Abraham Lincoln ran for Congress in
1846, and he faced a formidable opponent: Peter Cartwright.
Cartwright, a raw-boned, circuit-riding Methodist preacher, was known
throughout Illinois. During his sixty-five years of riding the
circuit, he baptized nearly 10,000 converts.
During the intense Congressional
campaign, some of Cartwright’s followers accused Lincoln of being
an “infidel.” In response, Lincoln decided to meet Cartwright on
his own ground and attend one of his evangelistic rallies. Carl
Sandburg, in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, tells
the story this way:
In due time
Cartwright said “All who desire to lead a new life, to give their
hearts to God, and go to heaven, will stand,” and a sprinkling of
men, women, and children stood up. Then the preacher exhorted, “All
who do not wish to go to hell will stand.” All stood up—except
Lincoln. Then said Cartwright in his gravest voice, “I observe
that many responded to the first invitation to give their hearts to
God and go to heaven. And I further observe that all of you save one
indicated that you did not desire to go to hell. The sole exception
is Mr. Lincoln, who did not respond to either invitation. May I
inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?”
And Lincoln slowly
rose and slowly spoke. “I came here as a respectful listener. I
did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright. I
believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity. I admit
that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great
importance. I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did.
Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going. I desire to
reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress.”
He went.. (As
quoted in “The Untold Story of Christianity & The Civil War,”
Christian History, Issue 33, 1997).
Christians may or may not want to go to
Congress, but at least we speak occasionally of going to heaven.
Philip Yancey suggested recently that several aspects of USAmerican
life lead us to not talk seriously of heaven. One, the biblical
vision of heaven as a place with plentiful food, relief from pain,
and living in luxury has lost some of its luster because of our
affluence. Second, what Yancey calls a “creeping paganism” has
altered our understanding of death as an interruption of an eternal
life to one of a final culmination. Finally, older images of heaven
with emerald walls, golden streets, and as Huck Finn put it “all a
body would have to do was to go around all day long with a harp and
sing, forever and ever” does not get our juices flowing the way a
favorite game, an engaging activity, a fine meal, a great vacation,
or a wonder-filled love does.
This week we turn in Bishop Reuben
Job’s A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader to the topic of
heaven. Let us first pay attention to Jesus’ words:
Jesus said: "Do
not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not
so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And
if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take
you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you
know the way to the place where I am going." Thomas said to
him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know
the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth,
and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you
know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him
and have seen him" (John 14:1-7, NRSV).
John is helping us understand in these
words, often read at funerals; that Christians face death without
fear because we where we are going and know who we belong to.
Miester Eckhart suggested that God is at home and it is we that live
in the far country. He, like the writer of Hebrews, knows that we
live faithfully when our faces are pointed toward the heavenly City
of God and not back toward what is no longer. To live as a citizen
of heaven is to know that we are currently living in the far country
of the Prodigal and we long for the day when the Father comes
bounding off the front porch to start the welcome home party for us.
In the musical Paint Your Wagon the hero sings: “Where
am I going? I don’t know. Where am I heading? I ain’t certain.
All I know is I am on my way.” Today I want you to know where you
are going and know that your way is found in Jesus.
Jesus said: I am the WAY, I am the
TRUTH, and I am the LIFE. The way, truth, and life is not found in a
program, a doctrine, a creed, or a church. The Way, Truth, and Life
is found in Jesus – something we often forget, but that the early
church did not. When they saw God’s saving work going on they gave
credit to Jesus and not to the people doing the work … that’s why
Paul could attribute to pagan rulers Godly motives. We need to learn
that the church is not the way to heaven. The WAY is Jesus, the
TRUTH is Jesus, and the LIFE is Jesus.
Secondly, we know that we belong to the
Father. Here a little humility is in order. God has shown us more
mercy than we could ever imagine. The songwriter Andrew Peterson
sings it this way:
I am the woman at
the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along
I am the son that ran away
I am the bitter son who
my God why hast thou accepted me
You took my sin and wrapped me
Your robe and Your ring
My God, my God why hast thou
It’s a mystery of mercy and the song I sing
I am the angry men
who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before
I am the leper who gave thanks
I am the nine who
You are the
bringer of the moon and all seasons
You are the singer of the tune
that calls the stars
My God, my God why
hast thou accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty
("The Mystery of Mercy," 2005, The Far Country, also see Andrew’s website).
God created us in God’s self image.
God desires our company forever. Augustine said that our hearts are
restless until they find rest in God. To know where we are going and
to whom we belong is to be a citizen of God’s soon-coming kingdom.
We get to live as citizens of heaven now … waiting until later is a
How we live as individuals is
crucial to our heavenly citizenship. Wesley recorded these words:
“I want to know one thing, the way to heaven; how to land safe on
that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For
this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a
book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I
have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius
libri” (“Preface to Sermons on Several Occasions: First
Series,” The Works of John Wesley: Jackson Edition,
Volume 5, page 3).
How we live as a community is
crucial to our heavenly citizenship.
Wesley suggested that feasting
together at the communion table enabled us to receive the blessing
of everlasting glory in heaven (see “Sermon 101: The Duty to
Constant Communion,” The Works of John Wesley: Jackson
Edition, Volume 7, page 150).
Wesley said when we feed the poor
we put treasure in our account in heaven (see “Sermon 89: The More
Excellent Way” The Works of John Wesley: Jackson Edition,
Volume 7, page 37).
I pray our expectations of members in
our church reflect what it is to be a citizen of heaven – the City
Grace-filled Worship – attend
worship whenever we are in town.
Group Fellowship – we need the
company of others on the Way.
Growing Discipleship – God is
not through with us.
Gifted Ministry – we offer
ourselves to build the body of Christ.
Generous Mission – generously
give time, talent, and treasure.
Links to articles at Christianity Today:
- Peter Kreft answers 35 questions about "What Will Heaven Be Like?"
- Anthony Hoekema suggests that the present earth will be renewed (as opposed to annihilated and re-created) in "Not Just an Eternal Day Off."
- Philip Yancey notes modern USAmericans understandings of heaven have become jaded by our affluence, the creeping paganism of our culture, and images of heaven that do not seem so grandiose by Bauhuas standards in "Heaven Can’t Wait."
- John G. Stackhouse, Jr. briefly examines several recent scholarly treatments of heaven and then answers the crucial question "Will There Be Harleys in Heaven?"
- Chris Armstrong offers a quick survey of "How the Early Church Saw Heaven."