A sermon preached on November 11, 2007 based upon Luke 20:27 – 40, on the occasion of the reception of new members, entitled, “Meeting in Heaven.”
The story recounted in this morning’s Gospel reading is recorded in three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which makes it likely that the passage contains actual words spoken by Jesus. This story is unique in so far as it is the only passage in which Jesus speaks directly about the nature of what we call the “after life”, or life after death. Which in turn begs the question, why didn’t Jesus talk more often about what life beyond death would be like, given the natural curiosity I think we all feel?
I think the answer is found in the fact that our human language and our human concepts are simply too small to contain the mysteries of what is to come. The apostle Paul describes in passing in 2 Corinthians 12 some kind of out of body experience he once had, in which he was “caught up in the Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (12:4) The great medieval theologian Thomas Acquinas, author of thousands of pages of brilliant theology, had an experience some kind of powerfully mystical experience towards the end of his life in which he encountered God directly, and afterwards he refused to write anymore, saying all his words were “just so much straw.”
The “Sadducees” referred to in this morning’s Gospel lesson were wealthy, established people in the community. They are not oppressed. For them, life in this world was good, and they felt no need to imagine another world beyond this one. The goodness of this world was enough. For the Sadducees, the notion of a life beyond this life seemed ludicrous. And so they attempt to show how foolish the concept is with what is essentially a trick question. In the life to come, they ask, whose wife will the woman be who has had seven husbands? They are too small minded — too literal minded — and Jesus says as much. They are like both modern day religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and modern militant atheists on the other.
And yet the question does touch something that I think most of us wonder about when we ponder the mystery of what lies beyond death, which is, will we be with our loved ones again? Will wives be with husbands once more, will our parents be there, and all others we have loved? Do these relationships continue into eternity?
Jesus‘ answer to the Sadducees seems to imply that, Yes, we will be with our loved ones beyond death. And yet, the relationships will be transformed — it will not be merely a continuance of what we knew here on earth. The institution of marriage, for instance, is a provision given to us in this world that becomes, in some sense, unnecessary in the world to come.
A man named Don Piper wrote a book entitled “90 Minutes in Heaven.” Don is a Baptist minister who, several years back was in a horrible head-on collision with a huge truck while driving his car in the rain on an icy bridge. The EMTs who arrived on the scene originally concluded that Don was dead, and he was left unattended to while they waited for the arrival of the coroner. During this time Don had a glorious vision, which was for him so strange and yet personal that it took him several years before he felt right about trying to put it into words and share it with others. I want to read now to you extensive portions of his words from the second and third chapters of his book:
Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension of description… In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate. I have no idea how far away they were; such things as distance didn’t matter. As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but I did see people I had known. As they surged toward me, I knew instantly that all of them had died during my lifetime. Their presence seemed absolutely natural.
They rushed toward me, and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, intuitively I knew they were my celestial welcoming committee. It was as if they had all gathered just outside heaven’s gate, waiting for me.
The first person I recognized was Joe Kulbeth, my grandfather. He looked exactly as I remembered him, with his shock of white hair and what I called a big banana nose. He stopped momentarily and stood in front of me. A grin covered his face.
“Donnie!” His eyes lit up, and he held out his arms as he took the last steps toward me. He embraced me, holding me tightly. He was once again the robust, strong grandfather I had remembered as a child.
I’d been with him when he suffered a heart attack at home and had ridden with him in the ambulance. I had been standing just outside the emergency room at the hospital when the doctor walked out and faced me. He shook his head and said softly, “We did everything we could.”
My grandfather released me, and as I stared into his face, an ecstatic bliss overwhelmed me. I didn’t think about his heart attack or his death, because I couldn’t get past the joy of our reunion. How either of us reached heaven seemed irrelevant. I have no idea why my grandfather was the first person I saw. Perhaps it had something to do with my being there when he died.
After being hugged by my grandfather, I don’t remember who was second or third. The crowd surrounded me. Some hugged me and a few kissed my cheek, while other pumped my hand. Never had I felt more loved…
More and more people reached for me and called me by name. I felt overwhelmed by the number of people who had come to welcome me to heaven. There was so many of them, and I had never imagined anyone being as happy as they all were. Their faces radiated a serenity I had never seen on earth. All were full of life and expressed radiant joy.
I saw my great-grandfather, heard his voice, and felt his embrace as he told me how excited he was that I had come to join them. I saw Barry Wilson, who had been my classmate in high school but later drowned in a lake. Barry hugged me, and his smile radiated a happiness I didn’t know was possible.
As I try to explain this, my words seem weak and hardly adequate, because I have to use earthly terms to refer to unimaginable joy, excitement, warmth, and total happiness. Everyone continually embraced me, touched me, spoke to me, laughed and praised God. This seemed to go on for a long time, but I didn’t tire of it.
My father is one of eleven children. Some of his brothers and sisters had as many as thirteen children. When I was a kid, our family reunions were so huge we rented an entire city park in Monticello, Arkansas. We Pipers are affectionate, with a lot of hugging and kissing whenever we come together. None of those earthly family reunions, however, prepared me for the sublime gathering of saints I experienced at the gates of heaven.
Those who had gathered at Monticello were some of the same people waiting for me at the gates of heaven. Heaven was many things, but without a doubt, it was the greatest family reunion of all.
Everything I experienced was like a first-class buffet for the senses. I had never felt such powerful embraces or feasted my eyes on such beauty. Heaven’s light and texture defy earthly eyes or explanation. Warm, radiant light engulfed me. As I looked around, I could hardly grasp the vivid, dazzling colors. Every hue and tone surpassed anything I had ever seen. With all the heightened awareness of my senses, I felt as if I had never seen, heard, or felt anything so real before. The best way I can explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension. Never, even in my happiest moments, had I ever felt so full alive. I stood speechless in front of the crowd of loved ones, still trying to take in everything.
I wasn’t conscious of anything I’d left behind and felt no regrets about leaving family or possessions. It was as if God had removed anything negative or worrisome from my consciousness, and I could only rejoice at being together with these wonderful people.
My great-grandmother, Hattie Mann, was native American. As a child I saw her only after she had developed osteoporosis. Her head and shoulders were bent forward, giving her a humped appearance. I especially remember her extremely wrinkled face. The other thing that stands out in my memory is that she had false teeth — which she didn’t wear often. Yet when she smiled at me in heaven, her teeth sparkled. I knew they were her own, and when she smiled, it was the most beautiful smile I had ever seen.
Then I noticed something else — she wasn’t slumped over. She stood strong and upright, and the wrinkles had been erased from her face. I have no idea what ages she was, and I didn’t even think about that. As I stared at her beaming face, I sensed that age has not meaning in heaven. Age expressed time passing, and there is no time there. All of the people I encountered were the same age they had been the last time I had seen them–except that all the ravages of living on earth had vanished. Even though some of their features may not have been considered attractive on earth, in heaven every feature was perfect, beautiful, and wonderful to gaze at.
I felt loved–more loved than ever before in my life. They didn’t say they loved me. I don’t remember what words they spoke. When they gazed at me, I knew what the Bible means by perfect love. It emanated from every person who surrounded me.
I stared at them, and as I did I felt as if I absorbed their love for me. At some point, I looked around and the sight overwhelmed me. Everything was brilliantly intense. Coming out from the gate–a short distance ahead–was a brilliance that was brighter than the light that surrounded us, utterly luminous. As soon as I stopped gazing at the people’s faces, I realized that everything around me glowed with a dazzling intensity. In trying to described the scene, words are totally inadequate, because human words can’t express the feelings of awe and wonder at what I beheld. Everything I saw glowed with intense brightness. The best I can describe it is that we began to move toward that light. No one said it was time to do so, and yet we all started forward at the same time.
It was as if each step I took intensified the glowing luminosity. I didn’t know how it could get more dazzling, but it did. It would be like cracking open the door of a dark room and walking into the brightness of a noonday sun. As the door swings open, the full rays of the sun burst forth and we’re momentarily blinded.
I wasn’t blinded, but I was amazed that the luster and intensity continually increased. Strange as it seems, as brilliant as everything was, each time I stepped forward, the splendor increased. The farther I walked, the brighter the light. The light engulfed me, and I had the sense that I was being ushered into the presence of God. Although our earthly eyes must gradually adjust to light or darkness, my heavenly eyes saw with absolute ease. In heaven, each of our senses are immeasurably heightened to take it all in. And what a sensory celebration!
A holy awe came over me as I stepped forward. I had no idea what lay ahead, but I sensed that with each step I took, it would grow more wondrous.
Then I heard the music.
As a young boy I spent a lot of time out in the country woods. When walking through waist-high dried grass, I often surprised a covey of birds and flushed them out of their nests on the ground. A whooshing sound accompanied their wings as they flew away.
My most vivid memory of heaven is what I heard. I can only describe it as a holy swoosh of wings.
But I’d have to magnify that thousands of times to explain the effect of the sound in heaven. It was the most beautiful and pleasant sound I’ve ever heard, and it didn’t stop. It was like a song that goes on forever. I felt awestruck, wanting only to listen. I didn’t just hear music. It seemed as if I were part of the music–and it played in and through my body. I stood still, and yet I felt embraced by the sounds.
In those minutes — and they had no sense of time for me — others touched me, and their warm embraces were absolutely real. I saw colors I would never have believed existed. I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then. I was home; I was where I belonged. I wanted to be there more than I had ever wanted to be anywhere on earth…
I paused — I’m not sure why — just outside the gate. I was thrilled at the prospect and wanted to go inside. I knew everything would be even more thrilling than what I had experienced so far. At that very moment I was about to realize the yearning of every human heart.
During the momentary pause, something else changed. Instead of just hearing the music and the thousands of voices praising God, I had become part of the choir. I was one with them, and they had absorbed me into their midst. I had arrived at a place I had wanted to visit for a long time; I lingered to gaze before I continued forward.
Then, just as suddenly as I had arrived at the gates of heaven, I left them.
Don Piper returned to his body and proceeded on a long, very difficult journey, with extreme pain and enormous frustration. It was a journey that was not immune from many temptations to despair, despite the wonders he had seen in his vision. And as I said before, it took him quite some time to even attempt to describe what he saw to others.
In contrast to the family Don Piper describes with their enormous and happy reunions, I come from quite a different sort of family. I have only one first cousin, whom I haven’t seen in forty years. My parents were divorced when I was 12, and the members of my original family are spread out with a good deal of distance between us. There are a range of motivations that led me into the ministry, but one of those motivations I know was the hope that within the church I would find the kind of extended family I had largely missed out on in my biological family, and here in Parsippany, that is indeed what I have found.
Fourteen years ago I came with Sarah to the altar of God; accompanying Sarah was her six year old daughter named Kate, and accompanying me was my six year old son named Andrew. We made covenantal vows to one another, and these vows included our children. Two years later God added Bobby to the equation, and over the years we have sought to learn the lessons of what it means to truly be a family, hanging in their together in good times and bad, practicing, and I mean, practicing the art of love. I expect to see Sarah, Kate, Andrew and Bobby in heaven one day, but I also hope to see you there as well.
This morning we held another ceremony of covenant before the altar of God. Bill, Deana, Beverly, Bob, Jim, Rita, Russ and Ruth, made vows to this congregation, and we made vows to them. We made a soul connection this morning. We declared our intent to live together in whatever time we have left on this earth in such a manner that when we find ourselves making that final journey from earth to heaven, whoever died first will be a part of that celestial welcoming committee that receives us on the far side.
I have written a number of eulogies in my time, and something I have noticed is that almost always, in the remembrance of the one who has died, it is primarily the good stuff that gets remembered. In the fragile tenderness of getting ready for the funeral, it is the good times and the good qualities that enter into our consciousness.
Now, given that we are all a mixture of good and bad, virtue and vice, it might seem that there is something distorted about this manner of remembering — the fact that the person eulogized generally ends up sounding like a saint. But I believe there is a truth in this kind of selective remembering.
We are on a journey of becoming. Words are inadequate to fully describe the nature of the becoming. Jesus spoke in this passage of becoming “like angels”, but what exactly an angel is like — well, that’s a mystery for sure. We could say it is a journey to become like Christ, and that is true, for the journey we are on involves learning how to embody the same love that was within Jesus. But in this journey we will, in the end, still be our unique, distinct personalities, not just little would-be Jesus imitators. When we get to heaven, the “us” that arrives will be the very best of what we were on earth; the stuff that blocked the best stuff will be left behind.
And so I think in our earthly remembrances of newly departed loved ones, we are already sensing the great becoming which happens in small ways in the course of our journey on this earth, and then, I believe, in an absolute sense in the moment of our death, when everything that is not of love falls away, and we become transparent to the light that shines from God’s eternal love.
“When we’ve been there, ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”