August 19, 2018 Reflection
John 6:51-58/ Ephesians 5:15-20
In Life, In Death, In Life Beyond Death…
Today, we will be talking about heaven; so, let’s start with some heavenly jokes. One day, a highly successful executive woman was hit by a car and went to heaven. At the Pearly Gate, St. Peter said, “You’re the first executive who came up here and I don’t know what to do with you.” She said, “Just let me in.” Peter said, “Okay, we have rules up here. You are to spend one day in hell and one day in heaven, and then decide where you want to spend your eternity.” She went down to hell; she saw all her old colleagues and friends, who welcomed her, at a beautiful golf course and a fancy restaurant where she ate lobster and steak. Even the devil was nice to her. The next day, she spent a day in heaven, frolicking in the clouds, playing harps, and singing. When it was time for her to make up her mind, she said to Peter, “I didn’t think I would say this, but I’d rather be in hell.” She went back to hell and found a wasteland with her colleagues in rags. The devil came to her and she said, “But yesterday, everything was beautiful, and we had a great time.” The devil smiled and said, “Yesterday, we were recruiting you; today, you’re staff.” Here’s another one; Father Murphy walked into a bar and said to the first man he met, “Do you want to go to heaven?” “Yes, I do, Father.” “Go stand against the wall.” Then he asked the second and the third man, who all said, “Yes, Father.” They all went to stand by the wall. Then Father asked O’Tool, who said, “No, Father.” “What? I don’t believe that you do not want to go to heaven when you die.” O’Tool answered, “Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now.”
Have you ever met someone who brought great joy to your life? Just the thought of them brings you joy, lights up your heart, and makes you smile. It could be a romantic partner or a friend. I want you to close your eyes and think of such a person for a moment. (pause) I have been lucky to have had several of those people. One of them is my best friend and kindred spirit Mike, who got married here two years ago. Whenever I think of Mike, I feel grateful because he is a gift from God. My heart also becomes warm and full of light. I miss him all the time, and all year round, I think of when I could go to him or he could come to me. This is what happens when you share special love with someone; this is what an intimate relationship looks like.
Speaking of intimacy, when Jesus says he is the bread of life and that we should eat his flesh and drink his blood, there is a sense of intimacy oozing from that language. Of course, it also feels weird, hearing about eating his flesh because we’re not cannibals; and cannibalism is frowned upon in most societies. This intimate relationship with Jesus, and through Jesus, with God, brings us joy, warm feeling, gratitude, and other things that come with any special and intimate relationship. In verse 56, Jesus says, “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” Remaining in each other is about living in an intimate relationship. This language also alludes to the sharing of bread together as a community. Those who share food and drink together are a community; eating together is an expression of intimacy and love.
Jesus says, this intimate relationship with him will lead us to eternal life, but what is eternal life? What does eternal life, or heaven, mean to us? Traditionally, we are taught that if we accept Jesus Christ as our personal saviour, we will go to heaven when we die, and that heaven is the kingdom of God. Therefore, babies or severely disabled people dying without being baptized was considered a serious thing. In the medieval ages when there were more infant deaths than now, especially during childbirth, and men were not allowed in the birthing room, there was no way of baptizing dying babies to save their souls because all priests were men. So, the Church came up with the solution to give the midwives the authority to baptize babies in the birthing room, if the babies are not going to make it. For the medieval Catholic church with strict rules about everything to give the midwives the authority to perform a sacrament demonstrates how serious old time Christians considered the fate of our souls. According to this traditional belief, those who are not baptized will not go to heaven. On the other hand, if you have been a baptized Christian but didn’t lead a Christian lifestyle of love, humility, and compassion, or if you get baptized at your deathbed no matter what kind of life you have led, it was believed that you would go to heaven. In this traditional theology, eternal life means going to heaven after death, implying they didn’t pay much attention to how you live in the mortal world.
There is more than one thing that is wrong with the traditional belief on salvation, heaven, and eternal life. First, “receiving Jesus Christ as one’s personal saviour”; this theology only sees Jesus as the saviour of our individual souls, disregarding the fact that the gospel of Jesus goes beyond personal salvation or piety and extends to the communal dimension of faith. Originally for the people of Israel, salvation was not about an individual salvation; it was the restoration of their nation as God’s chosen people. But even for us Christians, Jesus Christ is not only the saviour of individuals. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a social gospel because it is full of teachings on how to live together with one another; it focuses on equality and social justice. Second, this traditional theology fails to address the connection between the mortal world and the world beyond. When Jesus taught about the kingdom of God in the four gospels, although John’s gospel doesn’t use the word “kingdom”, it includes both our community in the mortal world and t he life beyond our bodily death. As I keep emphasizing, God’s kingdom starts in our mortal world in the community of disciples who follow Jesus. We are taught to live the kingdom lifestyle in our mortal world before we can go to the heavenly realm.
Kingdom lifestyle means we live as Jesus taught his disciples; with the principles of humility, love, compassion, and justice. It comes from having an intimate and loving relationship with God. The Ephesians text we read today includes some of the kingdom lifestyles; not acting thoughtlessly, being filled with the Holy Spirit, singing hymns and making music to the Lord, and giving thanks. Being thankful and joyful are closely connected. We rejoice because we are grateful. Both for Paul and the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 111, living in an intimate relationship with God and the attitude of thankfulness go together. Just like I am grateful for my friend Mike and the thought of him fills me with light and joy, if we share an intimate relationship with God through Jesus, we will be filled with gratitude and joy; and of course, joy leads to joyful singing. What we read in today’s Ephesians text is a foretaste of what is to come after death. In fact, our kingdom lifestyle is a foretaste of what is to come. We believe in God who is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death, as we profess in the New Creed of the United Church of Canada. Salvation and eternal life are about God’s will being done “on earth as in heaven”; it’s about living in a community of love, compassion, humility, and equality “on earth as it also is in heaven.” It is to be the incarnation of God’s love to one another, here on earth, as the result of our intimate relationship with the God of love.
Belonging to God’s kingdom is about living out the kingdom values and sharing the heavenly joy here on earth; the “never ending joy” as we sang earlier. It is about living in an intimate relationship with God and being guided by the Holy Spirit, who will challenge us to live out God’s unconditional love. It is about experiencing the heavenly joy with one another by sharing food and love, and humbly serving one another. When we share time, space, and food together, let it be the foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is waiting for us; full of joy, love, and angelic songs. Believing in the God who is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death, let us go out into the world and live out the bliss of the heavenly banquet on earth, as it will be in heaven; by humbly loving and serving one another, sharing our resources and joy, delivering hope to the marginalized of our world.
Rev. Sunny Kim