Easter 6: Heaven is here

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 21:10, 22; 22:1-5)

Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (John 14:23-29)

As a “welcome-to-Iowa” gift from my sister, she sent both Matt and me Iowa-themed t-shirts from a fantastically hip little t-shirt studio in Des Moines. My shirt is purple, is covered in standardized test bubbles, and those bubbles are strategically filled out to spell out the word “Iowa.” Underneath, the tag line says, “we test your basic skills.”

Matt’s t-shirt is far less complicated. It is black with white writing, and it quotes the movie Field of Dreams: “Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.”

“Is this heaven?” It’s an apt question for us in these days of Easter, while we bask in the glow of Christ’s resurrection and look for new life as it springs up around us, however slowly. Indeed, Christianity itself is oriented around a belief in life beyond life and the restoration and reconciliation of creation. And whenever we start talking about all of this stuff, we are really talking about the nature of this thing we call “heaven.”

We hear a lot of talk about heaven these days. In the last year, the media has clamored to tell the stories of two different people who claim to have seen beyond the veil of death into heaven.

Newsweek featured the testimony of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon whose brain was attacked by a rare illness, sending him into a sever coma. In this essentially dead state, Dr. Alexander reports catching a dazzling glimpse of a life beyond life, an existence beyond body and brain, something that he could only describe in terms of heaven and afterlife.

And all the morning shows plugged the book, Heaven is for Real, the account of a young boy’s near-death experience, where he came to and described an experience of being with family members who had passed away, sitting on the lap of Jesus, hearing angels singing to him, and seeing the Virgin Mary standing next to Jesus in heaven.

Both of these fantastic stories paint a picture of heaven that fits with a lot of popular Christian thought, that heaven is a far-off place which is waiting for us beyond death. Add to this understanding any cartoon depiction of heaven, and you get an other-worldly place filled clouds and harps and blue skies, and naked cherubs with fluffy wings.

A theology of a far-off heaven implies that heaven is an escape; it is something other than this existence, something detached and distant from this world. If you’ve spent any time with the books in the Left Behind series, you know that there is a strong strain of popular theology that understands heaven as a reward for suffering through this life, and a special, set-apart place for the truly faithful.

There is a skewed, sideways version of “good news” that comes out of this way of thinking about heaven. It goes something like this: “God has something good in store for you, you just have to make it through this life before you get to see it, so hold on, be strong, muddle through this life, and once you die, it will all be worth it.”

But is this really what heaven is all about? Is heaven truly someplace far off from here, and is it only a place that we can access after death? Is life in this world really just about biding our time until we get to go someplace better?

Our readings today seem to say otherwise. In fact, our readings from both Revelation and John throughout this Easter season have been pointing us in a different direction, where heaven isn’t a place we go to when we die, but rather heaven has begun here and now, and if anybody is doing the traveling, it’s God and not us.

Last week, we saw in Revelation a vision of God’s new heavens and new earth, and the new Jerusalem coming down from the heavens, and we heard the voice from the throne proclaiming, “see, the home of God is among mortals, and he will dwell with them.”

Today, our Revelation reading continues the story. The holy city, our apocalyptic vision of God’s restoration of the world, makes its way to earth. And there is no more temple mediating access to God, for God is here and in all and through all. And in holiness of the new creation come to earth, the gates are always open, there is no fear, no longer is there evil or falsehood or brokenness. And this new creation is full of life. A tree of nourishment and healing, a river flowing with the water of life, and God as the very light and life of all.

This vision is everything we hope heaven to be – a place of peace and wholeness, a place of life and abundance, a place of closeness to God. But notice that this place is not far-off. This place is here. And this place is not just sometime in the future. This place is unfolding among us, right before our eyes. From the moment of Christ’s resurrection, God has begun his new heavens and new earth, and we catch glimpses of resurrection all around us.

Jesus, in today’s gospel, gives us a hint about what heaven-on-earth looks like. It looks like love - love for our resurrected Lord and love for our world through acts of service and compassion. It looks like peace beyond the peace of this world, peace in our hearts that brings us wholeness. It looks like companionship with God, who lives in us and breathes through us. It looks like divine inspiration and comfort from the Holy Spirit.

And so the good news for us goes something like this: “Heaven is already here, coming to birth among us. God is shaping and reshaping the world, and at the end of all things, God’s new creation will come to completion. There will be resurrection later, but there is also life and new life here and now.”

So how would your life look different if you were always keeping your eyes open for glimpses of heaven? What would it look like to wake up every morning seeing your own life and breath and the sunrise as miracles of God’s new creation? What would happen if you saw resurrection and redemption in the eyes of every person you meet in your day? How might your soul leap for joy if, every day, you recognized God breathing newness into your spirit, even as you continue to long for the day when you, too, will see the new Jerusalem coming to earth?

Because I don’t think that the right answer to “Is this heaven?” is “No, it’s Iowa.”

I’m pretty sure that the only right answer to “Is this heaven?” is “Yes. Yes, heaven is here, in Iowa. And it’s all around the world. For God is dwelling among us, and new life is spring up all around. Thanks be to God!”

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