Have you ever noticed that when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God or eternal life - the ways and places where God's reign in breaking-in on earth through him - he seldom speaks in rationalistic or objective terms? Rather, Jesus clearly prefers to speak of the reign of God in poetic and suggestive imagery: it is like a small seed growing secretly, leaven mixed in dough, a lost coin, a discovered pearl, a wedding banquet, a Good Shepherd, a second birth.
And so, in our story today from John's gospel Jesus speaks metaphorically of our future life with him. Jesus seeks to comfort and reassure his disciples on the night before he was to be crucified. He tells them that in his death he is going ahead of the disciples to prepare a place for them with God.
It is a beautiful passage from the Gospel. Perhaps it is most familiar to us as a favorite Bible passage so often read at funeral services. "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places... 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, you may be also."
This is poetical imagery meant to convey realities far grander than our critical faculties could understand or imagine if left to their own devices. And it is Thomas - a man ahead of his times, a kind of a patron saint of modern scientific skepticism - it is Thomas who says: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we?" Modern translation: "Lord, we don't know what in the heck you are talking about."
Well, what is Jesus talking about? How do we hear the metaphor of the Father's house?
Actually, this is traditional Jewish terminology for heaven. Jesus is not simply speaking of life after death, or even the promise of life after death, but the nature of that life after death. Heaven, not as a place or destination or location so much as a relationship, living with God forever in the world that is and the world that is to come.
And in this "house" there are "many dwelling places." The King James Version says it this way, "in my father's house are many mansions" which to our ears sounds unhelpfully like palatial abodes. I am going to get to live in a big beautiful McMansion in heaven if I am good! Umm, no. What the Greek words "many dwelling places" mean here is that there is a lot of room in heaven. It's a big place - a vast spaciousness for many to abide with God in perfect union and peace. God has made it so.
But what is most arresting to me this week in re-engaging this oh-so-familiar text is that Jesus casts his metaphorical image of heaven in the context of a journey. People of faith are going somewhere. Always. Going ahead to a place is - once more - a Jewish type, a familiar picture of what it is to be the people who belong to God.
It is Abraham who goes ahead to prepare a place for the people of God to a Promised Land. It is Moses who leads the people out of Egypt, going ahead to this same land of Canaan. It is seen over and over in Scripture. And this typology is finally fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth who goes ahead of humanity in ushering in the reign of God, eternal life, on earth as it is in heaven. And Jesus secures - guarantees - our eternal destination through his cross and resurrection. To be a Christian is to understand your life is wrapped up in that, to understand your life is enveloped in a much larger story of a people who are always moving forward to a final destination. And what we are moving toward is heaven.
So, why don't we feel more comfortable and confident talking about heaven? I am almost embarrassed thinking about how infrequently I address this ultimate destination in sermons except in funeral services. But should not the promise of heaven be there always before us? This life on earth as we experience it now does not compare to what awaits us then.
While I could not possibly collapse all the church's and Bible's teaching about heaven into a single sermon, I will share that I fervently believe in heaven, and I am not afraid of being dead. I certainly do have major anxiety thinking about the process of dying! But beyond that, no. I believe I will live forever with God in a kind of aliveness that this life of mine now and this aging body now can only dimly approximate. I believe that. I want my family and my friends and my church to know I believe that. I am not afraid of what lies beyond the grave. And more than that, I believe something extraordinarily good lies beyond the grave.
It is far more than saying, "Oh, in the end, all will be well." Or "he's in a better place." We believe in far more than resolution to this life's pain and brokenness. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the transformation of all creation. And believing that ought to change our ultimate perspective on any pain or brokenness we are experiencing now. It is not irredeemable. It is not defining. It is not ultimate.
My hunch is that as our eyes are really opened when we see the new heavens and put on those new bodies and become truly ourselves, as the fullness of Christ's resurrection life overtakes us completely at long last, we will at once shudder at what a hollow shell we had been on earth and now breath-takingly wonderful it is to be finally complete in heaven.
If that or any other picture of heaven does not create within us a deep sense of longing and expectancy, then it is not heaven that has failed us as much as our trust in Jesus's own promises and our spiritual imaginations.
But perhaps with St. Thomas and so many in our day characterized by disenchantment and skepticism of anything that is not scientifically provable... Yes, we may long for heaven, but since we cannot prove it... Well, do we ignore it? Or do we probe further?
But what if the question is not how or where or what but who?
I often share with others in times of great sadness over the loss of loved ones, we cannot know precisely what heaven is like. But we can know what God is like because we can know who Jesus is.
And the great good news of who Jesus is, is that he is the revelation of the God who does not wish any to perish but all to have eternal life. Our God is the one who offers promises like, "I prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be also." God wants to be with us for eternity! That is the journey we are on; that is the place to where we are going! And whose voice and whose leadership is more trustworthy in all the world than Jesus'?
I grew up in a small town in rural eastern Virginia. My father was something of an outdoorsman, and he began taking me quail hunting as an adolescent. We would take our hunting dog, our shotguns and drive off to some friend's farm up the country. And we would get out and start walking, usually along the edges of large soybean fields. Frankly, we only rarely scared up a covey of quail, and even then, we usually missed hitting a bird.
So, there was a lot of walking with my father. I have memories of these walks to this day, chatting with Dad, and also looking over my shoulder to see his old pickup truck disappearing over hill or around a big stand of trees. And onward we walked, it always seemed far away from our vehicle and not in a way that would get us back to it. Where were we going and where would we end up? But my father knew these fields and these farms, and so I stayed with him. I trusted him more than I trusted my own mapping skills or the immediate environment. We always returned safely because he knew the way.
I think the gospel is just like that. And I am very much looking forward to walking with my father again in heaven, when it comes in full for me and for this world. I think about that joyous reunion as well as others I am looking forward to a lot. And so, I look ahead with deep yearning.
And I think this forward-looking hope has present practical consequences. First, I would hope that a vigorous vision of heaven helps me be more compassionate toward the world and other people, even when they hurt or disappoint me. It is a gift of grace to realize that not only am I a mere approximation now of who I will become, but others are and this world is as well. The Holy spirit may help us to see them as they will be, too. To speak again poetically, to see others already robed in the white garments of heaven, so to speak, is to become a more loving person.
And a second practical, here-and-now consequence of believing in the reality of heaven is perhaps the most obvious: trusting that sin and brokenness and death will not ultimately defeat us. No sickness or sorrow or death or any other adversity has final authority over us. The Gospel.
This is a Christ-shaped and Christ-shaping universe, far grander, more bristling with glorious energy than we can fully see. St. Paul says it like this: "Now we see in a mirror only dimly, then we shall see face to face." To walk by faith through the journey of life is to know the Father is leading the way by sending to us the Son as our navigator, our savior. This is Easter faith. This is our hope; that what begins in this life does not die in death, but is reborn into our consummation beyond this life. Jesus promises us that there are many dwelling places, much roominess in heaven. Jesus assures his disciples that there is a unique place reserved for them, as well as for you and me. May that promise be enough to sustain us in all things in this world, and grant us never-ceasing wonder, hope, and joy over the life to come.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, we have your own words, your own promise that you came into the world that we should not perish but have everlasting life. Strengthen our faith in your resurrection life that we trust this promise as the central truth of all reality - the ongoing, organizing principle for our lives, the compass setting the orients all we are, including our sickness, suffering, and sin to your light and life which we will enjoy forever, thus making us now, on the journey, people of hope. In your name, Amen.