(A sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter based on Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35)
We’re talking during this Easter season about crossing the lines. So far we have talked about crossing the lines between who Jesus is and who we are and about crossing the lines between life and death. Today we turn our attention to crossing the lines between earth and heaven.
We talk a lot about going to heaven. We think of heaven as our goal, as the end result of our pilgrimage with Christ on earth. Obviously, we are very limited in what we can know about heaven. We stand in awe at the wonder and mystery of heaven. The Bible uses the most beautiful words and images that it can in talking about heaven but those words and images cannot get the true picture across.
I do believe that we make a positive shift in our thinking when we think of heaven not so much as a place but rather as a state of being. When we get to heaven we will be complete; we will be everything that God intends for us to be. While we are here we are to be growing into who God intends for us to be. Because we have been saved by God and because we follow Jesus Christ and because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can be growing and changing and maturing. When that happens, heaven is breaking into our lives now. Heaven breaks into our lives because God has broken into our lives.
When you get right down to it, heaven is really all about God’s presence with us and about our presence with God. John had a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). God told John that he was “making all things new” (v. 5). Paul talked about how “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The new heaven and the new earth will be the transformed and completed and mature versions of the heaven and earth that exist now. We will be the transformed and completed and mature versions of the followers of Christ that we are now.
In John’s vision of the culmination of all things, he saw “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (v. 2). Then the “voice from the throne” said, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (v. 3). When all things are as they should be, God will be with us completely and with no barriers caused by sin or doubt or confusion. Oh, that will be heaven for me and you when we can commune fully with God.
While we have to wait for heaven to experience full communion with God, we don’t have to wait for communion with God. God is already with us now. He came to us in the person of his Son Jesus. He remained with us through the resurrection of Jesus. He is with us now through the presence of the Holy Spirit with us. Because he is with us here and now the line between heaven and earth can be crossed here and now. Great things can happen when that line is crossed. Great things can happen because we can experience breakthroughs that will take us farther down the path of being mature believers and complete disciples.
Let me mention just a couple of the major developments that can happen when the lines between earth and heaven are crossed and they really are major.
We will come to love each other better. On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus was preparing his disciples for the new reality they would face when he would no longer be physically present with them. He told them that they could not go where he was going. He declared that God was being glorified in him; God’s great attributes of love and grace and forgiveness were being made obvious in him through his impending death and resurrection. He wanted them to know how he could be glorified in them; he wanted them to know how it could be obvious to the world that they belonged to him. He said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Heaven breaks into our earthly existence and the lines between earth and heaven are crossed when we love each other with the kind of love that Jesus has for us. What does that kind of love look like? It is self-giving, sacrificial love that thinks of the other person before it thinks of itself. Jesus gave up his home in glory and entered our earthly frame; he was utterly obedient to his Father for his entire life; he willingly died on the cross for our sake. He wanted to serve God by giving himself up for us. So our love is to be like his love; indeed, our love is to be his love. It is forgiving love. The love of Jesus is characterized by radical forgiveness. Are you holding something against a brother or sister? Would Jesus hold on to it or would he forgive? The love of Jesus is forgiving love. It is active love. The love that Christ puts in our heart is more than a feeling; it leads to acts of love on behalf of one another. Such love goes beyond hoping for better for someone; it tries to make that better thing happen. We glorify Christ with active love. As Eugene Peterson put it in his lyrical way, “Each act of enduring faith and sacrificing love, frequently begun in the dark and long continued in the shadows, somewhere in the course of its enactment, flashes with the color of its final plenitude” [Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (HarperSanFrancisco: 1988, p. 181)].
When we practice such love for one another within the fellowship of the church the lines between heaven and earth are crossed. But we need to acknowledge something more.
When those lines are being crossed, we will come to love others better. By “others” I mean those outside the church. When Peter had his vision of the sheet coming down from heaven, he really experienced a crossing of the lines between earth and heaven. In his vision that sheet came right down from God to him. The vision and its meaning as given to Peter by the voice he heard addressed an important issue for the early church: would Gentiles be included as full participants in the life of the church? Before action can be taken on such matter, attitudes need to be addressed. What attitudes about other people do we have that need to be addressed?
Too often we are afflicted by the problem that the man had who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” We want to be able to frame a definition of neighbor that will allow us to exclude folks we don’t like or who don’t like us or folks who aren’t like us or who we aren’t like. Peter was a product of his environment and culture just as we are. When he was told to kill and eat animals that his tradition considered unclean, he was appalled. But the word came to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This exchange happened three times so as really to drive the point home. And it was just at that moment that messengers from the Gentile Cornelius came to Peter asking him to go with them to the household of that person that Peter would have also regarded as “unclean.” Who do you regard as “unclean” today? Do you need to be reminded that no one is outside the reach of God’s love and grace?
Heaven truly breaks into this old earth when human beings like us get the truth that God really does love everybody and so must we.
The experience of a little bit of heaven here on earth is more available to us than we know. Heaven comes down when God’s love is known, seen, and practiced in his children.