Looking for the World to Come

November 7, 2021 / All Saints Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer

First Reading Isaiah 25:6-9 / Second Reading Revelation 21:1-6a / Gospel John 11:32-44

2021-10-17 Pentecost21
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Looking for the World to Come

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Together we speak the concluding words of the Nicene Creed. Most of us have repeated them countless times. How often have you pondered what they mean? All Saints Sunday is an invitation to consider “the life of the world to come.” Saints are those who have crossed over from time into eternity, who are at home with God, who are resting in perpetual peace. What is heaven like for them – and for us?

Heaven has been trivialized: as in cartoons when characters meet their doom and suddenly sprout wings and ascend – or in the New Yorker Magazine, where the departed find themselves on a cloud, musing about their fate.

Heaven has been sensationalized in best selling books like The Late Great Planet Earth and Left Behind.

Heaven has been sentimentalized, as that good place where good people get to go and get to enjoy all the pleasures they enjoyed on earth – only more so.

Heaven has been de-emphasized by some theologians as an unnecessary distraction from God’s more important work on earth, here and now.

And for fear of saying more than we know, or stating something that’s inaccurate or incorrect, we often choose to say nothing at all about heaven.

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Now maybe it’s simply because I’m getting older, but heaven looms larger in my faith and understanding. In the scriptures heaven is more than an afterthought – more than something overlooked or secondary to the main focus on the here and now. The premise of heaven gives shape and meaning and purpose to the entire story. The bible presents a glorious beginning in God’s creation and a glorious conclusion with God’s ultimate salvation. To leave heaven out of the story would be like ending the gospels on Good Friday – without any Easter joy.

When we look around at this world as it is, where suffering and sorrow and injustice and pollution and cruelty are an ongoing, relentless fact of life – we can wonder: Is that all there is? God assures us that the answer is “NO!” By no means! We yearn for more than what is, to become more than what we are - and this longing is fulfilled by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. We have been promised salvation: forgiveness for our sins, victory over death, peace that passes understanding.

We can all join with St. Augustine in praying: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” The story we are sticking to is this: We come from God, and we are going to God. This is the premise we affirm at funerals, when we commend our loved ones to God. Yet this promise is not good news only when we are in grief – it is the very best news at all times. It is the gospel news of our salvation. We are saved from the guilt of sin and from the fear of death. God’s perfect love casts out all fear.

The hope of heaven empowers us to persevere through all the challenges, disappointments and sorrows that come our way. Heaven is not a fantasy or a luxury. Heaven is a necessity, because it comes to us as a promise from God.

If God is truly for us , a God of both justice and mercy, then this life alone is not sufficient for God’s will to be accomplished. This side of heaven, we all continue to sin and fall short. Redemption is not completed or fulfilled in the here and now. A biblical story of salvation makes sense only if it ends well. Death was not the end for Jesus – and neither can it be the end for us. If Christ is not raised from the dead, our faith is futile. Likewise, if you and I will not be raised to share in the life of the world to come, then our faith is again, futile.

Pie in the sky theology, which leads some to affirm that what happens here in this life really doesn’t matter because one day we will be happy in heaven, is bankrupt. This theology is the bad news that slave owners preached to slaves. It’s the cruel message of the rich to the poor. Equally hollow is a theology that suggests that any talk of heaven is obsolete, irrelevant, and unnecessary – a sentimental myth that can cause us to neglect God’s work in this world.

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All Saints is a resurrection celebration. Theologian Carol Zaleski reminds us how Christ broke all the accepted metaphysical rules:

On his way down from heaven, Christ broke the rules of divine decorum; on his way down to Hades he broke the law of death; and on his way up to heaven he broke open the gate that separates the changing world from the eternal world. And he let the human riffraff in.

We, the riffraff, are also the saints of God. On this day we celebrate not only Christ’s resurrection, we celebrate the resurrection of all the saints of God – past, present and future.

We proclaim there is a heaven to come, because on this side of heaven there is too much unresolved injustice, too many unchallenged lies, too much innocent suffering and death. On this day we are reminded that God promised a salvation that is complete and enduring – an end to all that is ungodly. Listen to the promises God has made:

  • “The Lord will swallow up death forever.”

  • "The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”

  • "The disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.”

  • “Death will be no more.”

  • “Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

Our Lord assures us: “See, I am making all things new.” These are not empty words or hollow promises. At the Last Supper, the night before his crucifixion, Jesus spoke these words to his disciples – and they are meant for us as well:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

These are words to us of blessed assurance. Could there be a clearer statement of what Christ intends for us? There is nothing sentimental here. These are God’s words of grace for us. To believe in God is to trust God’s promises – including the promise of abundant life in heaven.

What is heaven like? Like God, heaven is beyond our capacity to understand. St. Paul says this:

“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

A few thoughts on heaven from Carol Zaleski:

  • If our picture of heaven fails to inspire longing and delight, the problem is not with heaven, but with us – we have not pictured it right.

  • Why should we expect something of such surpassing goodness as heaven to fit our minds in a believable way?

  • Entry into eternal life means being remade in the image and likeness of the One who made us, being transformed by the renewal of our minds.

All Saints Day brings together our sorrow and our joy. Our sorrow is genuine. Hope doesn’t cancel all grief. Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. And we know the grief of being separated by death from those we love. No one gets through this world without experiencing pain and sorrow. Our joy is also genuine. We rejoice in our hope as we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. So we sing Easter hymns at funerals.

We don’t know many details about life in the world to come. It is enough to know and trust that the world as it is does not tell the whole story. The best is yet to come. The prayer Jesus taught us to pray will be answered in full: God’s Kingdom will come. God’s will will indeed be done. God will finally and completely have his way. At that time, God will announce (as we heard in Revelation) “It is done.”

How we long to hear such hopeful words. One day we will say of this pandemic: It is done. Likewise for hate and cruelty, for sin and death: It is done. Our lives in this world will have an ending. So will the world itself.

Today we give thanks for all the saints who now rest from their labors. But God is not resting. God has not completed the work of salvation. God promises to bring his good work to completion. The story which has such an amazing beginning will have an even more spectacular completion. It happens on a universal scale:

God created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good.

God will bring a new heaven and a new earth – our eternal home.

And it happens for each of us personally. It begins with the miracle of our birth and our baptism into Christ. It will be brought to completion with our resurrection and redemption.

Together, we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come!

Thanks be to God.