Where Heaven Is
Scriptures: John 14:1-10, John 13:36-38
This story was sent to me by my niece.
A couple from Minneapolis decided to take a break from the cold weather and fly to Florida. Because of their schedules, the husband flew to Florida on Thursday. His wife was planning to come the next day. After the husband checked into the hotel, he discovered a computer in his room, so he sent an email to his wife letting her know that he arrived. Unfortunately he left out one letter in her email address, and the message went to the wrong person.
Meanwhile in Texas a woman had just returned from the funeral of her husband. She opened her email and received this message: "My dear loving wife: I know you're surprised to hear from me, but they have computers here now, so I can send email. I just arrived, and have been checked in. It's quite a place. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. I am looking forward to seeing you. P. S. It sure is hot down here!"
There have been many books written by people who claim to
have gone to heaven and come back. One called Heaven is for Real tells the story of a three year-old boy named Colton Burpo who almost died during surgery for a ruptured appendix but who recovered and told about seeing Jesus and children with wings and a great grandfather whom he had never met. Another popular book, Proof of Heaven, was written by a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander, who was in a coma for seven days. The neo-cortex of his brain was completely shut down, but he experienced rising through an opening of white light into a world where he was flying over a lush green countryside. There have been many descriptions like this told by people who believe they saw heaven during a near death experience.
Interestingly, none of those descriptions are found in the gospel of
John. Why? Because in John's gospel heaven is not so much a place as a relationship. Jesus moves us in that direction in John 14. He says, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also." Notice how that verse works. Jesus starts by talking about a place-"I go to prepare a place for you"-but he ends up talking about a relationship: "So that where I am you may be also."
In verse 2 Jesus says, "In my Father's house are many
dwelling places." At first glance that makes heaven sound like a place, a sort of five-star hotel in Boca Raton. This misunderstanding is not helped by older translations that say, "In my Father's house are many mansions," as if Jesus is talking about a gated community in Beverly Hills. But the Greek word translated dwelling places is a very unusual word. It is used only one other time in the entire New Testament, and that happens to be in this same chapter: John 14:23 where Jesus says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.'" That expression "make our home with them" uses the same Greek word as "dwelling places." In verse 2 Jesus says that in his Father's house are many dwelling places, but in verse 23 he says that he and God will make their dwelling place with us, using the same word. Heaven is not a place where you go. It is a relationship that comes to you through Jesus.
So what does Jesus mean by preparing a place for us? Does he mean
getting the beds ready? No. This conversation takes place during the last supper. Jesus knows he is about to die. He has told the disciples that one of them will betray him. In this context when Jesus says, "I go to prepare a place for you," he is talking about going to the cross. On the cross Jesus will prepare a place for us by reconciling us to God, by making it possible for us to have a relationship to God through him.
In our first scripture reading Peter thinks he needs no help to have a
relationship with Jesus. He says, "Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you," which is sadly ironic, since the next day Peter will be too scared to admit he even knows Jesus. Peter offers to die for Jesus, but the truth is that Jesus must die for Peter. When Jesus says to Peter, "You will follow me later," he means after Jesus has died and risen. Jesus must die in order for Peter to follow him, in order for Peter to have a relationship with him.
By extension the same is true for all of us. Jesus goes to prepare a
place for us by giving his life for us on the cross. How Jesus' death on the cross does that, how his crucifixion makes it possible for us to be forgiven and have a new relationship with God-that is a very complicated question that needs a whole separate sermon, maybe even a series of sermons. But for now the point is simply to explain what Jesus means by preparing a place for us. He prepares a place for us by going to the cross so we can have a place with God, or more precisely so God can have a place with us.
Unfortunately, as so often happens, the disciples don't get
it. Thomas says to Jesus, "Lord, we don't know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Thomas still thinks of heaven as place you go, like Florida. But Jesus replies, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
When Jesus says, "I am the way," he does not mean that he is the way
to someplace else. Jesus is not your ticket to some celestial Disney World. Jesus is the way because he is the destination. Jesus can take you where you want to go, because he is where you want to go. Jesus does not just show us the way; he is the way. Jesus does not just teach us the truth; he is the truth we are seeking. Jesus does not just talk about new life; he himself is the key to life. Heaven is not so much a place as a relationship.
Now let me qualify this. There are many other places in the
Bible where heaven is pictured as a Kingdom, a place, a realm where the hungry are fed and the sick are healed, where the lion lies down with the lamb, where no one hurts or destroys in God's holy mountain, a place where death and suffering will be no more and God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Heaven is indeed a new world where this fallen world is finally redeemed and transformed. In that sense heaven is a place.
But heaven is also a relationship. That's what Jesus is
trying to tell us in this scripture. If Jesus means nothing more to you than a ticket to Disneyland, a means of getting to heaven, then you are missing part of the point.
I had an uncle who drove my grandparents crazy. He never
went to church, and when my grandparents asked him about this, he said, "I'll make peace with God on my death bed." My father pointed out that he might not have the luxury of a death bed. My father told him that if we did not accept Jesus as our Savior here and now, we might not have the chance later on.
At the time I thought that was a good argument. But later I
realized that both my uncle and my father were missing part of the point. Jesus did not come to save us only after we die. He came to save us before we die. John's gospel screams that message. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus says, not just in the future but now. "I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus says, not just in the future but now.
Kenneth Chafin, a Baptist pastor, was once asked to explain
what a relationship to Jesus Christ did for him here in the present. He replied,
There are several things which Jesus Christ does for me right now. First, he helps me accept the fact that I am not perfect. I make mistakes. He forgives my sins day by day as I confess them to him. Second, he helps me to accept the gifts I have and to use them in a way that gives me a sense of fulfillment. Third, he helps me to love people that I would not have loved before. Fourth, he gives me good friends in the church who love me and care for me in all the circumstances of life. Fifth, he gives meaning to my life beyond myself. Finally, he helps me to accept the fact that I am mortal and will someday die. He gives me the hope of everlasting life through his resurrection (quoted in How to Reach Secular People by George Hunter III, p. 118).
It is true that Jesus goes to prepare a place for us, but
that place is next to him, with him, in a relationship to him that will transform your life forever, beginning even now.