A week or so ago, someone asked me if I had seen the recently released sequel to the 2014 movie “Heaven is for real.” Based on the question that I was asked I couldn’t tell if the new movie was called “Heaven is for real, 2” or “Heaven is for real, too.” The actual title of the movie is the former, but I’d like to advocate for the latter.
The plot synopsis of the first movie presents a story that is just believable enough, and just challenging enough, that many people consider it to be a convincing argument for the real existence of a conventionally conceived afterlife. As I haven’t seen either movie I can’t offer a legitimate opinion on the plots or content. Regarding the existence of heaven, I prefer to read the book (the Scriptures). I do think, however, that heaven poses a question worth pondering.
I won’t ask if you believe in heaven. The reasons for my reticence are many. If you are a fan of country-western music, you probably think that the rivers in heaven are filled with beer. If you are a fundamentalist, you probably think that you might be the only person whom God is willing to admit to heaven. Rather than get caught up in that conversation, I’d like to pursue a different line of inquiry.
Instead, I’ll ask if you believe in the world, this world, the universe in which we live, this mundane life given to each of us. I’m not trying to be trite, and I’m not an immanentist. Do you believe in this life? And, if so, how much?
At this juncture, I should point out that I’m using the verb “believe” in an analogical fashion. It is possible to believe in God (even though there exists no scientific evidence to corroborate the belief). It is possible to believe that the earth is flat (even though there is scientific evidence to dispute the belief). It is possible to believe that it’s time for a cocktail (even though I would expect you to share with everyone else here in church).
The verb “to believe” can have very different meanings in different contexts. In the present context, I am not asking if you believe the world to be real as opposed to being a mere shadow of existence (as in Plato’s allegory of the cave). Rather, I am asking about the value you assign to the existing order of creation. Do you believe that this present life, in this physical universe, has value? And, if so, how much?
Some people value our finite, created existence so little that they can’t wait for the world to come to a cataclysmic end. Other people value life so little that they spend all their efforts trying amass more and better possessions in order to make up for the fact that their lives are meaningless and empty. Some people see in this world faint traces of the hand of a loving Creator, and for that reason, they value life as the penultimate treasure. What about you, do you believe in the value of this world?
Today’s second reading, from the Apocalypse of John, recounts part of a vision of heavenly worship. In the vision, the apocalypticist witnesses a dizzying array of heavenly and earthly creatures, all of whom give all of their attention and time to the unending task of worshiping God in the manner that God deserves. At one point in the vision “four living creatures answered, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.” (John 5:14) This vision reminded me of our parish of All Saints. We have elders who fall down, but most of them are leaving worship at the time.
The Apocalypticist wrote about his vision in order to strengthen the faith of several congregations which were facing difficulties. His description of the heavenly liturgy wasn’t merely informational; rather, it was intended to remind believers of the life to which they should aspire each day. It is the full-time task of disciples to make each day on earth as similar to heavenly worship as is humanly possible. Despite the privations that the Apocalypticist endured, and despite the difficulties that his fellow believers faced, John remained convinced that one’s full-time preoccupation should be to give God the worship that God deserves. To do so requires, among other things, that one values this world and this life as precious gifts from God.
As I said above, I would like to advocate for “Heaven is real, too.” I do so because, at present, this life is the only real thing we can have and know. As such, it has inestimable value. Regardless of how you conceptualize the afterlife (personally, I hope the beer is imported), the only path to get there is the one in front of you today. That path is the one that leads you to care for the poor and marginalized because they share in the dignity of God’s creation. That path is the one that leads you to forgive all who wrong you because forgiveness is the only way to keep your feet on the path and the only way to reach the goal you desire. That path is the one that leads you to live each day in a manner that gives God the worship that God deserves.
Do you believe in this life? If so, you are obliged every day to put into physical action the refrain of the heavenly liturgy: to say “Amen” to your life and to the world, and to look forward with gratitude to the day when all the universe will cry out, “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.” (Revelation 5:13)
A note on the Scriptures
Today’s Gospel reading is a very strange item. The story of the appearance of Jesus at the Sea of Tiberius (Galilee), ignores and contradicts earlier statements in John’s Gospel about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the Eleven. (John 20:19-29) The story accords with Mark’s account that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples took place in Galilee (Mark 16:7), and seems to borrow from or adapt the call of the first disciples in Luke. (Luke 5:1-11)
This story is clearly an attempt to rehabilitate Peter’s reputation. But one wonders why. Peter was distrusted by many after Jesus’ death. Peter had denied knowing Jesus (John 18:25-27), a betrayal equal to Judas’. His reputation was certainly in need of rehabilitation, but it is curious that the Johannine redactor took such an interest in doing so.
There was a good measure of animosity toward Peter among the members of the Beloved Disciple’s congregation. The fact that a later redactor would append this story to the end of the record of the Beloved Disciple’s preaching indicates that the community was trying work through an issue that had serious implications for their community life.
By the time this second ending for the Gospel was written Peter had been martyred in Rome by Nero and, we can assume, the Beloved Disciple also had died. The Beloved Disciple, however, did not die a martyr’s death, but only an ordinary death in the midst of his followers and fellow disciples.
As we are so far removed historically from these events we probably don’t appreciate the very high value that the first generations of believers put on martyrdom. The early Christian martyrs did not seek to be martyred; nonetheless, martyrdom was considered the greatest honor that a disciple of Jesus could receive. To die a martyr’s death afforded two blessings of unmatched value: to die as Jesus did (an innocent victim persecuted for the sake of righteousness), and to die without having sinned (that is, without having denied faith in Jesus as Lord).
Perhaps the ordinariness of the Beloved Disciple’s death led to envy or concern on the part of the members of his congregation. Peter the Denier was graced with the glory of a martyr’s death, but the Beloved Disciple was denied such. This might have been a source of embarrassment or resentment for the members of the Beloved Disciple’s community. As this issue cropped up at the same time that the community was dealing with the delay of the parousia we can perhaps begin to see why the redactor felt compelled to address it so publicly.
The last of the great signs in John’s Gospel is the resuscitation of Lazarus, about which Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-27) When it became apparent that this could not be taken literally, that is, that the delay of Jesus’ return in glory meant that believers would have to die a natural death, the community needed to reinterpret what it meant to believe, to have life and never to die. The many interpolations of the Johannine redactor function to deal with this issue.
The real impact of the delay of the parousia probably hit too close to home when the Beloved Disciple died. He was perhaps Jesus’ closest friend and confidant. Those who had come to faith because of his preaching probably wondered if they could continue to hope for the victory of resurrection after having witnessed their beloved leader die such a banal death.
The Johannine redactor’s response to this concern is taken directly from the preaching of the Beloved Disciple. Last Sunday we heard those very words. The evangelist instructed his readers that the content of his Gospel was written down in order that they might “believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
It is entirely possible to believe without having known Jesus during his earthly life. In fact, personal encounter with Jesus was no guarantee of faith; many who heard him turned away from him. (John 6:60) The evangelist wanted his congregation to understand clearly that knowledge of the earthly Jesus was no sign of distinction. Rather, the only act that merited distinction in God’s eyes was faith in Jesus as Lord. (John 3:18) Ironically, a similar truth was revealed in the death of the evangelist, the Beloved Disciple.
The one who was favored by Jesus’ closest friendship in life turned out not to be favored by the most notable sort of death. The redactor ascribes this to the mysterious nature of God’s will. In the story, Jesus repeats an aphorism to Peter (John 21:18), and tells him that he has a special destiny by which he will “glorify God.” (John 21:19) By comparison, the Beloved Disciple’s destiny is different, and lesser, but not a sign of lesser merit in God’s eyes.
The lesson is a pertinent one today. We live in a culture that adores notoriety and covets public recognition. In children’s sports every participant gets a trophy, regardless of performance. We are taught from a very young age that praise is an entitlement, and that self-sacrifice is foolish. The disciple whom Jesus loved was eclipsed by the one who denied knowing him. This made Jesus’ love no less real and the Beloved Disciple’s witness no less compelling. The Johannine redactor told his fellow disciples that they should not expect to be rewarded in this life for remaining faithful to their Lord. Rather, they would be rewarded in the Kingdom for having taken to heart the Lord’s words to Peter, “What concern is it of yours? You follow me.” (John 21:22)