A young boy asks his grandfather, Is heaven a hope, or is it as real as earth and sky? The grandfather responds, By the time I find out, it will be too late to tell you.
The other day I watched the movie, “Heaven is for Real,” based on a book by the same name. The book made bestseller charts, as others like it have done, when it came out a few years ago. It is the true story of a four-year-old boy, Colton, who told his family of a wonderful trip that he made to heaven during a near-death experience when he was on the operating table. The movie opens with that question – is heaven a hope, or is it as real as earth and sky?
A little later in the movie, there is a scene where Colton is sitting with his father, a pastor named Todd, when Todd is called to make a visit at the hospital. Todd ponders taking the boy with him. The kid is a good pastor’s kid, who knows when to sit and be still, and the dad figures he won’t be too long. But still, Todd is concerned that sitting in a hospital for even a few minutes might be a little frightening for Colton. The boy says to him, “When I’m with you I won’t be afraid.” In our second lesson today Paul is making the same kind of statement for those who belong to Christ, with whom and for whom the Spirit intercedes. “When we are with you, we won’t be afraid.”
This particular text from Romans is one my personal favorites. In many ways it gives us reassurance we yearn for, for so many fears and concerns we have. While it names some of our deepest fears and the feelings of helplessness they reveal, Paul reminds us of the great, divine love that is poured out for us in Jesus.
This love enables us to feel joined to a God who loves us so much that God himself repeatedly intercedes for us. In our moments of weakness, exhaustion and despair, God is with us interceding through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. In moments of temptation, suffering and sin, God is with us interceding through the work of Jesus, on the cross. In these verses from his epistle to the Romans, Paul reminds us that through Christ, we have been fused to God’s love forever, and therefore know with certainty that the divine love of God, who searches every heart, who knows our fears, failings, trials and doubts will always be there for us. Through the constant presence of God’s Spirit, we know that no matter what befalls us, we are never left alone in our struggle. God’s love in Christ Jesus goes with us. Always. Forever.
Those, my friends, are words we need to hear in our daily lives.
Later on in the movie, we see glimpses of how Colton experienced that trip through heaven. He meets Jesus. He sits on Jesus’ lap. And Jesus tells him everything is alright. You do not need to be afraid.
We’ve heard those words before, from scripture, haven’t we? Repeatedly, in fact, angels, prophets, and Jesus himself have delivered that same message from God, have repeated those same words: do not be afraid. This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us why – it lists all those things that we fear will in fact separate us in some way from God’s love and from God’s promise.
Some of these words from this Romans text may in fact be familiar to you from their frequent use at the funerals. They are often read at those services because they bring great comfort and hope at a time of loss and uncertainty. They offer hope and reassurance to the loved ones of the deceased that God’s promises are sure and that indeed their loved one is now among the glorious saints in light. And yet, these words do not simply apply to those who have passed from this life to the next and are now in heaven, these are words that apply to the living as well, and especially to the living, for they are words of life. They are words of hope and assurance for our daily lives. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid.
Paul names some of the things that might threaten us and indeed, cause fear; things like hardship, persecution, famine, peril, sword – and we could add to this list. What are some of the things in our lives and on our minds today that might threaten us? What are we afraid of, ashamed of, or worried about? Where does the intersection of faith and our daily life threaten to weaken the resolve of our faith and cause us to despair and question, and even to doubt God’s word?
If we were to break out into groups right here and now I think that together we could probably identify quite a list of things that threaten our confidence; things like disease, divorce, financial worries, addiction, and worries about the future for ourselves and our loved ones. We might list apprehensions about our children or grandchildren, perhaps worries about aging parents. For some of us there may be disputes with our neighbors, co-workers or family members. We might list things like division among the churches or the pain we feel over the news of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Our lists would contain instances of sin, both personal and corporate. Secretly, we might include our own feelings of unworthiness, doubt, fatigue, or helplessness.
But friends, I invite you to hear and savor the words of this text, which reflect God’s promise. We are surely reminded that, while these things and more that we experience or might imagine bring us angst and turmoil, NONE of them and NOTHING can truly threaten our relationship with God, past, present or future. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid. NONE of them and NOTHING can separate us from the love of God nor steal away our inheritance as children of God. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid. The love of Christ is nothing less than the love of God at work in the world in victorious alliance with God’s Holy Spirit. I am with you, you don’t need to be afraid. The love of Christ is God’s assurance that despite the reality that the Christian life entails suffering and persecutions, for God’s sake the victory is assured through the cross.
Paul goes on in even broader terms to say – For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. None of it! Though fearsome, NONE of these is strong enough to tear us away from the arms of God who loves us so! NONE of it can take away from us our status as God’s beloved.
In last week’s text and sermon we explored the meanings of hope in our lives and we were reminded that at our baptism we each received the seal of the Holy Spirit as we were marked with the cross of Christ - forever. While our daily walk may at times be joyful and at other times be filled with grief and misery and fear, we carry that seal upon us wherever we go. Martin Luther wrote that each morning upon rising and each evening upon taking our bed we should remind ourselves of that promise through the making of the sign of the cross upon ourselves, reminding ourselves who we are and whose we are.
We are the sons and daughters of God, sisters and brothers in Christ in whom we have been baptized. We are inheritors of God’s far-reaching grace; we are recipients of life and grace in the Spirit of God, the same Spirit about whom Paul writes at the very beginning of today’s reading, intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words. This is the same Spirit that gives us the gift of faith and then blesses us with the tools for living that faith. This same Spirit intercedes for us as we pray, searching our heart, and knowing our need often before we ourselves can conceive of it.
In the movie, Colton convinces many of the skeptics around him that indeed, heaven is real. But we know that because God intercedes continually in our lives and in our world, we don’t have to wait until we die to see heaven. We see glimpses of heaven whenever we see good overtaking evil or love flying in the face of hatred. We see the kingdom of God as glimpses of heaven when strangers reach out to the disadvantaged to give them assistance, pray for them, care for them.
We participate in the kingdom of God and in the Spirit’s heavenly work when we respond to God’s plea, when we act to ease the suffering of another human being, when we resist the evils of discrimination, racist, sexism, ageism, hatred and injustice. The Spirit can and does use us to intercede in God’s heavenly work through loving action in our daily lives.
Is heaven a hope, or is it as real as earth and sky? The real answer, my friends, is yes, and yes. Heaven is our hope, our conviction for God’s final and eternal answer to the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. But it is not entirely in the future. Through the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God through Christ, glimpses of heaven are in and through and among us. In the end, God will triumph over all fear, all want, all our failures and worries, and a redeemed world will welcome all the beloved of God!
Baptized into Christ, we are inheritors with him to eternal salvation, God’s ultimate triumph over death and the grave, God’s triumph over anything that might separate us from God’s love. What that means in our day-to-day living, is that we can rely on that love, rely on the Spirit of God to always be with us, by our side, surrounding us, infusing us with God’s good will and good intention for creation, and winning for us the magnificent ending that God intends and promises, thanks be to God!