I recently began a new call as a solo pastor.
I’ve been preaching the lectionary Scripture texts since I arrived in April. Honestly, preaching every week is still new to me, so I thought sticking with lectionary for a while would help me grow into the challenge. But, having moved from a relatively large Presbyterian church, I am actually more familiar with preaching a series. So, for better or worse, this summer I put together my first preaching series on heaven.
I was so excited about it that I found myself “hyping” it to almost everyone around me – to fellow pastors, to random acquaintances at barbecues, to my family. And, interestingly enough, most of them had the same initial question regardless of their faith background: “Is there really much about heaven in the Bible?” Not wanting to sound like a know-it-all (and truthfully, having not completed all of the planning for the series at the time), I would typically respond with something comical like, “I sure hope so!” Comical, but truthful.
When it comes to the Bible, it seems like everything in there seems to fall into one of three categories: (1) Stuff that was purposefully talked about; (2) Stuff that was indirectly talked about; or (3) Stuff that wasn’t talked about at all. Happily for the success of my summer series on heaven, heaven does not fall into category #3. It is probably somewhere between #1 and #2. Most pastors, biblical scholars and devoted Christians are familiar with the spots of the Bible that talk specifically about heaven (#1). So, perhaps the largest discovery about heaven for us comes from all the stuff that is “in between” (#2).
Part of the fun of this series has been spending time on some of these in-between moments where God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are probably speaking in the language of eternity, but we often overlook the broader meaning because we interpret in the language of earth (or more brutally, in the language of right-here-right-now). One example: When Abraham and Isaac deaths are recorded in Genesis, the author of Genesis writes that they “were gathered to [their] people,” (Genesis 25:8; 35:29). Admittedly, I have read both stories and about the lives of Abraham and Isaac over and over and over and managed to miss that eternal language. What does it mean to be gathered to one’s people? Surely that is eternal language for what comes next and it sure sounds like some type of family reunion.
And 2 Timothy 8:11-13 is a saying (which some scholars think could have been a hymn) that goes like this: “This saying is trustworthy: If we died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we deny him, he will also deny us. If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, since he cannot deny himself.” Now, the obvious focus of that ancient saying/hymn is the final line that defies the parallelism of the passage – the precious claim that our Savior remains faithful even when we are not. Yet, there is eternal language in this saying too! Life forever and the privilege of reigning with Christ are ahead for us if we can hang in there for God.
And then, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul (or the Pauline author) talks about the inability to get back to be with his young church. But, his final words of that chapter are eternal in nature. Paul talks about the hope and joy he feels at the future coming of Christ stemming from this church plant in Thessalonica (1Thessalonians 2:20). We may be tempted to read this closing to chapter two as simply encouraging words, but what if those words instead are meant to clue us into the permanent eternal link between the church’s mission in this world and eternity to come?
Along with the in-between Scriptures of the Bible, the explicit heaven Scriptures, and John Burke’s “Imagine Heaven,” I have certainly been amazed at all the Bible does have to say about heaven! This series and reading about heaven have really offered new hope and perspective to 2 Corinthians 4:18, which encourages us to not focus on the temporary (what can be seen), but the eternal (the unseen). I firmly believe that heaven cannot be seen in the way that we see earth right now, but that probably is no accident. If heaven inspired the creation of earth, why would we expect anything less to come than what we experience in the here and now?
The series is only about halfway through to this juncture and it remains to be seen (like what I did there?) whether my church will embrace series preaching along with lectionary. But, I do know this: There is something special about reading Scripture, seeing earth and serving God on the pathway to discovery of something that seems beyond our wildest dreams. From that perspective, it has been a pretty great way to spend the summer.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.