What is Heaven Like?
Well, if you were here last Sunday, you know, we were talking about salvation and heaven, and what the next life might look like. And we're going to continue that conversation this Sunday, because as we just heard, our gospel reading today is a continuation from last Sunday's Gospel reading. Jesus is asked another question about heaven. Specifically, who are we going to be married to in heaven?
And that's a good question that maybe some of you have thought about, particularly if you've been married more than once. So let's say for example, there is a man who marries his high school sweetheart, they get married, they have a family together, and they're together for 20 years, until she tragically dies. A few years later, the man marries a second wife, they also have children, and they are together for 40 years. So the question is, in heaven, who's the man's wife? The first wife? Or the second wife?
Jesus is asked a very similar question here. And notice what his answer is. He says, ‘Nobody's married in Heaven. In Heaven, there's no such thing as marriage.’ And that may surprise you. And it may sadden some of you. Is Jesus saying that in heaven, we're not going to be reunited with our spouse who died? Aren't we going to see our loved ones there? What is Jesus really saying here?
Let's look at it together. Jesus is asked this question by the Sadducees. And it's important to know who the Sadducees were. The Sadducees were one of three Jewish sects in Jesus's day. There were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. Now, the Sadducees were a very conservative religious group. They only believed in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and they took those stories literally. They followed the letter of the law of Moses.
The Pharisees also believed in the Torah, but they understood those stories more spiritually or symbolically, and they were also open to other sacred texts and oral interpretations. And that didn't make them any better in the eyes of Jesus. Because if you read the gospels, you know that Jesus mostly reserved his criticisms for the Sadducees and the Pharisees, which have led some theologians to believe that Jesus possibly belongs in that third group of Jews, the Essenes, the Children of the Light.
We really didn't know a lot about the Essenes, because they're not mentioned in the Bible. We began to learn more about them in the 1940s, because that's when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Egypt. And we discovered from those scrolls that these Essenes also wrote gospels, Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
But the early church did not include those Gospels in the Bible. In fact, they hid those gospels away, hoping that they would never be discovered. The Essenes, like Jesus, believe that we are children of light and that our light goes on. After our bodies die, we experienced resurrection and new life. The Sadducees didn't believe that. And that's why their question here to Jesus – who you're going to be married to in heaven isn't really a serious question, because they don't believe in heaven. What they're doing here is, they're mocking Jesus. They're trying to make Jesus look like a fool for believing something silly, like resurrection and life after death.
But Jesus is such a brilliant teacher. Notice what he does.
He knows that the Sadducees take the Torah, literally. So he says to them, “Well, in the Torah, in the story of Moses and the burning bush, God says, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’”
Now Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were long dead. So Jesus is saying, When God tells Moses, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ He doesn’t say I was the God. He's saying I am. It's present tense, meaning that they're still alive. And that's why Jesus ends this Gospel passage today saying, God is not God of the dead, God is God of the living, for they are all alive.
And my friends, that's what our faith as Christians is all about, right? We say we're an Easter people, we're people who believe in resurrection.
And I don't know about you, but I've experienced the presence of my loved ones who have passed away. I've had experiences of them in very real ways. And I'd like to believe that when I die, and I'm in heaven, that I will be reunited with them. So what then did Jesus say, for example, that we're not going to be married in heaven? Well, I think what Jesus is trying to get at is when we die, we are going to transcend human ideas. Marriage is a human construct. we're going to transcend the ego, we're going to transcend this sense of illusion, and separateness.
So in heaven, everyone's going to be our Beloved. We're going to love strangers as much as we love our spouse. We're going to love strangers’ children as much as we love our own children. Because in heaven, we're going to experience this oneness with everything.
That's what I think Jesus is trying to say here. Now, if you ask me what heaven is like: I don't know. I've told you that before. Any pastor who tells you that they know – they don't know. No one knows for sure. But there are people who have died on the operating room table, and have come back to life. And they have shared what their experience of Heaven was. These stories have been told around the world, people in China, people in Japan, people in India, people in the United States, and they've been told by people who have been children, and adults, and teenagers, people who speak English, people who speak other languages. My point is, is that all of the people who have had these near-death experiences, they all say the same thing. They all have the same story, the same experience to tell, that they experience this light, and this sense of love and bliss that is so powerful, so strong, unlike anything they've ever experienced before. And they feel a sense of oneness with everything.
Now, a few years ago, I attended a talk in Grand Rapids. Margaret was there, Pam and Pete were there. We were there to hear an author whose name is Anita Moorjani. And this is the book she wrote called Dying to Be Me. And Anita Moorjani had a near death experience. And she wrote about it. Here is part of what she said, I'd like to read it for you:
“As my seemingly lifeless body lay there on the hospital bed, I felt no attachment to it. I didn't feel as though it were mine. It looked far too small and insignificant to have housed what I was experiencing. I felt free, liberated and magnificent. Every pain, ache, sadness, and sorrow was gone. I felt completely unencumbered. I couldn't recall feeling this way before, Not ever. What I can only describe as superb and glorious unconditional love surrounded me, wrapping me tight. As I continued to let go, it didn't feel as though I had physically gone somewhere else. It was more as though I had awakened. My soul was finally realizing its true magnificence. And in doing so it was expanding beyond my body and this physical world. The feeling of complete, unconditional love was unlike anything I've ever known before. It was totally undiscriminating, as if I didn't have to do anything to deserve it. Nor did I need to prove myself to earn it. I was aware of other beings around me. I didn't recognize them, but I knew they loved me very much and they were protecting me. I realized that they, too, had been with me all this time. surrounding me with love, even when I wasn't conscious of it. My heightened awareness and feelings of unconditional love in that expanded realm were indescribable, despite my best efforts to explain them. And then I was overwhelmed with the realization that God isn't a being. God is a state of being. And I was now in that state of being.”
I love that, and I believe her. God isn't a being. God is a state of being. And when our bodies die, we return to that state of being, We become one with it again. And so therefore my friends, death is not something that we should fear. It is just part of the journey of moving from separation to oneness, from separation to wholeness, holiness. For God is God of the living. The Spirit of the Living God is with us and within us, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
Rev. Tom Shepherd
In today’s Gospel, the Sadducees challenge Jesus with a story of seven brothers: After the first brother died, the second brother married the first one’s wife. After the second brother died, the third brother married the same woman, and so on. She was eventually married to all seven brothers. So, the Sadducees ask Jesus, “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” This attempt to back Jesus into a religious corner was because the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection at all. It was one of the chief bones of contention between Sadducees and Pharisees. So they were trying both to make fun of the Pharisees and their belief, and to force Jesus to choose between two conflicting beliefs. Jesus replies that the question is based on a false reading of scripture and an attempt to apply human limitations to the realm of eternal spirit. In terms of scripture Jesus quotes from the passage in Exodus when God is speaking to Moses out of the burning bush: "I am the God of Abraham." God does not say he was the God of Abraham; he is the God of Abraham. And, as Jesus notes, "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living." In the realm of Spirit we are all one—one heart, one mind, one Christ energy in expression. Human ideas of separate identities, contracts, relationships are only relevant in this mortal domain. They are based in a sense of duality, and they will dissolve into the greater, infinite Truth as our journey continues. Further, death is simply a human illusion disguising that ongoing spiritual journey, which never ends. Metaphysically, the Sadducees represent those thoughts in our own consciousness that try to cross-examine our intuitive spiritual understanding in terms of limited human experiences. We must always be willing to "know what we don't know," and allow the infinite Light and Love of God space to work in our lives.
What did you think?