Well, here’s some good news. There is really a heaven. It does wait for us after we die. It also reaches from beyond the grave into this day, this place and touches our world, moves through us now.
You don’t get into heaven because of the good things you have done, or even because of the good life you have led. You get into heaven because of the relationship God has with you, because God loves you. And you see heaven through the lens of Christ, because you trust Jesus.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was very concerned with getting into heaven. He was afraid that, because he was not good enough, God would be very angry and throw him into hell. Luther was tormented and afraid. He joined a monastery, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, studied the Bible till he had a PhD. Still didn’t help until he noticed this passage in Romans: “For we hold that a person is justified, that is, made righteous, valuable, important, meaningful, beautiful, significant, loved, by faith, that is, in the midst of a relationship of trust with Jesus Christ.” Luther said he felt as if he had been born again and had entered paradise through open gates.
Around that time in his life, Luther proposed a list of ninety five subjects for debate. The ninety five theses we remember as having been posted five hundred years ago. They were very boring. But the led to a conversation that gave rise to some very big questions, like:
“How do we use Scripture to find out about God? Do we depend on one person, backed up by the best scholarly minds of the age? Or do we open up the conversation to the best scholarly minds, plus everyone else?
“How do we show Jesus to the world? Do we let the pastors or the priests do it? After all, they have been trained, or can an auto mechanic show Jesus to the world, or an accountant or a nurse? Can we show Jesus to the world by being a mother, an aunt, a friend, a grandfather, a deeply concerned citizen?
“Are there places and times and actions and people that are completely righteous? Or is everyone both saint and sinner at the same time?
It’s been five hundred years. A lot has changed since Luther’s day. The place of women has changed in society. Now, women run businesses and teach in universities. Women vote and women hold office.
Our understanding of the physical universe has changed. In Luther’s time, people thought that the earth was the center of the universe, that the sun orbited around the earth. Now, we know that the sun does not orbit around the earth, but that the earth orbits around the sun, and that the sun, in turn, orbits around a central point in the middle of the galaxy, which, we have found recently, is occupied by a gigantic black hole millions of times as massive as the sun.
Our ideas of government have changed. In Luther’s time, the divinely ordained means of governing was primarily the king or emperor. Now, even if people don’t live in a democracy almost everybody wishes they did. Democracies tend to engage in fewer wars of conquest. They take care of their people better. Our views on government have changed.
Our questions haven’t changed. How do we use the Bible to find out about God? Do we take the whole thing literally? Is the whole thing just symbolic? Is there another way? Yes, there is. We look at the Bible to find out who Jesus is and what he is like so we can recognize him in our lives and the world and follow.
How do we show Jesus to the world? Is that the job of the pastor? How do people find out about Jesus, really? They find out by how we treat them. That’s how they find out.
How do we deal with the fact that all of our human endeavors, all of our human institutions are broken and sinful? Do we give up hope, turn to cynical apathy? Do we say, “No, my way of doing things is good and yours is evil. My group of people is good and cannot be criticized, while yours is evil.” Or do we understand that everything is both good and bad at once. Which means that everything can be and must be improved. We are all on a journey. But we are all also human, capable of love. We are sinners and saints at the same time.
And what about getting into heaven? We don’t talk about it much in public, which is part of why I like this TV show. It’s a comedy but it raises some really good questions. Are we all so superior as to presume that we would get in because of the good lives that we lead? Of course, God would let us in. Do we all have a right to get in? Are our attitudes and systems of governance, economics, family and entertainment so very much above reproach?
Or do we get into heaven because God loves us? Because Jesus comes into the most despicable parts of our souls and our ways at the cross and brings us into a relationship of trust there, a relationship of intimacy and hope that annihilates the whole thing and brings it back again, new, transformed, different, loving?
Yes, heaven is real. It waits for us beyond death. It also reaches into our lives, this place, this moment, touches us and sweeps up into its work today.