Good Heavens!

Luke 20/Christ the King

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

For centuries before Christ, many people believed that God lived up in the sky. What we poetically call, “the heavens”—the sky over Planet Earth—were thought to be the dwelling place of whatever god or gods people believed in.

But, over the years, the Hebrew people came to think of Heaven as not simply the extension upward of the world we already know. Heaven came to be seen as another realm where the departed would spend eternity.

We see this idea of two realities in the majestic description of Christ, the Son of God, that was read in today’s Second Lesson: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.”

Of course, God is not confined to Heaven. As this passage implies, God acts in both Heaven and earth, as does his Son, the Christ – or as we say on this Sunday, Christ the King. But Heaven is the spiritual reality upon which the material depends.

This theory of two realms has come to be the general position of religious people down to our own times. In the Gospel Lesson today, Jesus seems to assume this view when he makes a promise to the thief who is crucified beside him that, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Yet, with the birth of science, the two-worlds view was challenged. Physics, chemistry, biology—all of the sciences study one world – the world around us.

Of course, scientists also study “the heavens” above and beyond the earth. But scientists don’t presume to study the realm of God that religious people believe in. They don’t study, for example, the possible presence of spiritual beings who inhabit heaven and might sometimes come to earth–such as the angels mentioned in the Second Lesson.

Nor would these scientists presume to define the “Paradise” to which Jesus is bringing the penitent thief. For scientists, there seems to be only one world.

Recently, some theologians have also defended this one-world theory. They have questioned whether Heaven is another place beyond this world—a place where we “go” when we die. The prominent British biblical scholar, Bishop Tom Wright believes that instead of going to Heaven, eventually we will be resurrected in a transformed version of this world.

Now we should note that Wright’s view revives an idea that many early Christians once had that Christ would come back to this world soon after he died.

At this Last Judgment, all persons who had died would be “resurrected.” Our physical remains will be supernaturally pulled up out of cemeteries and made into new bodies—what St. Paul called, “spiritual bodies.” God’s justice would then be established, and this world would become Heavenly. So we see that Bishop Wright and others who are attempting to revive the early Christian view believe that when we die, we won’t end up in another realm. Instead, we will rest in a kind of suspended animation until God creates a better version of this world.

As I said, the debate is not new. The traditional creeds seem to favor both views at the same time. The creeds affirm “the resurrection of the body” in this one world, but they also speak of “the life of the world to come,” which would seem to be in another realm.

At this point, though, we might stop and ask: what difference does it make what view we take? Does it really matter whether we are in another dimension or in a transformed version of the universe we know–so long as we survive death?

That’s a good question. For me, the basic work for Christians is to trust that Christ will keep his promise, and someday we will be with him in Paradise.

After all, many people today have to stretch intellectually to accommodate any notion of eternal life. What comforts them is the assurance that God’s love for them is eternal. God will do for his creatures whatever needs to be done to insure our future happiness. Whether our eternal life is in Heaven or whether we shall live forever on a transformed earth, this is a secondary issue.

Nevertheless, I think a little speculation can be helpful in making this promise of immortality more believable. I’ll conclude with a few opinions of my own; I want to defend the two-worlds thesis.

First, while I agree that Bishop Wright is a first-rate biblical scholar, I don’t think his views are compatible with science. Future transformation of our material bodies seems to me highly unlikely, given what we know about the natural decay of physical death. Nor do our new bodies have to contain molecules from our former bodies—especially if we are given a spiritual form?

There’s another interesting support for the two realms view. The most recent research in physics seems to suggest that the two realms of Christian theology might not conflict with science. Unlike the old material view that physicists used to talk about, scientists now believe there may be multiple planes of existence.

For example, one view held by physicists called, “string theory” contends that there are as many as ten or eleven dimensions—not just the three spatial dimensions plus the fourth dimension time that we know.

In other words, maybe it’s not so far-fetched to believe in another reality. There may be a scientific basis for the two-worlds picture, after all.

But Bishop Wright worries that if we believe in another realm of Heaven, we won’t care so much about this world. To that I would say: surely we can hope for Heaven and pray for our loved ones there and still be concerned about the state of our planet.

In fact, if I trust God that he will give me the reward of eternal life, I am all the more ready to sacrifice my personal desires to help future generations.

I can’t conclude without a comment that will appear to be irrelevant to everything I have just said. Which is to note how grateful we are for the ministry of our Organist and Director of Music, Dr. Matthew Lewis.

How much he has contributed to our worship of God in the past twenty years. How many times he has presented exciting works of musical art. How many times he has given energy and creativity to familiar pieces.

.But perhaps this note of thanks isn’t entirely irrelevant to the rest of the sermon. Perhaps Matthew’s heavenly music is Incarnation’s own taste of Paradise!

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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