Heaven all the way to heaven

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Luke 16: 19-31

Heaven all the way to heaven                                      ©Suzanne Grimmett   

George MacLeod was a Celtic prophet who sought in 20th century Scotland to live always the way of compassion. On the day of his death when word came to the Island of Iona, John Philip Newell describes the hour-long pealing of bells and the gathered community reading prayers MacLeod had written. The prayers concluded with this one;

Be thou, triune God, in the midst of us as we give thanks for those who have gone from the sight of earthly eyes. They, in thy nearer presence, still worship with us in the mystery of the one family in heaven and on earth…If it be thy holy will, tell them how we love them, and how we miss them, and how we long to be with them again.

Strengthen us to go on in loving service of all thy children. Thus shall we have communion with thee and, in thee, with those who have gone before us. Thus shall we come to know within ourselves that there is no death and that only a veil divides, thin as gossamer.[1]

We have in our Gospel reading a mythic story told by Jesus which lifts back this gossamer veil and allows the dead to speak. It includes the request from the rich man to be able to speak from the dead and get a message to his family members living on earth. How much so many of us would long for such communication from those we love, and in MacLeod’s prayer we hear that same longing in the gentle and humble, “If it be thy holy will, tell them how we love them, and how we miss them, and how we long to be with them again.”

In the Gospel story, however, the metaphor is not a veil but a chasm. And the context is not the desire to be with the beloved but a request to warn them. This story occurs in a chapter in Luke’s Gospel that finds its core theme expressed most clearly in the blunt statement of Jesus, “You cannot serve God and wealth”. It is a stark truth unpacked more fully in our reading from the letter to Timothy we heard today. In the Gospel reading, the story of the two men who die- one rich, one poor- paints a stark picture of where a life lacking in compassion and focussed on wealth and comfortable living at the expense of others will lead.

The Christian community at the time was trying to make sense of struggle and persecution while others who were wealthy in society would die rich and powerful with seemingly no accountability for their self-interest. This mythic story could be seen as a response to this cry for justice. There is a natural outcome for those whose hearts are turned to inward self-interest, and it follows the stark binary of life and death. Hades, or Sheol, is not synonymous with our idea of hell, but it has become that way in popular understanding. The imagery is recognisable as similar to language found in the aprocryphal book, 2 Esdras 7:36, likely written in the 1st century CE;

The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.[2]

This indicates the emergence of this kind of thinking in the first century which will develop later in Christian imagination. (We might recognise these imaginings in medieval pictures of the sufferings of those in a fiery furnace of hell) However, the use of the word ‘Hades’ in Jesus’ telling simply means the house of the dead. The scriptures are not teaching that God is a God who deals in tortuous punishment but rather that goodness produces good fruit and doing evil will cause one to suffer evil. This is a story told to make a point.  The best way of expressing this point I think is to borrow from the words of St Catherine of Siena who said, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus is the way.” Heaven is not something that begins after we die but is in the here and now and continues beyond death to life everlasting. We are to pray for the kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. Life leads to life and death leads to death. Or, said another way (and here I am quoting Richard Rohr) it’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.

It is possible to choose death, I believe. I think there are people who are physically alive but yet are dead already.  We have the freedom to choose what lasts. And what is it that lasts? St Paul (1 Cor 13:13) would tell us it is “faith, hope and love… these three, but the greatest of these is love.” However, love cannot be conceived of as an idea but can only exist in relationship. Contained in this is the clue to our own existence- life, like love, cannot exist outside of relationship. Our motivation to act rightly, whatever we conceive that to be, cannot be found in fear of eternal punishment. To think like that is to be in hell already as it precludes the presence of love as our motivation. Rather, the grace of God sets us free to love one another and begin to experience heaven in the here and now. The life we are offered as an enduring choice is intrinsically relational.

The story of the poor man, Lazarus, is a story that reminds us of the truth that there is no solitary individual, responsible only to themselves. The rich man was completely blind to the suffering of the poor man who could be seen in plain sight at his own gate. To be thus disconnected and self-interested is hell, whether we know it or not. We need to pray for our vision to be cleared that we may see the needs around us and choose compassion, finding a way of love that lasts to life eternal.

To choose life is to develop the kind of loving gaze that allows the sufferings of others to disturb our comfort. However, in seeking to open our eyes to the suffering of others, we may become overwhelmed by the weight of the world’s sorrows. With all the news that bombards our screens and smart devices of warmongering nations, rumours of nuclear disaster, the pain of refugees, and the damage done to species and habitats, we can easily become melancholy and feel helpless. I think here it pays to remember that while we are made in the image of God, we are not God. There is suffering enough to spare as we all know, in each of our little lives without trying to feel the pain of the whole world. We are, however, called to attend to the web of relationships in which we find ourselves.

While being grateful for our own comfort, we should live with eyes wide open to see the suffering of others around us and the part we might play in bringing change. We can pay attention to the natural world, and particularly to changes in our local area that are symptoms of greater problems in our ecosystems. We might consider how we as the community of St Andrew’s may develop and strengthen relationships with those whose lives are not so comfortable, that we may grow in mutual understanding, learning and acts of compassion. If the story of the poor man Lazarus being ‘carried away by angels to be with Abraham’ should tell us anything, it is that we should not judge the worthiness of another. Jesus proclaims an upside-down kingdom where the first are last, and the last, first and this story certainly illustrates this reversal. A life lived according to the lights of love gives dignity and honour to every human being, regardless of whether they are seen to be deserving by us or by society. To live in this constant discipline of utter respect for the other is to begin building that stairway where each step reminds us that it is heaven all the way.

The great chasm between life and death in this story is one which has been overcome. Jesus goes before us, the crucified and risen one, to show us the way. Heaven is created on earth as we walk Jesus’ way, strengthened by the Spirit to live the way of compassion, to honour all life and gift utter respect to those around us. Death in Christian understanding becomes no longer a fearful separation but a gossamer veil through to the eternity where the love we have known continues. In George MacLeod’s words;

Thus shall we have communion with thee and, in thee, with those who have gone before us.

[1] Prayer by George MacLeod, as reproduced and in the context of John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, HarperOne, USA: 2021, p 216-217

[2] Feasting on the Word— Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Feasting on the Word: Year C) (p. 319). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.