|Detail: Virgins in the Heavenly Jerusalem from the Last|
Judgment, Sanctuary, Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue
Epistle for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year C: Hebrews 12:18-29
I love the trivia I can find using my computer. Recently I used Mapquest to determine that our retired rector, Bob Macfarlane, now lives 728 miles from this parish. That number describes the magnitude of one good reason that we don’t see him much anymore. But when he and Maria paid us a visit back in June, I was really glad for the chance for us to talk and to catch up with each other.
You know how people talk when they haven’t seen each other for a while. They reminisce and remember, and sometimes they regret. After dinner one night, Father Macfarlane said, “If I had it to do over again, I think I’d preach a lot more about heaven.”
We talked about the preacher’s resources on heaven—Dante’s 1321 Paradiso , Richard Baxter’s 1650 The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Pope Benedict’s 2007 encyclical Saved in Hope, and N. T. Wright’s 2008 Surprised by Hope.
I remarked that the lectionary readings really didn’t offer much opportunity for preaching about heaven. But Bob said, “Oh, no, there are plenty of opportunities if you look for them.”
He was right. Next month, we’re going to listen to Jesus tell a story about a poor man named Lazarus who died and went to heaven, and a rich man who had failed to help Lazarus when he could. The rich man died and went somewhere else. Perhaps Father Matt will preach about heaven that Sunday, or maybe he’ll preach about that somewhere else. Me? I’ve already picked out two really good songs for that day.
Today, however, our reading from the Letter to Hebrew Christians is also about heaven, and I think I’ll take this opportunity to talk a bit about that subject.
The passage from Hebrews is filled with obscure allusions. “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’”
Those images—of a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and the sound of a trumpet and a voice that made hearers beg that not another word be spoken—those things are all associated with the story in Exodus 19, when God descends on Mount Sinai to announce to Moses and the people Israel the law that would govern the Israelite’s relationship with the God who freed them from slavery.
It was a terrifying event. But, says the writer to the Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new agreement.” Instead of a fearsome spectacle at Mount Sinai, Christians are treated to a festal gathering of angels and righteous spirits at the heavenly Mount Zion. Instead of the old agreement, there is a new agreement. Instead of being told to keep our distance, we are told to draw near. Instead of Moses, there is Jesus.
This is the climax of a series of contrasts the writer presents in his letter. Jesus is better than angels. He is a better priest than Moses’ brother Aaron. His sacrifice is better than the animal sacrifices of the Old Agreement. The heavenly tabernacle in which Jesus prays for us is a better tabernacle than the one the Israelites had in the desert. And so on through the book until this point where these Jewish followers of Jesus are reminded that while their ancestors looked back to something truly awesome at Mount Sinai, the event that had created them as a chosen nation, they could and should look forward to something even more awesome at the heavenly Mount Zion.
Mount Zion is, of course, a reference to a particular part of Jerusalem, a part that often stood for the whole. Heaven is pictured as a city that is the real Jerusalem, of which the earthly Jerusalem is a reflection or shadow. It’s not just the Letter to Hebrew Christians that does this. The Jewish rabbis inferred the existence of a heavenly counterpart to the earthly Jerusalem from Psalm 122. In Galatians 4:26, Paul speaks of “the Jerusalem that is above, which is our mother.” And in Revelation 21, the prophet John foresees the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven.
The difference is this. In Revelation, the picture is entirely future. But in Hebrews, it is present. The writer uses the perfect tense, “But you have come near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” You have come near, indicating a completed act with present implications.
The great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce notes that the Greek verb used here to mean “you have come near” is also the root for the word “proselyte,” a Greek noun meaning “convert.” Perhaps, Bruce says, it was the conversion of these readers to Christ that brought them near to the heavenly city. Of course, they do not have it yet in its fullness, but “the privileges of its citizenship are already enjoyed by faith.”
Like so much in the New Testament, heaven partakes of the already-but-not-yet paradox. “The people of God are still a pilgrim people,” says Professor Bruce, “ … but by virtue of His sure promise they have already arrived [at the heavenly Zion] in spirit. Our author … makes it clear that His people need not climb the heavenly steeps to seek Him, for He is immediately accessible to each believing heart, making His dwelling in the fellowship of the faithful”.
But even as the writer of the Letter to Hebrew Christians emphasizes the present accessibility of heaven, we want also to remember that it is a future home for Jesus’ followers, as he promised in John 14. “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.”
Following Jesus, Father Macfarlane told me, is the key to our hope of heaven. In baptism, we die with him, are buried with him, and are united to him. And as we follow him, we can be sure that we will be raised with him, and that he will take us to himself.
It was that future dimension that Father Macfarlane was interested in talking about. After he returned to Virginia, I telephoned him and asked him: Why did you want to preach more about heaven?
He was unashamed to confess: “The most cogent reason in my case is age,” he said. “As one gets older, one begins to think there is not much of this life left,” he said. “Thinking about heaven is a faithful response to the running out of the string.”
Teaching about heaven is an important ministry to believers who are getting older. Most pastors know that focusing on those who are aging does not pay back readily in congregational or budget growth. It is common wisdom that a focus on young adults and families is what often marks churches that are geared for growth. It is an axiom of the religious marketplace. But preparing for death and for life in the presence of God is not something the aging should do alone. Children, youth, and young adults need to engage with the aging in order to understand the scope of Christian hope. Creating “a culture of resurrection” in the church is foundational to full-orbed multigenerational ministry.
Teaching about heaven is also a good way to keep our vision of justice in perspective. You can’t talk about paradise—the time and place where everything is right—without talking about the way things will be put right. We can’t talk about heaven without talking about the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment, the time when God puts all things right.
Our individual memories and our community stories are full of injustices—both those we suffer and those we perpetrate. In this life, there is no undoing those injustices. There can be forgiveness and reconciliation and even restitution, but lost lives and lost opportunities cannot be recovered.
Scripture’s earliest clear teaching of the resurrection of the dead is in Daniel 12. It follows a prophecy about God’s people suffering unjust persecution. How will God put things right after his people experience the greatest “time of distress” since the world began? Through a general resurrection and a judgment. Daniel writes, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (v. 2).
In his papal encyclical Saved in Hope, Benedict XVI points to the way the “Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer’s own soul.” As a result, he says, “in the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgment has faded into the background.”
“Faith in the Last Judgment,” Benedict says, is “first and foremost hope.” He calls “the question of justice . . . the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life.” It is morally inconceivable, he says, “that the injustice of history should be the final word,” and when we face that, “the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.”
I think Christians talk more about justice now than they ever have. God is on an intergalactic justice mission, and we are God’s agents, charged with bringing about justice for the poor, for the sexually trafficked, for the abused, for the hungry, for the victims of floods in Pakistan and religious discrimination in Iraq and ethnic violence in Sudan. But it is always a limited and relative justice. We alleviate the worst, perhaps, but we never get things completely fixed. Lest the overwhelming task make us weary, our heavenly hope keeps it in perspective. As Pope Benedict writes, “A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.” The restoration of justice is ultimately God’s task.
A God whose justice restores lost lives and dreams should lead us to think on heaven. Practice such meditation on the life to come, wrote the Puritan Richard Baxter, and “you will find yourself in the suburbs of heaven”—a phrase that delightfully echoes Hebrews’ “you have come near”—not 728 miles away, but near.
Dante visits heaven’s suburbs in his fabulously insightful Paradiso. In Canto III, the poet meets a former nun named Piccarda, who in her earthly life was unable to keep her vows because she had been abducted by evil men. She was thus assigned to heaven’s “slowest sphere.” When Dante asked if she wasn’t “desirous of a higher place,” she claimed utter satisfaction and blessedness. To wish for anything else would be “discordant” with God’s will, she explains.
There’s the secret. The Christian’s future, the world’s justice, and the believer’s bliss is the where and when of everything and everyone being in perfect concord with God’s will. A taste of that is available now—here in heaven’s suburbs. We have come near to the heavenly Zion with its angels in festal array and myriads of righteous spirits. But the fullness will come in God’s time by God’s power. That is worth preaching about.
Image: Detail from the Last Judgment at Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue.