death, only the eternal presence of God.
The question for us who live on this side of death is: How do we participate in his resurrection so that what is true for Jesus becomes true for us?
I realize until a certain age most of the time we don’t think about dying so we don’t think about resurrection. But then someone we love up and dies and there is death staring us in the face, holding up a bony finger saying he’s coming for us soon.
And then we wonder….we wonder….
There are three central ways people typically wonder about heaven and how you get there.
In our secular culture, you get to heaven (if there is such a place) by being a moral, pretty good, person. There is no need for grace. You redeem yourself. For more on this see Georg Huntemann The Other Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Reassessment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer page 185
In my church in Washington, NC a longtime member’s husband dropped dead on the 9th green at the Washington Yacht and Country Club. After the funeral she said to me, “Joe never went to church, but he was a good person, so I know he’s up there in heaven playing another round of golf.”
You don’t need God and you don’t need grace, you just need to be an ordinary nice person.
Another way of understanding getting to heaven is seen in those who have some connection to church life. They talk about grace, but it is seen not so much as a gift but as a right, something we can readily expect. It is what German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”, in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship, in which the forgiveness of sins is a general truth in which no contrition or changed behavior is required.
He writes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…It is the grace we bestow on ourselves.” The Cost of Discipleship page 45 and following
Bonhoeffer saw the effects of this cheap grace as he watched the German Lutheran Church in the early 1930’s fail to say “No” to the Nazi Party and its demented leader.
When grace gets separated from obedience to Jesus Christ then the Church, whether in Germany or America, will give itself grace while walking deliberately away from the will of God, often into racism and war.
A third way, the New Testament way, to get to heaven is called Costly Grace: Bonhoeffer says, Costly Grace “demands repentance as a genuine change of direction that leads to discipleship.”
He says, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Ibid
Depending on the day, we can easily fall into any of these three ways of thinking about getting to heaven:
There are times we sleepwalk through life imagining we’re such a special person of course we’ll be welcomed into heaven.
A friend of mine was involved in door to door evangelism in which they would ask whoever opened the door: ‘If you died tonight are you sure you’ll go to heaven?”
Most people would respond, “I’m not sure”, which would then start a conversation about how to be sure about going to heaven through inviting Jesus Christ into your heart.
Once, though, a college student opened the door wearing boxer shorts and holding a beer at 9 o’clock in the morning. See Acts 2
When he was asked “If you die tonight are you sure you’ll go to heaven?” He said, “Ab-so-lute-ly!
The callers were taken aback, but then asked, “How do you know?”
And he responded, “Because it wouldn’t be heaven without me!”
[There happens to be wisdom hidden here: it recognizes that God’s joy will not be complete until every person is seated on his lap soaking up his love. And in Jesus Christ God has come to bring us to that place on the Father’s lap where we long to be and where we belong.]
Other days, we’ll know better and say, “Well, of course we know we’re saved by grace”, but that’s just a theological idea that doesn’t connect me to God at all. It means I can do whatever I want because I’ve got a “Go directly to heaven” card tucked safely in my pocket.
And then, there are days when we are acutely aware of our failings, and our absolute lack of specialness, and that the only way we’ll ever be invited to heaven is though the gift of Christ who we hang onto for dear life.
Jesus saysto us today, “those who are considered worthy will be given a place in that age and in the resurrection.”
Here’s the thing: Whether I don’t believe a bit of Christianity or I believe the Nicene Creed top to bottom we all struggle with this question: “Is my morality good enough to be considered worthy of heaven?”
The orthodox answer is clear—Saint Paul says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
In simple terms this means no one is worthy of inviting themselves to be a houseguest in God’s heart.
The Pope—even this good pope Francis—isn’t worthy, Mother Theresa isn’t worthy, the Dalai Lama isn’t worthy, Oprah isn’t worthy.
As Richard Rohr often says, “Don’t go there.” Don’t turn your life into a worthiness contest because you can never win.
No one is worthy of eternal life and no one has the power in themselves to escape death and the grave. No one has the power to heal themselves of their original wound.
So deep inside we know we’ve got to follow someone—usually we think we’re following our own inner voice, but that voice was formed by the surrounding culture and therefore doesn’t know the right things to want, so we end up wanting and choosing badly.
Those who choose to follow Christ follow him precisely because they know they don’t know the way into the peace and love of God. We know we don’t know and are therefore willing to be his disciple, to surrender to Christ, as the one who does know and who will see us home—all the way into the heart of our Creator.