A frog who had lived his entire life in a well was surprised one day to see another frog there. “Where have you come from?” he asked. “From the sea. That’s where I live,” said the other. “What’s the sea like? Is it as big as my well?” said the first. The sea frog laughed. “There’s no comparison,” he said.
From that point on, the well frog pretended to be interested in what his visitor had to say about the sea, but he thought, “Of all the liars I have known in my lifetime, this one is undoubtedly the worst – and the most shameless.”
How does one speak of the ocean to a frog in a well?
Christians have always said “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting …”Heaven – or the life beyond death is difficult to comprehend and even harder to explain. There’s an old saying: “Those who know do not say. Those who say do not know. The wise therefore are silent. The clever speak – the stupid argue.” Where I fit in that equation you can decide for yourselves!
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted by some Sadducees – people who considered themselves very clever and sophisticated. They mocked the idea of the resurrection. So they created a rather ridiculous scenario for Jesus (who obviously did believe) to explain: a woman who had married a whole series of men – all brothers, and all died. And they pose the question: whose wife will she be in heaven? There’s a kind of lascivious edge to this scenario – and no doubt the attempt was to make Jesus’ teachings look very foolish, and to maximize the embarrassment factor.
The Islamic mystic poet Rumi said:Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other don’t make any sense.
In a similar vein, the originator of the Bahai faith, Bahá’u’lláh, likened death to the process of birth: “The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.” Many people with imagination do try to project what heaven might be and in so doing express a universal longing of the human heart. Friday night we saw the movie Hereafter in which people are searching, trying to probe beyond death, seeking to understand, to know, to find deeper meaning and hope. Another movie – an older one – we watched recently, called Defending Your Life, pictures people in heaven having to convince a judge they are ready to move on (and not be returned to earth) by proving that they have not been ruled by fear. Suffice it to say, heaven (or the afterlife) is on a lot of people’s minds, and gets a lot of interesting interpretations.
Heaven has often been pictured as a place, with pearly gates, golden streets, etc. On a daily basis, I expect, most of us don’t get caught up in too much speculation about it – we just carry on, living our life as faithfully and well as we can, and we let God worry about the details. But I think it might be said that heaven is more like a new way of being than about going somewhere or getting something. As Pope Benedict has said: “We all exist by virtue of [God’s] love. We exist because God loves us, because God conceived of us and called us to life . . . It is God’s Love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity and it is this love that we call ‘Heaven.’”
Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is powerful. Though they flatter themselves about their intellectual prowess, Jesus quickly points up their ignorance about their own beliefs and traditions, and reproves their lack of imagination and hope, as he teaches them that in heaven, the usual rules, and causes and effects, don’t apply – it is a completely new and different way of being.
A man was drinking tea with a friend in a restaurant. He looked long and hard at his cup, then said with a resigned sigh, “Ah, my friend, life is like a cup of tea.” The other pondered this for a while, looked hard at his own cup, then asked, “Why? Why is life like a cup of tea?” The man said, “How should I know? Am I an intellectual?”
We are often encouraged to go forward on the basis of half-baked little sayings and metaphors, and tempted to pay attention to people who simply don’t know what they’re talking about. As the Buddhists teach us, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.
We have a hard time picturing something that is completely outside the realm of our experience. Each of us will have a somewhat different understanding of what the afterlife looks like. Yet as a baby being birthed has only the vaguest instinct about where it is going, so we go on faith. We can be oblivious to the details while being innately aware of a general sense of direction or of being drawn. And as a baby cannot tell you what he/she has just gone through, needless to say the experience is real and deeply embedded in the child’s soul.
As the Catholic catechism says: “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise. [As scripture says:] ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’.”
When it comes right down to it, very few people want to believe that at death they become extinct, or cease to exist, or continue only as someone else’s fading memory. But many, like the Sadducees, afraid to reveal their hearts (their true hopes and fears) to others, instead assume a sceptical, cynical, and contemptuous stance on such things. Though some take the easy route and just deny altogether the possibility of an afterlife, by refusing to engage it, I wonder if they don’t doom themselves to being much smaller people, in mind and heart.
Heaven is simply the place where God dwells – a place where God is. To remove the hope, the possibility, of heaven from our mental landscape likely diminishes the possibility of experiencing signs or intimations of the heavenly realm in the midst of everyday life. And instead of laying up treasures in heaven, it tends to cause people to become very focused on securing a materialistic version of heaven, and people driven more by fear than by faith are not happy or open or pleasant to be around. As Jesus taught, heaven wasn’t something way off in the sky or out there in the future. As he says in Luke’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God is among us — within us — so we can begin to experience it in the here and now. To dismiss it and reject it without any real basis for doing so, is not an intellectually valid position. There’s room for honest doubt, and there’s room for questions and speculation. What is not helpful is the kind of dismissive sarcasm, based on ignorance and fear, that we see in the Sadducees in today’s Gospel. Depending on your point of view, Heaven is fulfillment, bliss, peace, expansion, enlightenment, consciousness, vindication, redemption. What it actually is remains something of a surprise – like a gift from someone who loves us deeply, a gift which we eagerly anticipate opening.
Our hope of heaven is ultimately rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, a transformation that can be shared. It is a hope that is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and although it has its definitive expression in the resurrection of Jesus, it is founded upon countless references in scripture, and may be experienced ourselves, beginning now, as we make the choice to enter into the Communion of saints. We may only have inklings, glimpses, hints and hunches of what heaven is truly about. But as they say, it’s better than nothing.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
RCL appointed readings: Haggai 1:15b-2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
We exist in God’s thoughts and in God’s love. We exist in the whole of our reality, not only in our ‘shadow’. Our serenity, our hope and our peace are based precisely on this: in God, in his thoughts and in his love, it is not merely a “shadow” of ourselves that survives but rather we are preserved and ushered into eternity with the whole of our being in him, in his creator love.
No figure in history has offered as clear a vision and as certain a promise of new life as the person of Jesus. I hear people placing their trust in minor and obscure figures and I find it sad that, like the Sadducees, so many people in our time are ignorant of this great spiritual tradition, and therefore grasping at straws. Heaven, as Jesus teaches, is becoming something like angels – and like the children of God. It doesn’t have an earthly equivalent – although there is a sense of continuity between the actions and intentions of this life and the next.
Rather than believing that we achieve immortality through our memorable deeds, and trusting ourselves to the memories of loved ones, Christians are encouraged to believe that the essence of who we are – our soul – lives on infinitely.