When I was a child, my vision of heaven was riddled with roller coasters and populated by Disney characters. Let me explain.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, the American “mainland” to our north was for me a dreamland of sorts. You could catch a glimpse of it on television show depicting Main Streets lined with impressive trees. And of course, there was Disney World. As a five-year old visiting Florida for the first time, I imagined that the rest of the country was just like that particular corner of Orlando that we tourists saw.
That was heaven on earth for the five-year-old version of me. Heaven was earthly and joyful and fun and sweet. But as we all know Disney is no paradise. I don’t expect long lines, lots of sweat, and expensive but mediocre food in heaven.
When I was five, Disney was my vision of heaven. As I grew up in the church, my vision turned upward. Heaven was an eternal destination deferred until the moment after you die. Heaven was a place of reward and eternity. Heaven was an ethereal experience, something so otherworldly that the best we could do was speak in metaphors and images about it. Heaven, in short, had very little to do with the world as we knew it.
Neither vision gets it quite right.
Many a Christian’s vision of heaven is truncated, anemic, a bit like a five-year old who sees heaven at an amusement park. We imagine streets of gold and pristine white robes but miss that this is but one of the images the Bible paints of an eternal home.
But this isn’t just a problem of doctrine or getting our theology right. Our myopic vision of heaven has certain disastrous consequences for how we understand life here and now as well as the plight of our neighbor.
For many of our sisters and brothers, heaven is far more ordinary. Heaven is opportunity. Heaven is the mere chance for a better life. Heaven is found just on the other side of the border. Heaven is tangible if only the right papers and documents and citizenship could come into their possession. And yet too often those hopes are dashed whether by paralyzed political processes or simple ignorance of their plight or the raging fear that the presence of others will change us at our core.
In John 14:1-14, Jesus makes a number of promises to his followers. In particular, he assures them that though he will soon depart from their midst, he will not therefore be abandoning them. There is a great home and the Father has created a place just for you. There is always room for you there.
Jesus is certain his disciples are following along, comprehending his words of grace and hope. He says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Baffled, Thomas represents the disciples and says: “Huh! We don’t know where you’re going. We don’t know how to follow you there, Jesus.”
Jesus responds with now famous words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Too often, we have wielded that word of welcome as an exclusionary warning. Become a follower of Jesus or else. There is only one path that leads to eternal life, only one gate that will open to the fabulous abode God has prepared for you. Instead, this was a word of hopefulness as well as a promise about the present.
According to Jesus, there is a powerful correlation between the actions of the Father and those of the Son. If you’ve seen Jesus and the things he has done, then you have actually drawn near to God.
But that’s not all.
There is an invitation here to the believer. The one who follows Jesus will follow in his paths of love and compassion, grace and hope. The one who follows Jesus will even “do greater works” than those Jesus accomplished.
The picture Jesus draws here is not just about a future place of welcome, a heavenly home ready to welcome us when we die. Instead, he imagines a home that welcomes us both now and then.
These days after Easter are a powerful reminder that the resurrection is not just a promissory note for some future reality but a daily experience for the follower of Christ. Resurrection is not just something we anticipate but something in which we can participate now, even as death encroaches upon us.
And because we have deferred God’s gift of this heavenly home to some indistinct yet certain future day of judgment, we neglect to see how that gift just might take root in our midst today. That heavenly home is not just an antidote for our current malaise, a sedative to keep us moving through a dreary world. It’s a vision intended to spur us into action right here and right now because God is already moving amongst us.
The death Jesus conquered was not just the death that tried to take his life. It was not just the death that tried to steal his last breath and hold it for all time. It was not just the death that slowed his heart. It was not just the death that forced his eyes closed so that light would never again be seen. It was not just the death that sought to turn his body back to dust. It was not just the death that sought to swallow him in the ground in the cave that Joseph offered.
The death Jesus conquered was even more powerful that the force that sought to sweep away his life. That death works its way into our bones. It wields disease in its right hand, destruction in its left. That death rends families apart. That death stirs in us jealousies and hatreds. That death wrecks havoc on the earth. That death whispers in our ears, “Crucify him” or “Fear them.” That death distracts us from the pain of others and highlights our every desire. That death convinces us that we and our neighbors near and far are not worthy of enduring love and vibrant life. That death follows migrants crossing blazing deserts.
That death does not just seek to take our lives but encompass them, suffuse them with hopelessness. That death is not satisfied with defeating us but with convincing us that we ought to defeat ourselves.
That is the death Jesus conquered. That is the death Jesus conquers in us, not just on our death beds when our bodies draw one last breath, our hearts beat one last time, our synapses fire one last time, our eyes flicker with recognition one last time. That death Jesus conquers is more quotidian, more ordinary than that dramatic, final scene. That death tries to hover our every moment. Where love surges, it fights back. Where hope finds root, it dries the soil. Where life flourishes, it conjures an icy blast to steal blooms reaching for the sun. Where hope sees opportunity, it builds a towering wall.
And because Jesus has conquered death, we too are victorious, not just on that day when we die but right here, right now. To disease, we say no. To division, we say no. To violence and warfare and degradation, we say no. To fences to keep “those” people out, we say no.
If God has prepared a home for us, ought we not prepare a home for our neighbor? If God has prepared a home for us, perhaps God is building some today even as we try to erect fences around our own.
Undocumented immigrants like Thelma live in fear of deportation and losing their "home."
The Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
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