This is week 1 of the Lent sermon series, “Love Wins,” based on some of the ideas in the book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. Therefore, you will find several references to the book in the sermons of the series. Enjoy!
A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’
Love Wins. This is what we will be talking about over the next 6 weeks- this idea that the good news is better than that- that the good news of Jesus Christ is love, not condemnation- that the good news is that love is the key to understanding who God really is. Just the other night at dinner, Corey asked me why I chose to do this series during Lent- a time of spiritual preparation, reflection, and repentance- a time of turning back to God. I told him that these questions we all have about heaven, hell, salvation, and why Jesus came are the questions that we all ask at some point along the way- these are the things we wonder about and struggle with and no matter how hard we try, we will not have all the answers…no one knows exactly what happens when we die, what it will be, what it will look like, how we get there, how soon we will go, what God’s role is in all of it. Some of these questions get at the very heart of who God is and what God is like. And at the heart of it all is this key to the Christian faith that I believe is in danger of being lost to our culture wars and divisions today, and that is simply that “love wins.” Love is the answer. Love is the final word. So right now all we can do is seek, wonder, and ask these questions together. Some of the ideas that you will hear in this series might be brand new to you. Some ideas you will hear will challenge you and will perhaps go against something you have been taught your entire life about the after life or God or salvation. Some of the things we will talk about will make you question the things you have heard and perhaps have adopted into your beliefs- that’s ok. I believe that the discussion and questioning itself is divine- it is a gift from God that we can reflect and be challenged together. One thing is clear about this concept of Love Wins- that we need to reclaim the story of Jesus- why he came, what his message was, and what he did for the world. For so long the message has been one of condemnation and that one needs to have “correct belief” in Jesus to enter into heaven- if not, hell it is. That is not the God I have experienced and have to come know- that is not the Jesus I know or the good news he brings to the world. So let’s explore together about this idea that Love Wins and ponder the tough questions about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
When I was growing up, I was never taught really anything about the afterlife. I would hear people say things like, “She’s in heaven now,” or “He’s in a better place,” and I would hear about angels and guardian angels and even went through a phase where I thought we had ghosts in our house, but I was never really taught anything about what happens when we die. I’m sure I wondered and had questions, but I chose to embrace the questions rather than try to find out exactly what happens after this life. When my mom and I began attending temple and adopted our Jewish faith, I learned that the Jewish faith (at least the branch of Judaism we were a part of) didn’t really have a concept of the afterlife. Instead of focusing on what happens when we die, the idea was to live a righteous life on earth here and now. When a person dies, the thought was that the person lived on through their good deeds and the memories and stories shared by people who loved them. This is why every year, on the anniversary of the person’s death, their names are read aloud in the temple and the Kaddish (mourner’s) prayer is said each service- to keep the people we love alive in our hearts. Heaven (or hell) is just simply not a concern in the Jewish faith since the focus is on how life can be best lived here and now for God and others. I always liked this idea and it made sense to me.
So you can imagine when I began to explore the Christian faith that the concept of heaven was very very strange to me. In fact, even now as a Christian pastor I struggle with my concept of heaven. Is it an actual place we go when we die? Is it a state of mind? Is it here on earth? Is it something that we hope for? Is it the experience of God and the peace that passes all understanding that we won’t experience until this life is over? The Bible has so many different ideas about the concept of heaven, especially in the New Testament, that it’s hard to really pin down what heaven is, what it looks like, and what Jesus is talking about when he mentions the kingdom of Heaven. But I find myself believing in heaven, and in fact, having many definitions of heaven. That’s the thing about heaven- it’s a divine mystery and promise, and a beautiful one that we can explore together.
As a Jewish kid growing up in Tennessee, the question I often got was, “Are you saved?” Let me tell you, I always looked like a deer in headlights with that one. And for many Christians, that is the question. Saved from what? From whom? From where? Christian salvation has become something so far removed from what I believe it actually means and has taken us away from the real purpose of Christian life. This question, “Are you saved?” has made the Christian faith self-centered and lacking in the following of the greatest commandment of loving God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. For many, to be saved means to be saved from burning in hell, saved from the wrath of God, saved by the blood of Jesus who took the punishment we deserved, saved from God’s punishment upon us…well to that I ask, “What kind of God is that?” I’ve heard people ask at a funeral, “Was she saved? Did she believe in Jesus?” When the answer is “No,” or “I don’t know,” a person responds, “So there’s no hope then.” No hope? Is that the Christian message? No hope? Is that what Jesus offers the world? (Love Wins, 3). And so often salvation comes down to a formula for faith, having a specific set of beliefs, praying a particular prayer, being baptized, or “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” when none of these so-called “formulas” are outlined perfectly for us in scripture because faith is more than that. God is bigger than that. We are meant for more than that. This idea of salvation needs some redefining.
Our United Methodist heritage teaches us that salvation is something that God does for us by grace through faith and something that we strive for ourselves and others. Salvation is in this life and the next- it is that which moves us closer to God each day by what we choose to give back to God through our devotion and how we live and act in this world. Salvation is also a promise to us in the next life that we strive to move onto perfect love- reaching that moment of pure saving grace where we are one with God and share in God’s glory….whatever that might look like. Perhaps salvation is also being freed from every obstacle to intimacy with God- we will know that we are known and love as we are loved (If Grace is True). Salvation is freeing ourselves from our own obstacles so that God is ever present and guiding our lives. When the rich man comes to Jesus with his question, “What must I do to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and then later, “Who can be saved?” he is really asking Jesus a rhetorical question about who can possibly remove every obstacle to oneness with God, and Jesus’ response is “With God, anything is possible.” Salvation then is something that we strive for and work toward, and a gift that God offers to us, free for the taking. Salvation means that love wins.
But the rich ruler who approaches Jesus isn’t just concerned about who can be saved- he leads with the question, “What must I do to inherit internal life?” and throughout the gospels we see Jesus teaching about the kingdom of heaven, what it is like, who will enter it. He also talks about the present age and the age to come. Well, what in the world is Jesus talking about when he talks about heaven? Again, I think that heaven is something we need to re-define and reclaim because it seems that we have lost sight of its meaning in the midst of our cultural understandings. I read the book Heaven is for Real a few years ago about a 5 year old boy who awakens from a near death experience and tells his family in detail about going to heaven and meeting Jesus. There are countless stories like this out there, and it’s hard to tell if this was really something they experienced or a dream or vision- that’s the thing about heaven- no one really knows what it is or what it looks like- it is a mystery. But if we read closely, Jesus gives us a glimpse of heaven…but it might not be the glimpse that we have become accustomed to. If you google the word “heaven,” you will get many pictures that look like this (pic)- heaven as an other worldly type place with light and clouds, being suspended in space and time, sometimes with golden streets and rainbows- I even saw a picture in my search with a unicorn (pic)…sometimes a suspended cross…a staircase into the sky…things that do not exist in our world as we know it.
But for Jesus, heaven was deeply connected with what he called “this age” and “the age to come.” The rich man wasn’t asking about how to get to heaven when he died- it wasn’t his concern. People in Jesus’ first century Jewish world did not talk about a future life somewhere else because they anticipated instead a coming day or age when the world would be restored, renewed, redeemed. They anticipated peace on earth. Jesus then doesn’t come to tell people how to get to heaven- he tells them how to live in this age and the age to come that they might bring about this age of peace and redemption. Today, we might call this “age” eras or periods of time. And another way of saying “life in the age to come” was “eternal life”- Hebrew phrase “olam habah.” The man’s question then to Jesus was about how to live better in the age to come, or possibly about how to help usher in the new age. The word for “age” is “aion,” which does not mean “forever” like we have come to understand the word “eternal.” “Aion” was a word that meant an undetermined period of time. That’s what Jesus means when he talks about the age to come (LW, 31).
People of Jesus’ day hoped for an age to come where peace would reign on earth- life in the age to come would be heaven on earth- an age where all people and nations come together and God will swallow up death, war, and pain forever- where all will partner with God to usher in this age to come, when God says no to injustice, pride, violence, rape, division, intolerance, exploitation, disgrace, hunger, disease- this is the day of the Lord- the day that God says enough (LW, 37).
But in order to celebrate the promise of the age to come, we must confess our role in corrupting the world (LW, 39). When the man comes to Jesus and asks how to enter the kingdom, Jesus’ response is basically, “How do you make sure you’ll be a part of the new thing God is going to do in the age to come?” The answer is to live the commandments, to live how God wants you to live, to become a person of peace and justice, participating in ordering the world, making order out of chaos, standing for peace and love. Jesus tells the rich man that greed has no place in the age to come- that is the man’s problem he must face in order to enter the kingdom of heaven and be a part of it (LW, 41).
Jesus also talks about and uses the term “heaven” as another name for God. In Jesus’ day, the name of God was never used out of tremendous respect- one of the ways people got around this was to substitute the word for “heaven” in place of “God.” When Jesus talks about “the kingdom of heaven,” or “sinning against heaven,” he is simply referring to God in another way (42).
Jesus also affirms heaven as a real place, space, and dimension of God’s creation where God’s will and only God’s will be done. Heaven is the realm where things are as God intends them to be. Jesus, the prophets, Jewish tradition, what people lived and hoped for was the day when earth and heaven would be one- when they would be the same place (Rev. 21- “God’s dwelling place is now among the people”). All of this means that our multiple understandings of heaven affect how we understand what we do here and now in this age. To take heaven seriously means that we must take the suffering of the world seriously right now and be willing to do something about it. It means that we must figure out how we can play a role in bringing heaven to earth here and now. Jesus is interested in our hearts being transformed now so that we can handle heaven. He wants us to prepare ourselves for it by living into what it means to set aside our worldly obstacles and pains- heaven has the potential to be a kind of starting over- learning to be human all over again- a life with no fear, where loving your neighbor is the only option.
We also learn through Jesus that Heaven is full of surprises- the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast worked through dough to make bread, a banquet where the most unlikely guests have the invitations, where the first become the last and the last become the first. And Jesus wants us to be part of it- whether heaven is within the blink of an eye or as far away as the day when heaven and earth are one- heaven is here and now and also something we hope for- Jesus came so that we might know peace- that we might co-create a world of Shalom with him.
Rob Bell writes that “When Jesus talks about heaven, he’s talking about our present, eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come- not just “someday” but a present reality- “eternal life doesn’t start when we die- it starts now- it’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”
So what’s standing in our way of heaven? What obstacles do you have that might be keeping you from experiencing heaven here and now? What gifts can you offer for the sake of the kingdom here and now? What is your role in ushering in the kingdom on earth?
“There’s a heaven now, somewhere else. There’s a heaven here, sometime else. And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place” (62). We might not know what the heaven of the future looks like. We might not know exactly what happens when we die- that is uncertain. But we do know there are glimpses of heaven now- there is community, joy, new life, gifts of love and mercy, acts of love and charity- heaven is as simple as being in the embrace of a friend or loved one, or as extreme as an act of sacrifice on your behalf.
So the question of the wealthy ruler remains: Who can be saved? Who can enter the kingdom of heaven? Each one of us! How do we get there? By getting rid of everything that prohibits us from intimacy with God- by tearing down the walls that divide and separate us from others, by setting aside our pride and greed and need for wealth and success. By being open to the glimpses of heaven on earth. By being a part of building up the kingdom of God. By believing the good news- that Love Wins.
This is the first Sunday of Lent- may we enter into this season with humility. May we make it about ways that we may begin building the kingdom of God here and now that we might experience it in the age to come just as Jesus had hoped. May we enter into this season reflecting on how we might draw nearer to our Lord and Savior, proclaiming the good news for all, that love wins.