Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Does heaven have gravity?

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
7 Easter - Year A (RCL) - June 4/5, 20011
Acts 1:6- 14; Ps. 68; John 17: 1 -11
Preacher: The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

Does heaven have gravity?

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”   Acts 1:9 - 11

        The following conversation which took place between St. Paul’s member Gillian Lopez and her daughter Phee was reported on Gillian’s Facebook page this past Friday:

            “Phee: Mummy, do you float around in heaven, or does heaven have gravity?” 
            Gillian: “Err, what do you think, Phee?” 
            I suggested in a Facebook comment to Gillian’s post that she might find the wonderful book Where does God live by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Tom Hartman, the so-called “God Squad,” helpful.[1]
            Gellman and Hartman’s book provides parents, and others, helpful answers to children’s questions about God; questions such as: “Is God real?”  “What does God look like?” and “Where does God live?”
            Gillian informed me, and anyone who was following the exchange on Facebook, that in response to Gillian’s query, “Errr....what do you think Phee?” Phee expressed her opinion “that heaven has gravity, except on Sundays when it's a free floating day, so that we may nap on clouds without falling through as we usually would!”  Well, that answers that!
            This past Thursday we observed the Feast of the Ascension, and on this, the Sunday following, the 7th Sunday of Easter, we live in the liturgical and theological tension of the time between Christ having ascended into heaven which asserts, in some sense, his absence from us; and the giving of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit which then mediates his presence in and through us again. 
            The bestowal of the gift of the Holy Spirit is alluded to in the reading from Acts which we heard as our first reading.[2] We’ll celebrate that gift of the Holy Spirit all this week during Vacation Bible School and especially next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost when everyone will wear red, so don’t forget: Wear Red!!
             Today, though, I thought we might be a little heavenly minded; not so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good; but heavenly minded enough to consider what we mean when we speak of heaven....What is it we are talking about when we use this word “heaven,” which does, heaven help us, get thrown around a lot!
            Of course the word “heaven” is used in today’s reading from Acts of the Apostles.  The book of Acts has sometimes been referred to as the Gospel of the Holy Spirit; because the work of the Holy Spirit figures so prominently in it....In Acts, the power and work of the Holy Spirit is the driving force behind the growth of the nascent apostolic Church....
            Our reading was taken from chapter 1, the very first chapter....What an appropriate story for the opening of Acts.  Here in the first chapter, we hear of the last experience of the Apostles with their resurrected Lord, their resurrected Lord and ours too....He has a last word for them...It’s a word of promise.
            Oh they’re still distracted with other concerns, as they were when they walked with Jesus during his earthly ministry....They still have their minds set on some of the wrong things...They asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”(Acts 1:6).  It appears that they want to return to something that is past, as so many people today seem to long for the good old days, when everything was hunky dory....
            It seems they want to see a return to the days when Israel was great and glorious; as it was in the days of Kings David and Solomon....And it is likely their motives for this are not the purest.  Since they are so close to Jesus, and they believe he is the new King David, they probably imagine themselves in the seats of power and glory with Jesus....They probably also yearn to throw off the Roman yoke of oppression....
            In asking the question of Jesus they are both asking for too much and imagining too little.  In casting their eyes backward, they don’t comprehend that Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of God are about something entirely new and beyond their imagination... Jesus responds to them, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority”(Acts 1:7).  
            Jesus is telling them, “You be concerned about what God wants you to be concerned about, and let God be concerned about what God should be concerned about.”  But he doesn’t just shoot them and their question down...No, he also makes them a promise....“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses [the word in Greek is MARTYROS in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 
            That’s what they are to be concerned about:  Christ’s mission; being his witnesses, his MARTYROS from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth....
            “When he had said this,” the text tells us, “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).  We’re told further, that “while he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them”(Acts 1:10).  These are now familiar figures to us.
            We first encountered them, or some beings like them, on Easter morning at the empty tomb.  We are meant to understand them as angels, God’s messengers...They said to Jesus’ followers, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you have seen him go into heaven”(1:11). 
            In short, they are saying to Jesus’ followers, stop gawking and go do what he told you.  He’ll be back; in the meantime, go wait for the promised gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then get to the work of mission and ministry!  I’ll come back to that, but for now let’s be a little heavenly minded and gaze with them and gawk with them for a few moments, looking at heaven....What is it we mean by this word?  How do we understand heaven?
            A few weeks ago, long-time St. Paul’s member Charlie Simon gave me a book that he had read which he found both moving and provocative....It made him wonder; wonder about heaven....The book is titled Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.[3] It’s written by Todd Burpo a pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska (professional writer Lynn Vincent assisted him).  
            In Heaven is for Real, Todd Burpo tells about what happened after his just under four-year-old son Colton made it through and emergency appendectomy.  According to the rear book-cover states, his family was “overjoyed at his miraculous survival. What they weren’t expecting, though, was the story that emerged in the months that followed.”[4]
            Colton...told his parents “he left his body during the surgery – and authenticated that claim,” the rear book-cover states, “by describing exactly what his parents were doing in another part of the hospital while he was being operated on.  He talked of visiting heaven and relayed stories told to him by people he met there whom he had never met in life, sharing events that happened even before he was born. He…astonished his parents with descriptions and obscure details about heaven that matched the Bible exactly, though he had not yet learned to read.”[5]
            Here’s a little selection from the book which corresponds nicely with our reading from Acts this morning.  In the chapter, now 4 year old Colton is playing with some toy action figures about to go into battle.    Todd Burpo writes, “Remember when you were telling me what Jesus looks like? And about the horse?
            [Colton] nodded, eyes wide and earnest.
            You were in heaven?”
            He nodded again…
            “Well, what did you do in heaven?” I ventured.
Homework?  That wasn’t what I was expecting.  Choir practice, maybe, but homework? “What do you mean?”
            Colton smiled.  “Jesus was my teacher.”
            “Like school?”
             Colton nodded.  “Jesus gave me work to do, and that was my favorite part of heaven.  There were lots of kids, Dad.”[6]
            A few lines later, this exchange tales place. Todd Burpo asks his son, “So what did the kids look like?  What do people look like in heaven”
            “Everybody’s got wings,” Colton said.
            Wings, huh “Did you have wings?”
            “Yeah, but mine weren’t very big.”  Todd writes, “He          looked a little glum when he said this.
            “Okay....but did you walk places or did you fly?”
            “We flew. Well, all except for Jesus. He was the only one in heaven who didn’t have wings.  Jesus went up and down like an elevator.”[7]
            Todd Burpo writes: “The book of Acts flashed into my head, the scene of Jesus’ ascension when Jesus told the disciples that they would be his witnesses that they would tell people all over the world about him.  After he had said this, the Scripture says, Jesus ‘was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight...Jesus went up.  And will come down.  Without wings.  To a kid, that could look like an elevator.”[8]
            I read Heaven is for Real and I have to confess, I don’t know what to make of little Colton’s “out of body” experience...In many ways, what he described has been described by others, including adults who have gone through a similar thing.  The book is worth reading and provokes a lot of good questions.  I’ve decided we’ll use it for one of the book discussions later this summer and Barbara will order copies so that you can read it. 
            But even this little snippet begs the question, “What do we understand heaven to be?  Is it a primarily a physical place?  Is it primarily a state of existence? Is it something between the two?
            In the back of the Book of Common Prayer, on page 862 in our “Outline of the Faith” the question is asked, “What do we mean by heaven and hell?”  The answer given states, “By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God; by hell we mean eternal death in our rejection of God.”[9]  I like this response though it is, admittedly, vague.  It certainly leans toward the notion that heaven is more a state of existence than a physical place, I am inclined to lean that way too.
            In the biblical world, and especially the Old Testament, heaven was clearly a place.....As Walter A. Ellwell and Philip W. Comfort state in their Tyndale Bible Dictionary, “Heaven” is “the realm (or realms) designated by the Hebrew term used to represent the sky and air and also heaven.  The form of the word in Hebrew is dual (implying two of something).  Although the dual form may only represent an ancient devise for expressing the plural, it is supposed by some to imply the existence of a lower and an upper heaven - a physical and a spiritual heaven.”[10] 
            “The [Old Testament] writers,” Ellwell and Comfort note, “viewed the physical heavens as a ‘firmament’ appearing as a great arch supported on foundations and pillars....and spread out above the earth, with rain descending through its doors....”[11] (We could sure use those doors opening in South Florida about now.)
            They continue, “In the New Testament, this notion of the vaulted expanse of the sky as the region in which the elements, clouds and tempests gather and birds fly is continued...”  A little later in their definition, they speak of the “Third Heaven” as “a place reached by the souls of the blessed as they pass through the two lower regions of the atmosphere and outer space containing the celestial bodies, and enter the uttermost reaches of the universe.”[12]
            The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church,[13] a classic reference work for Anglicans, says about “heaven” that it is “the dwelling place of God and the angels, and ultimately of all the redeemed, wherein they receive their eternal reward.”[14]  ODCC notes that “The early Christians accepted the contemporary Jewish and Hellenistic conceptions of a series of heavens together with that of angelic and demonic powers existing in the heavens over whom Christ since his resurrection and ascension reigns supreme with the Father ‘far above all heavens.”[15] 
            Later in the definition, ODCC states, “Catholic theology regards heaven as ‘a place’ but claims no knowledge of its spatial characteristics or its relation to the physical universe, stressing rather the essential quality of the life of heaven which consists in the ‘enjoyment of the Beatific Vision’[16] [that is the eternal and perfected vision of God]....ODCC concludes, “Virtually all Christians, while making greater or lesser reservations about details, would agree that heaven is essentially the fulfillment, to a degree impossible on earth, of what is the chief end of humankind....that is, to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”[17]
            Well, I don’t know if any of this is helpful to you or not; but perhaps it’s gotten you to think more deeply and seriously about the question and meaning of heaven…Now, however, we’ve been heavenly minded long enough. It’s time to hear the question of the two men dressed in white in today’s reading from Acts, “Why do you stand looking up into heaven?” (Acts 1:11)   
            It’s time to come down to planet earth again, and recognize that heaven will come to us, or we will get to heaven in God’s good time.  In the meantime, in the “in-between time,” we still have lots to do....The gift of the Holy Spirit has been promised, and it will come to us anew, with new fire, new light and new love, if we are receptive to it....And that same Spirit calls us into the world, to witness to Jesus, to witness to his love....and, perhaps even, to help bring about heaven here, right here, on this planet where we “live and move and have our being.”[18] 
            In closing, let me share some words and thoughts of contemporary poet Raymond Foss which I think are an especially appropriate ending.  It’s from his poem “Something of Heaven” which is one of 12,000 poems that can be found on his blog site, Poetry Where You Live:[19]  Foss writes,  
Something of heaven
can be here with us
out of the dialogue
the hearing of the message
the voice of God
a relationship, a way of life
emboldening us, lifting us
within the realities of earth;
something of heaven here.

[1]   Gellman, Marc and Hartman, Thomas Where Does God Live:  Questions and Answers for Parents and Children (Liquori Missouri: Liquori Publications, 1996).  
[2]   Acts 1:6- 14
[3]   Burpo, Todd, with Vincent, Lynette  Heaven is for Real:  A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back  (Nashville, Dallas, etc:  Thomas Neslon Publishers, 2010) 
[4]   Heaven is for Real, Rear book-jacket
[5]    Heaven is for Real, Rear book-jacket
[6]    Heaven is for Real, pp. 71 - 72
[7]    Heaven is for Real,  pp. 72 -73
[8]    Heaven is for Real,  p. 72
[9]   “Outline of the Faith” Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 862
[10]   See ‘Heaven” in Tyndale Bible Dictionary ed.  Elwell, Walter A. and Comfort, Philip W (Wheaton, Illinois:  Tyndale House Publishers,  2001)
[11]   T.B.D.
[12]   T.B.D.
[13]   See “Heaven” in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church  ed. F.L. Cross (Oxford and New York:           Oxford University Press, 1997)
[14]  O.D.C.C.
[15]  O.D.C.C.
[16]  O.D.C.C.
[17]  O.D.C.C.
[18]  See Acts 17:8
[19]  Foss, Raymond “Something of Heaven” June 2007 See  http://raymondafoss.blogspot.com/2007_06_10_archive.html (used with permission).

No comments: