Heaven is open wide!

Good morning, Friends! Even though it’s a week later, I’m still going to wish you all a happy Easter.

I know you’ve probably already eaten up all your Easter chocolate and your marshmallow peeps. But in many parts of the church, Easter isn’t over yet.

In many parts of the church, the celebration is still going on. And it will be, for the next six weeks.

Just as the rest of the church celebrates Advent – the four weeks before Christmas – many Christians also celebrate Lent – the six weeks before Easter.

And in a lot of churches, the six weeks after Easter are called the Easter season or the Paschal season. They consider it to be the most joyful season of the entire year, because Christ has risen, and that’s good news for everyone.

We’re familiar with Easter customs, like having a sunrise service, Easter eggs and the Flowering Cross. We’re familiar with symbols like the Easter lily, and some of us can remember women wearing Easter bonnets and cities having Easter parades.

There’s a wonderful custom some churches have in England right after Easter. The whole congregation goes outside, and they line up and surround the church building. First they face inward, toward the church, and pray for the church to grow and for everyone in the church to be healthy.

Then they turn and face the circle outward, and pray for the whole world, for peace and freedom, and for everyone in the whole world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

I’d love for us to be able to do that someday. It would take a lot of people to surround the whole building at Springfield! But wouldn’t it be fun? Wouldn’t it be meaningful, to go outside and pray for our meeting, and pray for the world?

Let’s hold that thought, and maybe try it sometime.

After Easter, we always want to know what happened next. There’s the story of Jesus meeting two disciples, on the road to Emmaus. And they didn’t recognize him at first.

There’s the story of Jesus coming to meet the disciples in an upper room – that’s where the name of that devotional magazine comes from that many people enjoy, The Upper Room.

Jesus blessed his disciples, and commissioned them to do all of the same things that he did – to teach, and preach, and heal, all over the world.

There’s a story about them meeting Jesus at dawn on the beach one day, when the disciples had been out fishing all night. They hadn’t caught anything, and this stranger standing on shore told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they’d get plenty.

They caught so many fish the net almost broke, and suddenly they realized it was Jesus there waiting for them.

All these different stories, of what happened after Easter.

Today, though, I want us to look at the big picture. What did Jesus really do, and where has Jesus gone now?

At Christmas, we read the big picture from the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God, and through the Word, everything created was made. In the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. And the Light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. . .” (John 1:1-5)

Today, on the first Sunday after Easter, let’s read the big picture from the opening of the book of Hebrews. It tells us what’s really happening, what it’s really all about.

Long ago in many ways and at many times God’s prophets spoke his message to our ancestors.

But now at last, God sent his Son to bring his message to us. God created the universe by his Son, and everything will someday belong to the Son.

God’s Son has all the brightness of God’s own glory and is like him in every way. By his own mighty word, he holds the universe together.

After the Son had washed away our sins, he sat down at the right side of the glorious God in heaven. He had become much greater than the angels, and the name he was given is far greater than any of theirs.

Hebrews 1:1-4 (Contemporary English Version)

That’s the big picture. God has sent messengers to us many times over the years – the prophets and faithful witnesses in the Bible, and the saints whose lives have been like shining lights for us.

But now, God has sent his son, Jesus, to bring us his message. Jesus has shared the truth with us, and has shared God’s love and light and life. Through Jesus, we see God’s glory.

It says that Jesus holds the whole world together. If it weren’t for Jesus’ love, his prayers for us, his care for us, the world we know would fall apart. Not just human society, but the world itself would break up. That’s what it says.

As we listen to Jesus and obey him, as we follow his way, our mistakes and our brokenness are washed away. Jesus doesn’t look at our failures. He looks at who we are – his loved ones, his sisters and brothers, everywhere around the world.

And then, it says, Jesus “went to heaven and sat down on God’s right hand.”

At the table, at a party, you know how the guest of honor sits on the right side of the host or hostess? That’s what it’s saying here. Jesus is honored forever, for who he is and for what he’s done.

Some day we all hope to join Jesus. We don’t really know any of the details, so we take it on trust. And Jesus is trustworthy, so we can trust him.

Jesus said that there’s plenty of room in his Father’s house. There’s room for everyone, and Jesus himself is fixing it up for us. He said that he would come back, and take us home to be with him. And that’s a promise we live by.

Where it is and what it’s like – that’s all speculation. I’ve heard lots of preachers who take bits and pieces from different parts of the Bible, and stir it all up together, and plop it down on a cookie sheet. But the truth is, we don’t know yet.

All that stuff about pearly gates and streets of gold, white robes and angel wings – that’s really someone’s vision. It’s someone’s imagination, about what it’s all going to be. I take that sort of stuff seriously, but I also take it lightly. I’m willing to be surprised when I get there.

Jesus actually said that there would be surprises when we all get to Heaven. He said that there would be people we never expected to see, and he also said that some people we expect to see might not be there.

He said “the last will be first, and the first will be last“. He said that whoever wants to be great in the kingdom of heaven, needs to be the servant of everyone. That’s why service and humility are so important to Christians.

If you really want to know who’s doing the work of Christ, don’t look at the headlines. Look down at the soup kitchen and the food pantry. Look in the hospitals and schools. Look at places where people are being fed and taught and cared for.

If you want to know where Christ is speaking, don’t necessarily look at the pulpit or on TV. Look where parents and grandparents are telling their children and grandchildren about Jesus, in their homes and at their bedsides.

Christ is speaking when people are sick or in hospice, and someone visits and prays with them.

Christ is speaking on the job site at Habitat for Humanity. Christ is speaking when employers and co-workers are compassionate and supportive. Mother Teresa used to say that she wanted people to “do something beautiful for God.”

So that’s down here. What about heaven? In the Old Testament, Jacob had a dream one night. He dreamed that there was an incredibly long ladder, reaching from earth all the way up to heaven.

He dreamed that he saw angels, climbing down the ladder to us, and more angels, climbing back up the ladder to heaven. I always love that vision!

It’s says that the connection, between earth and heaven, goes in both directions. God sends helpers down to us, all the time. And people climb up the ladder to God.

I’ve heard people talk about the connection to heaven as a rainbow bridge – that’s a very popular image with people today, you hear people talk a lot about it.

The nice thing about the idea of the rainbow bridge is that it’s broad and wide, with room for everyone to cross on it. The different colors of the rainbow are a hint that all different kinds of people are on it.

People always ask me if their pets or favorite animals are going to heaven to be there with them. I always answer that I don’t know, but it seems to me that God’s love is all-encompassing. God created the animals, too, and I know that a lot of people would be sad and lonely if they didn’t get to see their feathered, finned and furry friends again.

One more thing to leave up to God!

A really big point is that we’re not in charge of who’s going to Heaven. A lot of people think they are, and of course, they’re not. The people who think they’re in charge are generally not the people I look forward to meeting there. But God is probably a lot more loving and forgiving than I am, so there we are again.

All that we really have are hints – hints which are left to us by people who prayed and had visions. They’re short on detail, and long on hope and faith.

For example, Paul said that he didn’t know what it would be like, but that we would all be different. He said that when we die, it’s like a seed being planted in the ground. But God gives each of us a new body, springing up from that seed, and that each of us will be different.

He said, “There are earthly bodies and heavenly bodies. Earthly bodies have one kind of glory, and heavenly bodies have a different kind.”

He said, “It’s just the same – the sun has one kind of glory, the moon has another kind of glory, and the stars have their own glory, too; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

That’s how it will be when our bodies are raised to life,” Paul says. “These bodies will die, but the bodies that are raised will live forever. These ugly and weak bodies will become beautiful and strong. . .we will all be changed. It will happen suddenly, quicker than the blink of an eye. At the sound of the last trumpet the dead will be raised. We will all be changed, so we will never die again.” (1 Corinthians 15:40-45)

But this is all getting ahead of ourselves.

What happens after Easter? We keep celebrating that Jesus is alive.

What should we do? All the things that Jesus told us. Share what he shared, teach what he taught, do what he did, with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Where is Jesus now? We can’t point to any place exactly, but we know he’s with God, and we know he wants us to be with him.

When will that happen? We don’t know, but it will be in God’s time, and in God’s way.

In the meantime, we have plenty of work to do. We have lots of prayers to pray. We have love, we have hope, we have faith.

And we have Jesus’ own Spirit to call on for help when we need it. Jesus said that he wouldn’t leave us alone or without comfort. The Holy Spirit, the Counselor, the Comforter, is always just a prayer away.

There are so many witnesses – people of faith who have gone before us, who raised us and taught us and still give us strength.

There are so many promises, so many words of inspiration and comfort, which we can read and share with each other.

There is plenty of room for everyone who loves God.

And there are lots of things which are still going on. If you read the gospel of John, the last gospel to be written, the very last words of John are:

“There are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself couldn’t contain the books that would be written. . .”

John 21:25
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