Rev. Megan Huston
Nov. 2, 2014
1 John 3:1-3
3See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Just two months shy of his fourth birthday, Colton Burpo, the son of an evangelical pastor in Imperial, Nebraska, was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix. What followed was a near death experience where Colton, upon his recovery and return home, described a visit to heaven- an encounter with his grandfather there, an unborn sibling, and even Jesus himself. It wasn’t long before his pastor father, Todd, decided to write a book about the experience which was a wise move on his part. What followed was a storming success. The book has sold more than 8 million copies and been made into a film which as of April had grossed 14 million dollars.
Clearly, there are a lot of people interested in Colton’s story. And with good reason. We all have a genuine interest in what happens when we die. And we are desperate for some proof that our hope in the future has merit.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… I will come and take you to myself. These words from the Gospel of John describe a future hope that there is something beyond this life. It is likely that 1 John, while probably not written by the same author as the Gospel of John, probably emerged from the same community from which the Gospel of John was written and therefore is dealing with many of the same themes. One includes this idea of hope for a future, a participation in things eternal.
On the day we remember our saints who have gone before us, we consider this future hope a little more deeply- we wonder about the home of those we love who have died, and we become a bit more aware of our own mortality, wondering about this mystical future place, where we are promised to meet God.
It seems to me that some people find it more natural than others to talk about the afterlife. I am amazed at the amount of detail that some will share about where they will be and who they will meet upon death. But there are others, who are a bit more timid, preferring to live into the mystery of death, not out of doubt, parse, but remaining open to the largeness of God and the limited nature of our human existence. I find myself mostly in the second category- open to what God can do, but unwilling to put many concrete adjectives to heaven. And so I find comfort in 1 John’s description of future hope, what we will be has not yet been revealed.
I find myself suspicious of stories about death and I think the real reason is because I am pretty passionate about the topic of life. It seems that many Christians focus on future hope to the exclusion of present hope which we also find in both the Gospel of John and the epistle of 1 John. The Gospel of John emphasizes the importance of now when Jesus says to Martha “I am the resurrection & the life” The present tense of the verb, “I am” indicates the importance that now is resurrection, now is life. And 1 John underscores the importance of the present by describing, “Beloved, we are God’s children, now.”
But maybe it isn’t that our hope is founded in the present or the future at all. Maybe the hope we share transcends time and invites us to participate in eternal things that are actually both now and then.
Which is why as I started to think about All Saints Day and how we would celebrate it in our church that the truth for us today is not so much about death as it is about life. After burying many saints over the last several weeks, I don’t feel immersed in death but I feel inspired by life. As we become more in touch with what it means to be human, to live in these bodies that will one day turn to dust, I wonder, what does it mean to really live? And is it possible that we could participate in the kingdom of God not just then but also now?
David Bartlett talks about the love of God as our present promise, saying that, "we do not know for sure what God gives us at the end of life and what God gives those we love, but we do know for sure what God has given us now: astonishing love−love that makes us God's own children. And having loved us to the end, surely we can believe that God loves us beyond the end as well." So maybe the real issue is not now or then but beyond now and then. And what remains is the promise that love never ends.
And so while I have no testimony to the decorum or the menu in heaven, I do believe that when we participate in the love of God that we are participating in something beyond now and then. So rather than a story about a near death experience, I would like to share a near life experience that I know to be true and I believe to be not only past tense, but present and future tense as well.
A group of concerned community members in Bowling Green became worried when there were so many bitterly cold nights last winter. While most of us were enchanted by the luxury of being snowed in, others were walking the street with no home, and so they just kept moving to keep hypothermia from setting in. And so back in the spring a group of church leaders gathered to discuss if we could help. Would it really be possible to invite the homeless into our churches and offer them warmth in the coldest months of the year?
It was a process to make the decision. First, church members had to show interest and be willing to invest their time into the project. The board would have to examine the details of the ministry and if had the resources to do it. Ultimately, we found the resources in our permanent fund, a ministry provided by many of our saints who have gone before us. The youth room was the perfect place to host because a group had a vision several years ago that the space would not just be for our youth, but I don’t know how or who or why but someone said before you all ever knew about Room In the Inn that you wanted to create a space where someday a ministry to the homeless could take place. And so in two weeks time we will invite 12 homeless men into our church for warmth. For a meal that will not just be served to them but shared with them, around a table, a different sort of communion that links giver and receiver and transcends any divide between the two. Volunteers will sleep on the same cots that the clients sleep on and before they leave for the day they will receive both breakfast and a lunch to go.
This is our witness to life. Our witness to faithful Christians who believed in us enough to leave significant financial gifts to the church, trusting that we would find a way to participate in eternal things. This is our witness to love that never ends. This is our using human bodies to do heavenly tasks. And I believe that on Friday November 21st, the saints will be in the youth room around the dinner table.
As we remember our beloved saints today, who have met God and are a part of eternal love, I believe our call is to live more fully and love bigger than ever. And so our question today is not what happens when we die? But what happens when we live?