Need Directions?

Primary Scripture: John 14   This sermon was definitely jazz…. I wrote up these notes as a manuscript, but wound up riffing quite a bit and using this to keep me from rabbiting off too far. Huge tip of the hat to multiple commentaries on this passage at WorkingPreacher.org as well as Shirley Guthrie’s classic Christian Doctrine, which I credited directly in the spoken version.   

Today is the first in our series of sermons based on questions and requests from you. I look forward to exploring a wide variety of topics over the next several weeks. Today’s sermon is an attempt to answer a question: How do we get to heaven?

I grew up about 30 minutes away from the original Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham. Their advertisements said the ice cream was so delicious because the cows think Brenham is heaven.  

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I went to seminary about 45 minutes away from the baseball field diamond built into the middle of a corn field, where Shoeless Joe mistook Iowa for heaven in the movie Field of Dreams.

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And, I’ve driven in and through West Virginia, which, if John Denver is to believed, is almost heaven.

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While I experienced joy and wonder in each of these places, I wouldn’t have you put their coordinates in your GPS in hopes of getting you to heaven.   But there is something about the question, How do we get to heaven? that seems to be asking for literal directions.

This is kind of what happens with Thomas in our reading for today.  We picked up the thread about halfway into what is known as the “farewell address” in John’s gospel. Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet, after which he predicts his betrayal and Peter’s denial. He is letting them know that the time has come for his death- and all the events he has tried to prepare them for are at hand.  

Jesus describes the work he will do as going to the Father’s house to prepare a place for them, and Thomas takes him at his word.  

He asks Jesus “How will we know where to find you there?” Can you give us directions?  Is there a map?

Jesus responds, just as he has responded each time his friends have misunderstood his metaphors, by reminding them who he is. This time, he explains – I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  

You might recall that this is but one of several “I am” statements that John records.

I am…
The Bread of Life (6:15)
The Light of the World (8:12)
The door, the gate, the Good Shepherd (10:9-10)
The resurrection and the Life (11:25)
The true vine (15:1)

I can’t hear any of these statements without recalling Moses’ encounter with God in the bush that was burning, but not consumed by the fire. Moses asked God what name for God he should give  the people when they asked… God answered in a way that is very difficult to translate into English.  

The sense of it is “I am the one who is” but it goes far beyond the present tense. God is I am, in the weightiest, most eternal sense of the existence.

When Matthew describes Jesus walking across the water toward the boat during the storm and the frightened disciples call out find out who this strange figure is, Jesus answers similarly.  He tells them not to be afraid, and instead of a familiar “it’s me, Jesus” he claims the “I am” nomenclature for himself.

Jesus is the son of God.  Jesus is God.

John makes clear in the opening words of his gospel that Jesus has been one with God, from the very beginning, even before time.  Jesus is the Word that was God and with God, and when the time was right, became flesh to dwell among us. Even in the flesh, his connection to the Great I Am remains clear.

All of Christ’s I Am statements signal God’s presence in the flesh, in the world, and in the person of Jesus. They signify God’s expansive grace and the offer of Jesus to the world as the source of abundance life now and in the age to come.   

Now – you might be thinking, because I started thinking it as I was outlining all this, what kind of rabbit trail have we started down?   It’s actually a pretty important trail for a discussion about heaven, rabbits notwithstanding.

Jesus started this section of his conversation with a desire to comfort his followers. He is reminding them of the purpose of his coming – that humankind might experience God’s presence and begin to understand how we are to be God’s presence for one another in community. You won’t get lost, he says, because I am the way, the truth and the life.  Just keep following me, doing life and following God my way.  

See, if we take Jesus’ words at face value, as literally as Thomas took Jesus’ description of the father’s house with its many rooms, they stand in contradiction to the remainder of John’s gospel.

Suddenly, the expansive and inviting grace of God becomes exclusive, based on the judgment of a distant, perhaps even absent, God. Taken literally, No one comes in except through me turns a word of promise into a clear declaration of prohibition. God’s loving Yes becomes NO for an awful lot of people.

This particular I AM statement is often pulled out of this context, stripped away from Jesus’ reminder to Philip that because they know Jesus, they already know the Father.

What sounds like a conditional statement (when on its own) is actually assurance that they need not worry about finding God in some mysterious future because of their existing relationship with Jesus.

I can hear Jesus’ frustration – tempered with love – in his questions for Philip:
You do know me, don’t you?  After all this time, you know me pretty well.  And thus you know my father.

There is no mystery here about God’s nature, God’s love for each beloved child. God’s compassion and desire to see each person fed, clothed, housed, and freed from bondage is on full display in the actions and teachings of Jesus. And, as Jesus reminded Philip, the power of God has been on full display in the miraculous works they witnessed.  

All of which adds up to … well… not much… in terms of directions for getting to heaven.  Nor for the corollary question that is being asked, even without saying the words…

How do we avoid going to hell?  

Full disclosure…
I’m not altogether convinced that Jesus ever described a physical heaven to which people will be welcomed.
I’m not altogether convinced that  Jesus ever described a literal hell to which people will be escorted, either.

Partly because so much of what we imagine heaven and hell to be like has been offered to us by artists, poets, cartoonists and other pop culture shapers. In our Presbyterian tradition, there are doctrines and confessions that speak about heaven and hell. But not in great detail, and generally not in a literal, physical sense.

I suspect we tend to imagine heaven and hell as physical constructs because that is how we humans experience life in this world. We are tactile creatures, aware of the textures and temperature.

We are visual creatures, noting colors and light around us.  We can distinguish between pain and comfort,  health and disease.  We can even see and smell fear and confidence, relaxation and distress in ourselves and others.

The sheer quantity of symbolic language in the New Testament leads me to think that all of our imagining is really just that. Imagination, rather than good scriptural interpretation.Especially when we consider the eternal future In light of what God has been up to in the past.

Heaven probably isn’t someplace in the clouds or behind a pearly gate with gold pavers in the streets and vendors handing out halos and wings.  Heaven is more likely to be an eternal life in which we experience the fullness of what God meant creation to be from its very beginnings.  It will be the Kingdom of God as lived out by Jesus, but no longer in this imperfect world.  An existence where we understand with no gaps the promises being worked in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It will be the complete embodiment of loving and worshiping God AND living in peace with all humans.

Our eternal rest will be freedom from the frustration, degradation, oppression, and self-destruction that exhausts each of us and our sisters and brothers as we try to make our way through this world.

Just imagine an eternity at peace with ourselves, our neighbors and our creator. Sounds pretty heavenly to me!

So, then, what about hell?  

Probably not pitchforks, fire and brimstone…  and not underground someplace between the molten core of earth and our aquifers.

If heaven is all about reconciliation and love, Hell would be an eternity of living apart from or in hostility toward God and other people. This is the ultimate denial of our humanity, our need for community and communion. Imagine living forever in solitary confinement, experiencing a depth of loneliness that can only result from an inability or unwillingness to love and be loved. There will be no rest from self-loathing and self-destruction, no rest from oneself.  

To be honest, this sounds more like eternal death than life.  I wouldn’t wish that on anyone…

So… who does go where?  

Does God use some kind of cosmic sorting hat?  Or is it based on how good a person we’ve been?  

Some would say that if you want salvation and eternal life, you have to pray and ask Jesus to enter your heart. Or that you pray and surrender your life to Christ. If you miss out on an opportunity to hear about Jesus or choose not to receive his offer of eternal life, your eternity is spent in hell. Thus, it is important for those who are believers in Jesus to share the good news with as many people as possible wherever they go.

Others are convinced that God has predestined some people for heaven and others to hell. A variation on this is that some are predestined to heaven,  and their role is to make sure that others have an opportunity to become part of the Christian community.  

Still others believe that God loves the world and everyone in it, and so everyone gets into heaven.

Now, all of these are based in varying degrees on the idea of grace – God’s grace – and our faith.  No matter what we do, good or bad, God’s grace remains in effect.  We must deal with the consequences of our actions and decisions in this life, but grace allows us to be right with God.  No one is good enough to earn or bad enough to lose access to eternal life with God.

Somewhere along the way, a misunderstanding crept in, causing people to believe that God keeps track of who is good and who is bad by keeping some sort of eternal scorecard with merits and demerits.

Good people are the ones who know all the rules, not just the big ten, but all the lists of sins and works of the flesh listed in the epistles, as well as socially unacceptable behaviors that might or might not appear in scripture.Good people not only know these rules and laws, they are adept at identifying people who are faltering or failing at keeping and following those rules, which would rarely include themselves.

Bad people, obviously, are the ones who are guilty of any combination of the sins those good people are keeping track of, regardless of the reason or context for the behavior.

This is all important because at our death, the good people go to heaven and the sinners people go to hell.

Sound familiar?  It’s pretty pervasive, even in reformed churches where it’s pretty much heresy.

See, according to Jesus and the writers of the gospels, the truth is pretty much the opposite: Heaven is for sinners and hell is for “good” people.

Over and over again, Jesus addressed sinners with words of hope and invitations to dinner. Grace was extended to those who were obviously guilty – tax collectors, prostitutes, outcasts and rejects from the tables of the respectable people and orthodox believers.

And the ones who heard the sternest rebukes from Jesus?  The powerful, the church-goers, the scribes and the pharisees, those who wanted to preserve the moral values of the time, to uphold religious traditions that once made the nation of Israel great.  

Jesus made clear that the first would be last and the last would be first; the insiders would realize they were not known to God, while the ones they had left outside would be welcomed. It’s not that God wants people to misbehave, seeking out opportunities for godlessness and immorality.  But God has no stomach for empty piety or people just playing at righteousness.  

The people most likely to come earnestly seeking forgiveness are those who know they are sinners. Those who understand the depth of their need for grace from God and from their neighbors. Those who believe they are spiritually healthy and morally fit think they can take care of themselves. They have no need for God, much less a community that is willing to come alongside them in support.

Guys – if we practice autonomy from God and others in this life, it makes sense that we would be left to ourselves in the life to come, exhausted in our selfishness.

If we seek out forgiveness and support, honest about the ways we fail, offering up ourselves in service and willing to receive help from our sisters and brothers, our nurturing God will see that vulnerability and welcome us into a place of rest.

Being born again is not about saying the right words and being seen in the right places, it is about becoming truly free to be yourself, free from your pride and anxiety, and set free for giving and receiving the love of God and other human beings.  

It’s not complicated. In fact, we can understand it when we look at the font and the table in front of us.

The waters of baptism are where we are claimed and named as God’s children. Where we are sealed and cleansed, remembering that the one who came to show us love was baptized in water.  God said to him “this is my son, in home I am well pleased.” Remember friends, You are God’s children, in whom God is well pleased. This water is a symbol of God’s justifying grace.

And every time we come to the table, sharing a meal in communion with God, in community with the Body of Christ, we remember Jesus welcomes us, nourishes us and sends us to find other hungry children.  It is a reminder of the ongoing, sanctifying Grace at work in our lives.

Really, the directions Jesus gave us for getting to heaven are pretty simple.

Love God.

Take care of each other.

Remember me.

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