Friday, May 1, 2015

Citizens of Heaven (Phil.3:17-21;11 Cor. 5:1-5) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes:  “While our family was leaving Disneyland, after a fun day, our sons Tyler and Cory, ages six and two were walking hand-in-hand behind my husband and me.  We overheard Tyler tell his younger brother Cory, "This is what heaven is like--except it's free!"

In the summer of 2004, 75 year old Fred Smith of Dallas, Texas, was hospitalized in a semi-conscious condition and not expected to live.  Family members heard him repeat, "I want to go home…I want to go home."  After an emotional family conference, they concluded that they should respect his wishes and not take extraordinary measures to keep him alive.  For the next 36 hours, this Christian family read Scripture, prayed, and said their goodbyes.   His daughter Brenda sat with him till midnight.  Coughing finally broke through Fred's deep sleep and he suddenly awoke. 
Brenda told him of the family's decision to follow his desire to "go home."  She explained that he would gently slip into unconsciousness and then God would welcome him into his heavenly home. Suddenly, Fred's eyes opened wide and he said: Brenda, “I didn't mean heaven, I meant my home, you know, my home on Parkchester Drive." Laughing through tears, we took him back home.

A question which has haunted the minds of men and women down through the ages, was asked by Job in the Old Testament: “If a man dies, will he live again?”  As a pastor, I have spoken to many people over the years about their attitude toward death.  People have different perspectives about it.   Age is an important factor, whether you are young or elderly.  Having dependent children living at home is another significant factor.  

The subject of death is ignored by many, welcomed by others as a blessing, because it means an end to physical or emotional suffering, and for still others death is feared.  Some don't fear death per se, they fear dying.  “How am I going to die, will it be sudden and painless or prolonged and agonizing?”  Others fear dying alone, where no one is with them in the final moments, where no one knows or cares that they have died.  Sadly, some people have seen death as a way out of a hopeless situation and have committed suicide.   Some people believe death means the end, our complete extinction and others believe life continues on in some mysterious and unexplainable way.

The entertainment industry has addressed the notion of mortality and death.   In the 2007 film The Bucket List, two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of “to-dos” before they die or as they say before they "kick the bucket."   Nicholson reflected following the film:  “Jack Nicholson, on of the key characters, reflects on the movie: “We all want to go on forever, don't we?  We fear the unknown. Everybody goes to that wall, yet nobody knows what's on the other side. That's why we fear death.”

I have personally ministered to grieving families over the years.  I have been with people in their final moments before death.  I have experienced the death of both of my parents and I can say that we are never really ready when that moment arrives, when the last trumpet sounds.  It always takes us by surprise and comes as a shock.

If one dies, will one live again?  For some the answer is a flat no. “You only get one ride, so get over it, just deal with it.” But that's not the only response.  Cultures have postulated other answers, because for some the idea of total extinction is unacceptable and unjust. 

Our culture offers symbolic immortality as an answer, symbolic modes of living on.  For instance, there is the biological/biosocial mode, living on in our family, in people's memories, in our children, grandchildren, city, village, town, or nation.  There is also the creative mode, living on in one's accomplishments like having a school, like Kate Sessions Elementary or a hospital, like Ellen Browning Scripps named after you, living on in your inventions, writings, movies, music, art, philanthropy, or in having built something, whether a playhouse for a child or the Freedom Tower in  New York City, the tallest scyscraper in the Western Hemisphere.  Comedian Woody Allen said:  “I don’t want to achieve immortality by my work.  I want to achieve it by not dying.” 

Further, there is the nature mode, living on by becoming one with the natural world, the land or the ocean, where our molecules are re-absorbed into nature.   Others find comfort in the notion of reincarnation, living on in another form of life. What do you think of symbolic immortality?  For Christians it may or may not bring comfort and assurance about the after-life. 

For Jesus' followers, the basis of our hope, the ground of our confidence, our assurance about a life beyond this life comes from Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, stories about the appearances of Jesus following his resurrection, the testimony of witnesses, and the teachings of the scriptures.  The historical event of the resurrection and the testimony of the Bible, the word of God, is the foundation of our assurance of the life to come in heaven.

Our Christian faith and the scriptures declare the truth about the after-life, eternal life, everlasting life, glory.  Here again the words from the letter of Philippians:  “For as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their appetite, and their glory is in their shame, their mind is on earthly things.   But our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ; who by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, who sits at the right hand of God believed in and taught about heaven.  Jesus says:  “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”   Jesus’ prays: “Our Father who art in heaven” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasurers in heaven.” 

In II Corinthians we read:  “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

I Peter says: “By God’s mercy, we have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven.”   Faith in Christ the resurrected Lord, gives us a divine perspective through which we can look at this life and the life to come.   We have a dual citizenship.  We are citizens of the United States and citizens of heaven.

What is heaven like?   We read in I Corinthians:  “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.  Now we know in part, then we will know fully even as we are fully known.”  What will you see, what will you know?  You will see Jesus, face to face, God face to face.  What will you know?   Perhaps the answers to your questions.  And don't we all have questions?  I can say this to you with confidence, in the life to come, you will see and you will know.

You will be with Jesus in the Father’s House.  “Hear those moving words of Jesus’ promise – Believe in me.  In my father's house are many rooms, I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it weren't not so, and after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  

What an inspiring promise.  Heaven is a gathering of the faith community, the communion of saints.  Just as Jesus appeared to his followers following his resurrection, and they recognized him  and interacted with him and ate with him, so heaven means for his followers that it will be a time of reunion with Jesus, friends and loved ones.   Heaven is a realm where you will be forever released from pain and suffering, from fear and death. 
The Bible teaches that in heaven we will receive a new body.  Think about that.  Does that get your attention?   We will not at death be reabsorbed into the universe, like a drop in the ocean.  Our individual identity, created by God, will continue.  I Corinthians says:  “Some ask, with what kind of body will I come to heaven?  We read in I Corinthians:  “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable, what is sown is mortal, what is raised is immortal, what is sown is physical, what is raised is spiritual.  What is sown in dishonor is raised in glory.  What is sown in weakness is  raised in power.  If it is sown a physical body, it is raised a glorious body.”   We will be clothed with a heavenly dwelling.

Hear Jesus’ marvelous promise: “Because I live, you shall live also.” “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”   

Death, even acknowledging the grief that accompanies it, should not be feared or dreaded.  It should rather be seen as God's final gift of grace, because beyond death lies a glorious heavenly homecoming when we shall be with the Lord and others, where we shall dwell in the house of the lord forever, and where we shall live as citizens.   

I close with a quote from the great evangelist Rev. Billy Graham:  “When I arrive at heaven’s Gate, God will not be impressed by the many crusades I have conducted.  God will not be impressed that I spoke to more people than anyone in the history of the Christian Faith.  I come to the Gates of Heaven like anyone else—in Jesus Christ and His all sufficient, sacrificial, substitutionary death on the Cross for my sins.  We will be in heaven by the stripes on the back of Jesus Christ, not by any stripes, badges, medals or honors that we have been awarded.” This is the good news of this Easter season.  Amen! 

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