Advent III, 2020
The Rev’d Isaac Petty
St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City
I’ve seen a lot more death in recent weeks than I had anticipated seeing at this point in my life. I suppose it’s odd, being the son of a funeral home owner, that I have not been confronted with so much death before. However, I now find myself in patient rooms as they take their final breath, a holy moment that is accompanied by many emotions and family concerns.
Saint Luke’s Hospital began, to overly simplify the history, out of the ministry of this parish nearly 140 years ago. I now serve there as a chaplain intern, and one of the kinds of visits I have all-too-frequently is pastoral care at the time of death or when care is withdrawn. Because of the pandemic, Covid-related deaths only add to the number of calls we receive and, being where we are culturally, a question both dying patients and their family members ask is to inquire about the nature of Heaven or to assure them of their heavenly destination.
Fr. Charles spoke two weeks ago about death among the four Last Things in this Advent sermon series (with Judgment last week, Heaven today, and Hell next week). The recording of Fr. Charles’ sermon on death is out online, so I won’t rehearse what he said here, except to remind us that Christians have already died with Christ in baptism. Fr. Charles also referenced one of the prayers in our prayer book for use at the Commemoration of the Dead, which reads “life is changed, not ended;” and it continues, “when our mortal body doth lie in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens” (BCP 349).
Discussions of Heaven aren’t reserved for the time of death. In fact, heaven isn’t about us and our destinies so much as it’s about the will of the Maker of heaven and earth. Now, I do not claim to understand the architectural details of Heaven, and I truly don’t intend to turn this nave into a lecture hall, but I do intend to share what I think is compelling reason for us to start talking about heaven in our everyday life. Heaven is not about death, but it truly is about life.
Scripture offers many different images for describing heaven and many books on many bookshelves are filled with speculations and interpretations. Put most simply, a common theme in the Bible is that heaven is God’s space, where everything is ordered according to God’s will. Heaven is filled with God’s holiness, which leads to several images, such as heaven being filled with light, the shining glory of God; and picturesque streets of gold, to show the richness of God’s royal kingdom; and depictions that it is filled with angels, whose job is eternally praising God. All of these depictions give us some idea of the kind of space God inhabits – one where everything is glorifying God and enjoying God forever, to paraphrase the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Our own Catechism teaches us that heaven is eternal life, and specifically the eternal life in which we enjoy God (BCP 862). You know, Jesus talked about eternal life. In one of the most commonly known verses of Scripture, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3.16 NRSV). Jesus immediately follows this line with a discussion of light entering the world but humanity choosing darkness. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus concludes with Jesus saying “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3.21 NRSV). Deacon Isaac, what does all of this have to do with heaven? Good question! You see God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1.5), and we understand heaven to be filled with God’s light. But, thankfully, that light does not just stay in heaven.
Appropriate for Advent, we are concluding the daily, Low Masses here at St. Mary’s by reading the beginning of John’s Gospel, including some of the verses in the Gospel I just proclaimed. This section of Scripture tells of the true light, coming into the world, to enlighten others. Likewise, the Creed we will say in a moment reminds us that Christ “came down from heaven.” Christ brought that heavenly light into the world and, as St Matthew tells us, he proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven had come near.
Heaven and Earth are as different as night and day, quite literally, and yet heaven comes to earth. God’s light shines when heaven and earth overlap. Heaven may be a separate dimension that breaks into earth, our space. Heaven’s light, with its clean, pure, and loving reality becomes visible, even in our dark and sin-filled world, because of Christ’s presence. The work of Christ that began at his incarnation continues by the Spirit in the work of the Church as we await his coming again. At Christ’s impending return from Heaven, which we are especially mindful of during Advent, heaven and earth will be made anew, into one space, where nothing and no one is outside of the will of God, in which God is all-in-all, and all of creation is filled with God’s light. Heaven-on-earth is eternally filled with life and the glory of God.
When someone on their deathbed asks me about going to heaven, I don’t often have the time to talk through four hours through a theology of the afterlife, but I feel comfortable talking about the joys of heaven that await them, because heaven comes to earth, and at the resurrection of the dead, heaven and earth will be one and all made anew. The Kingdom of Heaven will be the dominion into which the dead in Christ shall rise. As the Creed reminds us, not only did Christ ascend in heaven after his resurrection, but “he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; [his] kingdom shall have no end.”
The Good News for today is that we don’t have to wait for the day of the resurrection of the dead to experience heaven on earth. When the will of God is done, through glorifying God in the Church or by proclaiming the justice of God’s reign in the middle of an unjust society, we are catching glimpses of heaven coming to earth.
In a few moments, after the bread and wine have been consecrated, we will join our voices in praying the prayer Our Lord taught us, asking for Our Father’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Those gathered here will then commune with one another and the faithful from every age as we feast on Christ, who comes from Heaven and gives us that “grace and heavenly benediction” for which we pray. Those joining online will pray, too, for that spiritual communion, wherein God’s heavenly grace may be apparent as you prayerfully join in God’s ever-present embrace and see the glimpses of heaven made available to you where you are. May we all continue to grow in God’s “love and service” as we become “partakers in [that] heavenly kingdom.” Amen.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!