The following is an adaptation of a sermon given on July 13, 2014 in a Christian context. You are welcome to comment on where on the Chart of Soteriology this sermon would fall.
Scripture: John 10:1-16
A Muddled Question of Heaven
This month we are looking at questions brought up by our laity, and today’s question is “Is heaven for believers of all faiths?” and “When Jesus said in John 10 ‘I am the gate. No one gets to the Father except through me,’ what does that really mean?” The question, I think, has three instigators.
First, scripture. It was requested that we look at this specific bible verse. We’ll do that in a few minutes.
Second, our hymns are often contradictory when it comes to a clear understanding of what heaven is all about. Flipping through the hymns you have different ideas. “To God Be The Glory” talks about “how greater will our transport be when Jesus we see” as Heaven is where we are wisked away off this earth. St. Francis’s hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” says “And thou, most dear and kindly death, waiting to hush our latest breath” seems to personalize death into a friend or a welcome release. Charles Wesley depicts Heaven as an afterlife where our merits are counted when he writes “Till we cast our crowns before thee / Lost in wonder, love and praise,” from “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Finally the hymn “Shall We Gather At The River”…that ain’t a river!
But third and finally we get really personal about our beliefs about heaven when it comes to Funerals. When we wait in that room with the bereaved and the deceased, what we do think has happened? Is the person in the casket still our uncle Carlos, or is the body a shell that used to contain him? Is Carlos in heaven looking down at us, or is he still in this room until we are done remembering him and then he goes to Heaven? Will he be reincarnated? Will we see his spirit as a ghost? Where is heaven anyway, is it a place with a coordinate, longitude or latitude? A place beyond the stars, the firmament, or perhaps another? Why didn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson find Heaven in the Cosmos series?
Scripture, Hymns, and Funerals bring up this question about what heaven is like and who it is for. When we try to answer the question, we typically fall into two contradictory categories.
- Progressives sometimes have a more “everyone is worshipping the same God” type of understanding.
- Traditional Christianity claims basically what the Scripture passage reads today: Jesus is the gate, it is narrow, no one gets past the gate except through Jesus. Jesus is the shepherd, not the hired hand (in other words, false shepherd). Only those sheep who respond to the Shepherd will be kept from harm. Everyone else we mourn because they won’t be in heaven with us.
What does “I am the Gate” Mean?
With so much going on, questions of what happens when we die, what Jesus did for us, atonement, eschatology, the end times, heaven, hell…let’s focus on two parts of the question.
- First, what did Jesus mean by the image of the Gate.
- Second, what difference does what we believe about the Gate mean for our life today regarding religions other than Christianity?
In the Scripture, Jesus says he is the gate. That no one gets to God except through Jesus. Heaven is a gated community, just like those jokes with St. Peter standing at the Pearly Gates checking people in. You’re either in or you’re out. There’s two points that are really really important.
- First, Jesus is talking to his Disciples. Over and over again in Scripture he wants the Disciples to see the Father (to see God) through him. To make this claim for the Disciples is a bit different than making this claim applies to the millions of people on other continents that no Galilean could possibly reach by the end of their lifetime.
- Second, Jesus did not claim to be a wholly separate path in John 10. He claimed elsewhere in the Gospels that the presence of God within him. Over and again he said his life and words reflected the values of God, that we could see God in him. There’s the promise of salvation being offered to those Disciples whose path before them was starched clean by the Pharisees and rendered almost impassible, and Jesus was claiming that God was seen through not only purity codes or sacrifices in the temple, but also in the way how Jesus moved and lived. Jesus says that he has “other sheep that are not of this fold” that already belong to him. The God known through Christ is also known to others.
Let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t saying “different strokes for different folks” or that all religions are valid. What he’s saying is that there are other paths to God but he doesn’t say which (a list sure would have been nice!). What matters most is that Jesus makes the determination.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of the New Testament at Vanderbilt (really! It make sense if you think about it), interprets the Jesus is the Gate to mean exactly what Jesus says he is himself the way, and he is not dependent upon our Scripture interpretation to decide who he can admit to the kingdom. She imagines Jesus saying in her book The Misunderstood Jew:
“I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Who are you to argue that I choose who I want, whether they followed me or not?”
Climbing a Mountain
An illustration that has been convicting for me about this question of the Gate comes from Eric Elnes’ book The Phoenix Affirmations published in 2006. In it, Eric spent time with Christians in India who were living in a way that preserved the integrity of both Indian culture and Christian tenets of faith.
One of the spiritual directors likened the variety of religions to climbing up a mountain. Each tradition has discovered a unique route for reaching the top. While they are climbing the mountain, the traditions cannot necessarily see each other through the brush and the angle of the mountain. Individuals within the climbing parties may not even be aware that others are ascending the mountain. They think they alone are making the climb, and may be surprised when they reach the top and find more people there.
I find this to be a helpful image that I hope you take home and chew on for two primary reasons. First, it helps us value diversity without minimizing it. Progressives tend to see all faiths as basically the same when they really aren’t. As former Bishop of Canterbury Tom Wright says in his book Surprised By Hope:
“There is a world of difference between the Orthodox Jew who believes that all the righteous will be raised to new individual bodily life in the resurrection and the Buddhist who hopes after death to disappear like a drop in the ocean, losing one’s own identity in the great nameless and formless Beyond.”
The image of climbing a mountain gives integrity to other paths without challenging our own.
But second, it doesn’t lessen the value, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ or our evangelistic call to share Christ’s story. Christ is the climber who went up the mountain before us and has come down to show us the way. We have a promise and a gift offered to us. If we are on this journey on our side of the mountain, great, we follow it. And if we meet fellow climbers who don’t seem to be on their own trail, we show them a better way. And it won’t be until we reach the top, following Jesus on his own time, will we know if ours was the only way, or it there are more people to celebrate our journey with.
“Jesus not primarily concerned with what we believed about him. He acknowledged that some wouldn’t believe God was present in him. He hoped that they would recognize God in his works. It is the way of Jesus, and not Jesus as the way, that is crucial. In emphasizing Jesus as the one who saves the world, we’ve made his way of living insignificant, if not irrelevant.”
So what do we do with this understanding? How do we make Jesus’ life and promise of the gate change our behavior in this life?
Why Beliefs about Heaven Matter
We tend to make practical sense out of the afterlife by using two emotions: fear or reward.
Like teaching a child through punishments, fear of punishment is a highly motivating thing. Every October in the Bible Belt, Hell Houses spring up that are like haunted houses but they depict different levels of hell, show what sort of situations would send you to hell, and after you’ve walked through depictions of suicide, abortions, following other faiths, drunk driving…at the end there’s a ton of counselors who can help you accept Jesus into your emotional teenager heart. Having walked through a few of those in my obnoxious teenage days, I can tell you that fear is an short term effective and yet not lasting way of getting someone to know Jesus.
Likewise, a theology based on rewards gets lasting results but not life-changing ones. We replace a relationship with God based on fear to one based on manipulations by reward. Like gold stars that signify our attendance at Sunday School, we earn our way into heaven as if we are part of the Starbucks Rewards program. It’s a more consumeristic relationship with a God. Brian McLaren critiques this when he writes
“God gives us a transformation plan not an evacuation plan.”
Both of those theologies see God more like a blacksmith hammering us into rigid conformity in some way, but God is depicted in scripture more as a potter shaping us carefully into someone useful.
There’s got to be a better way to think about heaven than through fear or promise of reward. And our inspiration comes from a very unlikely place.
In 2006, one of the hit comedy movies was titled “The Break Up” starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. It depicted a happy relationship between two 30-somethings that starts to unravel. She asks him to buy twelve lemons for a centerpiece she is making; he only buys three. She doesn’t see why he wants to watch Sportscenter or play video games to relax. Many of us have been in relationships where there is just a disconnect or it becomes that way. But right in the middle when they are in another argument, there’s a gem moment. Jennifer Aniston wants Vince to help her do the dishes. He tries to procrastinate, let them soak in the sink, you know, for 2 days. She gets annoyed.
Vince says “Fine, I’ll help you do the dishes.” Jennifer replies: “That’s not what I want. I want you to want to do the dishes.” Vince says “Why would I want to do dishes?” Partners are looking at each other at this moment as this has likely happened in your houses.
This scene encapsulates what I believe: we are not called to fear hell or seek rewards in heaven based on what someone asks of us. We are called to want heaven to take place right now. People go door to door asking “If you died today, where would you go?” whereas based on the text of Jesus as the gate, the better question is: “If you live through today, what kind of life will you live tomorrow?” Heaven is not a status update on Facebook, it is a process of going up the mountain in a healthy and holistic way for everyone you meet.
It is important that we think about what Heaven really is about because our beliefs shape us. One of our church members sent me an email that I got permission to share. Here it is in her voice:
“Several years ago my 5-year-old granddaughter asked me, “Grandma, are you a Christian?” I said that I was, and she responded, “Whew! That means you’ll be in Heaven when I get there.” I was immediately struck by the importance she placed on my “being there,” her confidence that I would be there her confidence that she would be there And, then, I felt the responsibility of living my life in such a way that I was definitely going to “be there” for her.”
What struck me was that what we believe about heaven impacts how we live in this life, and my challenge to you is that by living your life a particular way, heaven can be made real here on earth.
Closing Call to Action
I’m persuaded that when Christians live as graciously as Jesus, we imitate God and participate in God’s work in the world. Wesley’s sermon, The General Deliverance, argues that humanity cannot be saved without the rest of the Creation – we are all in it together, all humans, all creatures, everything. All those rough edges in your life: in your family, your school, your neighborhood, your work, your aging parents…all those areas are not waiting to be taken up into heaven, but are waiting for someone to bring heaven to them. And perhaps that someone is you.
Salvation is in the journey. And the key sustenance on this journey up the mountain isn’t water or food or shelter…it is Humility. Humility that we know our way is up the mountain all the way to the top, but we don’t know for sure about other paths. By living a life that reflects God in both love and humility, it changes things. Sharing dialogue with people of other faiths is less a debate over who is right or wrong and more a sharing of the joy and wisdom gleaned from our climbing experiences.
In closing, an imaginative story of a conundrum in heaven. Peter is in charge of the gate of heaven while Paul is the key administrator, keeps the numbers. Paul starts coming to Peter telling him that there are more people in heaven than he is admitting through the gates and he can’t understand how this could be. Peter sends him off to find out why. Then Paul comes back to Peter saying “I found out the answer – it’s Jesus, He keeps sneaking people in over the wall”.
Jesus may be sneaking people into Heaven that the church is not ready to accept. Jesus may be sneaking Heaven into our world in ways we are not ready to accept. My hope is that we seek to climb the mountain with grace and integrity, inviting others to journey with us, and celebrating with whoever we find at the top.
Glory be to God. Amen.
Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker write in their book Saving Paradise:
“Eternal life relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.”
Go forth now and know that God who created you, Jesus who redeemed you, and the Spirit who sustains you will be with you always, and may that bring you peace. Amen.