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Sunday, June 2, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.
Will We Recognize Each Other in Heaven?
"Big Questions" Sermon Series
Pastoral Resident, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Our church is in the midst of a “Big Questions” sermon series. These are questions you (as in people throughout the congregation) asked that we address during worship. Today’s question is “Will we recognize each other in heaven?” With this being my last day with you all, it’s ironic that this is today’s theme. I could answer the question with just saying, “I hope we see each other in the future, but we don’t know for sure” and end the whole sermon here now with a good-bye party, but I don’t think I’d be doing my pastoral duty to get at the real need this question poses.
Will we recognize each other in heaven? I hear in this question a need to be known, a need to be recognized, a need to be connected. We are communal beings and cannot survive life without each other. Our relationships are vital to us, so how could we imagine life after death without our loved ones, our community? Imagining heaven is intertwined with our innate human need to be known and connected with each other. Our imagination around heaven has everything to do with what we experience on earth.
Serving as the primary pastor for those in their twenties and thirties here at Fourth Church for almost three years, I can tell you about the human need to be known within my generation. Two years ago, the TwentiesThirties ministry underwent an assessment of our ministries, asking the questions, What are the needs of our population? What is working well in our ministry, and what can we improve upon? Through intentional one-to-one conversations and a survey with people who have been part of our ministry in varying levels of involvement, we found that the number one reason people show up to our programs and events or get connected with us at any capacity is to find community. It wasn’t to learn about our faith tradition or even to engage in service—these came in as a close second and third. Finding community was number one. People wanted to be known.
This makes sense, because millennials—people in the age range of 23–38—are a highly transient population. Most of the millennials I have seen over the seven years I have served in young adult ministry, not just at Fourth Church but also another church in Chicago and at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s national headquarters, have been people who have lived in multiple places within a short time span. For instance, many millennials go off to college, graduate, and either do a year of service somewhere or find a job for a few years. Some may search for another job next or go to graduate school in a new city, moving every two to three years. Picking up and starting over in a new city is part of our generation’s narrative to follow our dreams, explore and be changed, and, frankly, to just find a job, since many of us entered the workforce right after the 2008 recession. The leaders and most active participants we have in our ministry change every year, which reflects this transience. I can’t tell you how many times I grabbed coffee with a millennial and their story was “I just moved to Chicago, and I’m looking for community.” When you’re moving so often, it’s hard to find community. It’s hard to stay connected with friends and family. It’s hard to be known.
Many people beginning their careers are expected to devote their time to working seventy-plus hours a week. Millennials are getting married and having children at the lowest rate ever of a generation’s emerging adult population. Workplaces take advantage of people’s lack of family responsibilities, yet how can you ever make a family if you’re working all the time—including when “family” is not just about getting married and having kids but the people with whom we choose to live our lives. It’s hard to be known without the space to be with people.
Plus, you’ve probably heard before of the rise of the “nones,” not the Catholic nuns but the people who don’t identify with a religion and may call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Most of the people in our ministry don’t have friends outside of church that share their faith tradition or even have a faith tradition. Often the people in our ministry are isolated in their faith, and this need to be known is not just about a person knowing they exist but a need for community to know the core of who we are, to wrestle with similar faith questions , to share in the Christian life together.
Maybe you’re not a millennial and you still relate to this need to be known. I highly doubt we’re the only ones. Maybe you recently moved to Chicago, or you’ve been so consumed with the burdens of life that it’s hard for you to find community. Maybe you do have community, but something is missing—those opportune times in relationships where we ask how you’re doing and really mean it and have a chance to get at the core of what your heart is carrying, dealing with, wondering, longing for. Those moments of deep connection in our relationships are the key to us feeling known. All of us want to be known and understood, and if we’re not feeling it now on earth, then by God we must have that need met in heaven.
In our culture, we have a lot of images of what heaven could be like. My friend’s dad is convinced the Rolling Stones will be playing there. Biblically speaking though, we don’t know a whole lot of what heaven will be like. Mark 13:32 says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
This is some of what we do know, though: in the Bible, when we see language of “heaven” or the “kingdom of God,” scripture is seeking to name the space God inhabits, the space of justice, sinlessness, beauty, happiness, where all is well and right with the world. “Earth” or “world” is the language we find that names the status quo, the places we live, see, experience concretely as human beings—the places of injustice, sin, pain, and suffering. However, the Bible doesn’t just talk about heaven and earth as these distinct, dichotomous places. Instead, the story of our faith and the countless stories we read in the Bible are centered on merging these two worlds. In the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, earth was like heaven—merged. Then Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and we see sin enter the world, and that rift between heaven and earth begins. The story of biblical Israel, the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and the early church is all about how we can be part of merging heaven and earth again. We do see glimpses of heaven on earth now—those moments of experiencing the Holy Spirit active in our lives through the comfort of a friend, a tear from a powerful piece of music, a court ruling of genuine justice holding a perpetrator accountable. Yet we’re in the midst of the messy both-heaven-and-earth. O how we long for all to be well and right for that time of merging.
Our text today in Revelation 21 is the biblical imagery of what we hope for and long for as Christians—the day when Christ returns and heaven and earth finally merge again. The book of Revelation is not a text that we Presbyterians love to spend a lot of time in. It’s an apocalyptic text with fantastical symbolic images of beasts and dragons, angels and a man on a white horse, somehow sharing how God will deal with good and evil in the world. We must remember that these are symbolic images trying to name the unnameable, not a literal expectation. Theologian Shirley Guthrie explains this, saying, “The Bible uses earthly human categories of time and space not to describe literally where we will be and how we will exist ‘after time’ but to describe who we will be. It is not primarily interested in ‘the furniture of heaven’ . . . but in people and what it will mean for [us] to be together with . . . God.” He shares that as Christians, when we wonder about what heaven will be like or what comes after death, our best practice is to “remember the future.” We look toward and find hope in what God has revealed already in the biblical story of Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We remember where we came from as a reflection of where we’re going. When we look forward to the end, we look forward to “a new heaven and earth,” which Guthrie names as the completion and perfection of this world. Our scriptures call it a new creation, a new humanity. We don’t seek to escape from the world but expect a new world right here. The merging of heaven and earth.
This is God’s promise to us, in which we can trust. We can trust in the merging of heaven and earth, where God will make God’s home among us. We can trust that God will be with us and wipe every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and the ways of sin and suffering and injustice will be gone.
We can trust, that in this new creation, God will know us just as God promises to know us already. And in the gift of eternal life that God promises us, if all things are made well and right, then of course we will recognize each other. But, if we’re going to recognize each other in heaven, then we better know each other now. If, as Christians we’re not just focused on what is to come someday but are working for that merging of heaven and earth today, let’s get to know each other. We don’t have to wait for life after death. Let’s help each other feel known and included and valued now, for God calls us to be working towards this merging of heaven and earth now. God calls us to recognize God’s presence in one another. God calls us to value the truth in each other’s stories.
That’s why you’re all wearing name tags—to help us get to know each other. I’m not saying you all have to pour out your souls and life stories to each other right now, although I hope you do sometime with at least some people in the church, whether it’s this church or another. But you can, at the very least, learn some names today as a step towards recognizing each other, as a step of this merging of heaven and earth.
So today, turn to someone whose name you don’t know, and introduce yourself. And if you have seen the person before but have forgotten their name, that’s OK; just ask again.
Will we recognize each other in heaven? We trust so, but let’s not wait that long. Let’s start recognizing each other today. Let’s work on merging heaven and earth now.
In the name of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.