One of the things that I love the most about the Episcopal Church is the liturgy. And I have a pretty broad definition of the word when I use it. Liturgy is everything that we do in church on Sundays: from the day we are celebrating on the calendar to the words we say and clothes that the ministers wear. For me music also plays a big part. Liturgy is everything that goes into the drama that we participate in throughout the church year.
Some seasons of the year have a lot of drama associated with them and some don’t. Lent, and especially Holy Week, is very liturgical—very dramatic. Advent is the same way. The season after Pentecost, the season that is drawing to a close is less liturgical. But that begins to change with All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day begins the triumphant last few weeks of the church year. The year will come to a close in just a few weeks with the Feast of Christ the King. All Saints’ always reminds me that we are getting close.
All Saints’ Day begins with one of the most beautiful, comforting readings in the lectionary. In the Revelation, Saint John stands in the very courts of heaven and tells us what he sees. He describes the choirs of angels and incense and the City of God lit by the countenance of Christ himself. And he describes the joy that waits for us in the heaven. I have a priest friend who always reminds the folks who don’t like incense that the Bible only mentions two smells in the afterlife: incense or brimstone, so you better choose wisely.
I always find myself talking about heaven on All Saints’, and inevitably I’ll find myself reading Lewis or Ramsey around this time of year. I don’t know what it is about the English theologians and writers, but they speak to me more than any other writers—I guess that is part of my love of the Anglican Church. The English seem to have an understanding of what awaits us in heaven better than anyone. C. S. Lewis said, “People have this preposterous notion that heaven will be all about sitting on cloud tops playing harps. Well, quite frankly, I don’t like the harp on earth and I am quite sure that God won’t force me to have an ear for it in heaven.” Lewis says that anything that gives us joy on earth will be that much better in heaven. That is one reason that he believed that our pets would be in heaven with us.
People have all kinds of silly notions about heaven. The images you get in movies and books today are just amazing. Everybody in our society has an opinion about what heaven is and how we can get there. Today you even hear opinions about heaven from people who don’t even believe in God. And all kinds of folks – Christians and non-Christians alike will tell you that when we die we will become angels – which is silly; we will no more become angels than we will become billy goats. We will still be us in heaven – only better. Another thing you hear – pervasive in our society – is that all you have to be to go to heaven, is nice. And we, of course, know that isn’t true either. In fact, that is one of our jobs – to tell people what it really takes. I do wonder where people get this stuff. Jesus and John are the ones who talked about heaven. If you want to know about heaven I’d say you ought to consult the source.
The Bible tells us how to get there. It really is pretty simple. Paul says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That’s pretty clear. Now, I surely do hope one day we can all look back and be satisfied that we have been good people. I hope we’ve been kind to one another, been good and generous to the poor, and generally put the needs and feelings of others ahead of our own. But those things will get you no closer to heaven than buying a plane ticket will.
So once we are clear on how to get there, then we can speculate on what it is. Now, I use the term speculate very intentionally. Jesus did not go into great detail about what it would be like. He said that in his Father’s house there would be many mansions and that he was going to have one ready for us. One house that contains many mansions. Hard to wrap my mind around that. John gives us a lot more details about heaven, but I can’t say that he clears much up for me at all. He is the one who talks about streets of gold and pearly gates, but even when we hear those familiar images, we are greatly simplifying what he really did say about heaven. If you actually go and read the Revelation – read exactly what John did say about heaven – I can almost guarantee you that you’ll be more confused about heaven than you were before. And I think I know why this is.
Heaven will be like nothing we have ever experienced before. The reason the Revelation is so confusing is because John was given a glimpse into heaven and he was told to write what he had seen. And bless his heart, he did the very best he could. But how do you take the few words that we have and convey the concept of the Glory of Almighty God? It just doesn’t work. One of my favorite theologians says that John wasn’t telling us what heaven was – he was telling us what heaven is like! When he saw Christ he said that his hair was like lamb’s wool, as white as snow, his eyes were flames of fire and his feet were burnished brass as if they’d come out of a furnace. That’s not what Jesus looked like. The Apostles’ would have told us that. That is what he was like in all of his glory. It doesn’t do us any good to say the streets will be gold and the gates will be pearl, because the things that dazzle us in this world will look like dust and ashes in the world to come.
Heaven is where the saints are. I remember being at the cathedral in New Orleans when I was in college. The dean was a man named John Senette. He was giving a children’s sermon and he asked “Who are the saints?” A little girl pointed up to all the windows around the top of the cathedral and said, “They are the ones that the light shines through.” And Father John said, “Well, yes they are,” and sat down. There was nothing else to say. They are the people who show us Christ, and heaven will be just full of them! And that is some place that I want to be.
There are so many denominations of Christianity in the world. You can find someone that believes just about anything…all manner of practices…all manner of beliefs. But you know, something that is remarkably similar among us all is that almost all of us believe that when we stand in the courts of heaven and worship our God face to face…that will be enough. We will understand all of the complex and hurtful things we couldn’t understand before. God will then fling off all of the old imperfections and difficulties and we will truly understand what it is to be the Church at rest.
Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple. The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”