Editor’s note: The following homily was preached at the funeral of the Reverend George McMaster at Druid Hills Church in Atlanta, Ga., by Dr. Patrick D. Miller, Professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. It contains great comfort for the church and is a welcome testimony to the gospel in these troubled, dangerous times.
Not long ago, when Mary Ann and I were visiting with her mother, she asked me what I thought about heaven. I was taken aback at the time because my mind was, as usual, on more mundane things. I don’t recall what response I made at the time, except that it was not very helpful. But the question was a serious one from this 90-year-old woman whose husband had died some years before. It has stuck with me ever since and in these few minutes I would like to take it up again with a bit more reflection.
Heaven really has two connotations in Christian faith. One is spatial — up there — and one is temporal — beyond death. In the first instance, heaven is a symbol for God’s reality and God’s rule. It is a pointer to transcendence, to the fact that what we mean by God is one who is above and beyond all that we are even if among us.
Heaven is a biblical and Christian way of speaking about the abode of God. Some of you are old enough to remember when the Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev scoffed at the notion of God and heaven when he noted that the Russian astronauts had not seen God or heaven when they went into space. His mockery reflects a widespread tendency to literalize the notion of heaven, when in fact it is a symbol and not a literal reality, at least as described in the Bible. As a symbol, however, it points to something real, but something we can only think of in images and pictures because it is beyond us, and we do not have direct experience of it.
The symbol of heaven thus tells us several things. It tells us that our lives are not determined and shaped and delimited by what we can see or touch or explore or know. It tells us that this chaotic world of hurricanes and tsunamis and wars and death in all its manifold forms, which is what we see so much, is not a meaningless, haphazard thing out there but is the creation of God, who rules in the midst of both human chaos and natural disaster. Scripture speaks easily about the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven.” To speak of heaven is to claim that God is real and God rules all that is, apart from which our present life borders on meaninglessness and hopelessness.
But heaven has another connotation for Christian faith. It is a symbol for the conviction that our final destiny is in God’s care. Here also, the symbol is often characterized by images that are meant to connote and point to the reality, because we have to speak in pictures of some sort. So we speak of “pearly gates” and “streets of gold.” “Streets of gold” is only a way of saying that heaven is better than anything we know, but we can only say that by using earthly images, images that are inadequate the minute we use them. I think I remember Mother Sudduth being singularly unimpressed with the prospect of streets of gold as a part of her or anybody else’s future. Even the notion of place that is indicated by the term heaven is inadequate, because it is not place as we know any notion of place.
What matters in all of this is the Christian claim — and I believe it to be true with all my heart — that we are forever held in the arms of God. That is true before we were born; that will be true after we have died and our bodies have disappeared. Who and what we are still lives with God and is kept by God. That is what is meant by eternal life. We talk about immortality of the soul, resurrection of the body, and the like, but we cannot really know what those terms mean. They are beyond our experience. That does not mean, however, that they do not point to something that is true and real. They are ways of saying that God completes our lives beyond this life, whether we have died young or old, have suffered or lived well. Underneath, now and forever, are the everlasting arms, and they will keep us. An image again, of course, but it is where I hope and believe I will be and you will be.
And after New Orleans I know all the more “the everlasting arms” is a better image than the streets, whether they are made of gold or full of water. Death is real, but it really is not the last word. As God knew us and kept us before we were born, so the same will be beyond this life and its death. That is a claim that George McMaster made for himself and for us in his choice of Psalm 139 as one of the texts to be read as we remember his life and hope for his resurrection.
For it was you who formed my inward parts.
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me.
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them — they are more than sand;
I come to the end — I am still with you.
God is far beyond our comprehension; so also heaven and the future. What we know and hear afresh in the psalm is whatever end there is, when we come to it, we are still with God, still kept and held. As our beginning was with God, so will our end be as well.
Finally, if heaven is a symbol of spatial and temporal significance, it is also a highly relational symbol, and this is a part of the Christian hope and confidence about the future that seems to mean more and more to me as the years go by. It is what the church means by the communion of saints. That is a way of speaking about the fellowship of all who have lived as a part of the community of faith. It is also a way of saying that as our lives have been lived together, whatever is beyond that continues that relationship. The image that is most helpful to me and comes to mind again and again is the picture at the beginning of Hebrews 12: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” I see in my mind that cloud of witnesses every time I sing “The Church’s One Foundation” and come to that verse: “Yet she on earth hath union with God the three in one; and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”
I really do believe that in some way, George, and our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, and all those who have gone before surround us even now and keep us and bear witness to us beyond their life. And whatever we have known of loving relationships is not lost. How we shall experience that relationship beyond our death, we do not know. But it belongs to whatever future with God we have. I know that the climax of 1 Corinthians 13 is meant to be the final verse. For me, however, it comes at the end of Paul’s characterization of love and all that it means with those concluding three words: “Love never ends.” And since we are indeed surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us then, as the writer to the Hebrews says, run the race that is set before us. Their example, their faith, their holding on is an enduring testimony that calls us to persevere no matter what the future may hold. Heaven means that the future itself is held secure, which is why Christian hope is conviction and not wishful thinking. I cannot prove any of this, but I do not believe that we are misled by the gospel and the church’s experience. Christian hope is not desperate. It is trusting and reliable. It is real and means we can take what comes in this world knowing that the God who is with us now will keep us forever and make our lives full.
Druid Hills Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2005
George R. McMaster Memorial Service