Almost fifteen years ago I was working at a Toronto church and helping coordinate the Out of the Cold program on Friday nights in the city’s east end. My role was to recruit volunteers, manage the evening of guests, volunteers and city staff and ensure everything unfolded as it should. I usually stayed until all the guests had eaten and then found a mat, blanket and pillow and were fast asleep. On one night I was approached by a guest who could not fall asleep, he asked if we could have a word in a quiet space. This man had been raised in a Christian home, as a family they had attended church three times a day. During those years the constant refrain of the Pastor and the church was “Jesus is coming soon, we’d all better be ready to make an account of ourselves when he arrives.” The Bible stories this man remembered all came from the book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. The church services were always apocalyptic. In our mainline churches we can all be a little dismissive of such talk but to them it was not fearful or scary, rather they believe their Lord and Saviour is coming, for them. What a blessing.
But…time passed and no Jesus. As I listened to this man I could not help but wonder if his Pastors had read the texts that said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). So as this man entered his 20’s he became rather cynical about all of this “end times” talk and skeptical any of it made sense. He began to read books that questioned the literal interpretations of the Bible; that world was very old, that human life was likely the result of evolution, not an Adam and an Eve, that the sea did not part, that many parts of the Bible sanctioned punishment no sane person could endorse, that the followers of Jesus, like him, expected Jesus to return in their lifetime, and he never did.
So this man, like many others, became an atheist. He was very angry about the church and what it was teaching, he thought it was all a crock and anywhere and anytime this man had opportunity he would debunk, deconstruct, another’s faith.
In his 30’s this man started to drink and drink a lot. The drinking eventually led him to lose his job, then his family and finally all of his friends. He hit rock bottom and that’s when got connected to Alcoholics Anonymous. While AA does not officially endorse Christianity or any specific faith group this man reconnected to his Christian roots, except this time it was different. Rather than experience faith as a holy remnant poised to be rescued by a Second Coming this man now began to feel Jesus in his heart, a personal connection, where Jesus was healing, directing and protecting him. There was no judgment about others or gathering of a community set for divine transition, instead it was all about Jesus and him and what Jesus was doing for and to him. The prayer life this man developed was focused entirely on a personal relationship.
That worked great and into his 40’s and 50’s life went swimmingly well for this man. But one day he received a call from a woman who told him that when he was in the midst of his addiction they had been together a short time and she had become pregnant. Because he was living in a shelter at the time she had decided not to tell him about her baby. She raised her son on her own and life had not been easy. The son got into trouble, hung out with some rough characters and eventually found his way into a life of crime. At 20 this young man had killed another man. He was sentenced to life in prison.
This man who sat before me was a father and he was living with the guilt of not being there for his son and the fear of what would become of his only child. He had “fallen off the wagon” and returned to his addiction, it was the only solace for the deep pain he felt. I asked him what I could do to help. He looked up at me and said, “Pastor, I left my apocalyptic faith behind me but what I could not shake was the idea of who went to heaven and who went to hell, you know the folks Jesus called sheep and goats. Is my son going to hell for what he did?”
Christopher Morse, Union Seminary theologian, author of our study guide for this summer’s preaching series “The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel News” says that the concept of heaven remains one that highly divides Christians and non-Christians alike. He points out that the modern mind is scientific and thus skeptical of claims that Jesus will return, end this world as we know it, and replace it with something holy other, a New Jerusalem, a brand new city inhabited only by persons deemed worthy by our Saviour. On so many levels that story makes no sense to us; how would this “other life force” enter into our universe, on what basis would this Saviour decide who was in and who was out, and what would make now seem so right to return? And of course on the other end of the spectrum there are Christians, like the ones who raised this man I referenced just now, who truly believe that there is a Saviour who will come, who will divide our world between us and them and surround us with a brand new world, a world that looks just like the Roman Empire as described by John in the Book of Revelation.
Morse says that most Christians today fall somewhere in between these extremes, they have no deep interest or desire in an End Time, nor do they imagine we are all alone in the universe, that we are randomly created by evolutionary forces. They/we believe in a God who seems to operate primarily on a personal, inward, basis, healing one soul at a time. That is the reason so many Christians today never stop to consider that age old question “why would a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The answer is simple, if your relationship to God is entirely personal then how God deals with others is not your concern but when you get sick or challenged then the question, “What did I do to deserve this!” becomes real.
As I mentioned last Sunday Morse goes back to Jesus and his claims of a coming kingdom, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and asks us to consider heaven as an in-breaking of a new world into our present world. Morse himself puts it more clearly, “What faith hears as Word of God in the Bible is news of a coming future that does not correspond to present experience.” Maybe this heaven that is promised is not so much the end as it is the beginning. “This reveals the constancy of the future’s commitment to the present, an historical faithfulness not realized in factually demonstrable phenomena, but in the existence of perseverance in hope en route to the Promised Land.”
If heaven is breaking into our “real world” then we as faith-filled people are called to recognize it when our eyes see clearly, celebrate it with each other and to let the world know that it is not the way we are supposed be, heaven is. I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s final speech, when he was speaking to a packed church hall one rainy night telling his audience that in spite of all the death threats, attempts on his life, the beatings, the harassment of his family and loved ones, that he would have it no other way because God had revealed to him a glimpse of the Promised Land.
I believe there is hope because God has allowed all of us to have a glimpse of the Promised Land, a heaven that includes all of us, redeemed by God’s merciful and abundant love. In our text this morning we heard Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and a concern from some believers for those who had gone before them if Jesus were to come again now. Paul reassures them that God’s love is infinite, that those who had gone before would participate in the same heaven they would. “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (verse 14).
What I said to that man I spoke of earlier, the one who was living with the fear that his son who had committed murder would go to hell, was to remind him of Jesus’ search for the lost coin, the lost treasure, the lost sheep, the lost son. Jesus’ merciful love was to search for the lost, to redeem the sinner, to seat the uninvited, so that a heavenly banquet was constituted by the host who cares for the least of these. Yes there are texts that reference goats and sheep, not to mention several other contrasts between the saved and the lost, but would a Saviour like Jesus ever cease to seek, to find, to redeem, to love, to forgive and to bring everyone to the banquet table? I think I know the answer. And because my relationship to God includes others, includes others not like me, I want others to be there. A table for a sinner like me without the other lost souls is no table to me, no table to the One who gave us all new life.
I leave you with these familiar words from a grand old hymn:
Jesus, the Saviour, this gospel to tell, joyfully came;
came with the helpless and hopeless to dwell, sharing their sorrow and shame;
seeking the lost, saving, redeeming at measureless cost.
Jesus is seeking the wanderers yet; why do they roam?
Love only waits to forgive and forget; home! weary wanderer, home!
Wonderful love, dwells in the heart of the Father above. Amen.