This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 15, 2017. The Bible verses used are John 19:17-30.
Many of you know that I was a lawyer before I became a pastor. For my first two years of seminary, before I had my first United Methodist appointment, I continued to work part-time as a lawyer. I knew, though, that once I had an appointment, my days as a lawyer would come to an end.
Once in a while, during those two years, I wondered how I would feel when I walked out the door of the law office for the last time. Don’t get me wrong, I was confident that going into the ministry was the right thing for us to do. Still, I’d worked in that law office for seventeen years. How was it going to feel to leave it? Would I feel sadness? Regret? Nostalgia? How was it going to feel when I closed that office door for the last time?
Well, as it turned out, I did not feel any of those things. What I felt, really, was a sense of appropriateness. It felt right to be leaving the law office. Not that I had hated my time there or anything, I don’t mean that. I just had this sense that things were going the way they were supposed to go. I had enjoyed my time in law, I had done everything I was supposed to do there. Now it was time to walk through that door and go on to find out what would happen next.
When I thought about it later, it occurred to me that it would be really cool if death felt like that. If, in fact, we’re blessed to live a long and full life, it would be nice to have that feeling at the end of life. To have no sadness, no regret, no nostalgia. To feel that death, at that time, is simply appropriate. To have it feel right to be leaving this life. Not that we hate our time here. But just to have the sense that things are going the way they’re supposed to go. We’ve done everything we’re supposed to do here. Now it’s time to walk through that door and go on to find out what happens next.
I don’t know if that’s how it actually will feel. I don’t think we can possibly know how it will feel until we actually experience. But I have hopes. And one of the reasons for my hope is the description of Jesus’ death on earth in our reading from the gospel of John.
Jesus is led out to the place of crucifixion. Jesus had known for some time that this was going to happen. He had told the disciples many times that he was going to be killed. He had told them how he was going to be killed. None of this came as a surprise to Jesus. It was what he had been sent to earth to do.
Jesus is on the cross. His work on earth is done. And in looking into this, to help me picture it, I discovered that the way we sometimes picture Jesus’ crucifixion is probably wrong. We picture him way up on the cross, several feet off the ground. What I read was that this was not true. When you were crucified, you were just barely off the ground, maybe a foot at most. Nobody would’ve had to lean way back or crane their necks to see Jesus. Jesus and the other people who were being crucified were not towering over everyone. They were not that far from eye level.
Jesus is on the cross. His work on earth is done. Except for one thing. Hanging on the cross, Jesus sees one more thing he can do. He sees his mother, Mary, standing there near him. Next to Mary is someone described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, which we assume is John. He says to Mary “Woman, here is your son” and he says to John “Here is your mother”. Jesus, hanging on the cross, does one last thing out of love. He makes sure that his mother, Mary, has someone to take care of her now that he’s going to be gone.
After that, were told that Jesus knew “that everything had now been finished”. He asks for a drink and gets one. Then he says “it is finished”. And he dies.
It sounds to me like Jesus had that feeling I talked about earlier. At the end of his life on earth, he had no sadness, no regret, no nostalgia. He knew that death, at that time, was simply appropriate. It was right for him to be leaving this life. He had the sense that things were going the way they were supposed to go. The Scriptures had been fulfilled. Jesus had done everything he was supposed to do here. Now it was time to walk through that door and go on to find out what would happen next.
The difference between Jesus and you and me is that Jesus knew what would happen next. He knew that he would rise from the dead, that he would spend a little more time with his disciples, and then he would go back to heaven. Jesus had been in heaven before he came to earth. He knew what it was like. He knew that he would be going back to be with God the Father. In effect, Jesus knew that when he left earth, he would be going home.
Now, that’s a phrase we use a lot, too. We talk about dying as going home or as God calling us home. And there’s truth in it, of course. Earth may be our home for now, but we know our time here is only temporary. We know that, if we believe in Jesus as our Savior, we will go on to our future home, our permanent home, our eternal home. We, too, will go to be with God the Father in heaven.
But while we believe that, and we may even say we know it, you and I have never been to heaven. We don’t know what it’s like there. We cannot picture it. The Bible tells us a few things about it, the streets being paved with gold and so forth, but we don’t really know whether that’s something we’re supposed to take literally. The fact is that we don’t really know what heaven is like. We don’t know what we’ll be like there. For us, even if we believe in heaven, what happens next is still a mystery.
But you know, I wonder if it might have been a mystery to Jesus, too. Now, don’t take that the wrong way. I believe what I said earlier, that Jesus had been in heaven before he came to earth and that he knew that when he left the earth he would be going back there.
What I wonder is, while Jesus was on earth, was he able to remember everything about what heaven is? This is one of the many things we don’t understand about the fully human and yet fully divine Jesus. While Jesus was on earth, he was not connected to God the Father in the same way that he had been in heaven. That’s why he would often go off by himself to meditate and to pray. He was trying to get that connection to God the Father again.
Now, Jesus knew who he was. He knew he was the divine Son of God. And he knew what that meant. He knew that he had come from heaven and would return to heaven. Jesus knew all that.
What I’m wondering is how well he was able to call to mind what heaven really was. We think Jesus was about thirty-three years old when he was crucified. That means it had been thirty-three years since he had been in heaven. Now, thirty-three years is the blink of an eye in heavenly terms, but it’s a long time in earthly terms. I mean, thirty-three years ago Ronald Reagan was president. The big pop song of 1984 was Tina Turner singing “What’s Love Got to Do with It”. The big movie of 1984 was the original Police Academy movie. Thirty-three years ago I was twenty-five and just starting my career as a lawyer, with no thought that I’d ever become a pastor.
The point is that, in human terms, thirty-three years is a long time. And again, Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. Could the fully human Jesus really remember what heaven was? Could he remember what it looked like? Could he remember what it smelled like? Could he remember how it felt to be there?
Maybe he could. But we really don’t know. And maybe he did not need to. Maybe Jesus did not need to know exactly what was waiting for him in heaven because he knew who was waiting for him in heaven. Jesus knew that when he returned to heaven, he would be reunited with God the Father. And maybe that was really all he needed to know.
And maybe that’s all you and I need to know, too. Yes, it would be nice if we could picture heaven. It would be nice if we knew what it looked like and what it smelled like. It would be nice if we knew how it feels to be there. But you and I really don’t need to know that. We don’t need to know what’s waiting for us in heaven because we know who’s waiting for us in heaven. We know that we’ll be in the presence of the almighty, all-powerful, and yet all-loving and all-caring God. And that’s really all we need to know.
We all know that, for each of us, the day will come when it’s time for us to walk through that door. Whenever that day comes, may we meet it with no sadness, no regret, no nostalgia. May we have that feeling that what is happening is simply appropriate. Things were going the way they were supposed to go. We have done everything we are supposed to do. May we walk through that door eager to find out what happens next. And may we be confident that the door will lead us to the almighty, all-powerful, all-loving, all caring God.