Do you remember, about six years ago, when the books “Heaven is for Real” and “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” were published? Both books tell the stories of boys who suffer near-death experiences which grant them access to heaven, where they report visions of God and Jesus, angels and saints, deceased family members, even Satan. Almost overnight both books became international best sellers. Heaven is for Real sold over 10 million copies and was adapted into a movie a couple years back. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven had sold over a million copies and been made into a TV movie when, about a year ago, the real-life boy at the center of the story announced that he’d made the whole thing up to get attention. As the details continued to come out it became apparent that it was the boy’s father who’d actually gotten rich off the book, had subsequently left his wife and child, and took the money with him.
There was a lot of snickering when the news came out that at least one of these stories had been acknowledged as a hoax. To be honest, I’m not all that interested in the story behind why these two children told the stories they did. The fact that both books were co-authored by their parents, and that in the case of Heaven is for Real that parent also happened to be a pastor with ideas about heaven that matched his son’s firsthand account, speaks for itself. What is most interesting to me is the tens of millions of books that got sold. What does that unimaginably large number — tens of millions; and the even more staggering dollar amount — hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on fantasies of a distant heaven awaiting us after death — have to say about the hopes and dreams of the living? What, if anything, does it say about our hopes and dreams, our questions about life and death, our vision of God’s plan for salvation?
I have long been a fan of this morning’s passage from Acts, describing Peter’s vision of the “sheet coming down from heaven” (Acts 11:5b) filled with beasts and birds and reptiles described in the book of Leviticus as “unclean.” I’ve identified with those unclean beasts, having been beat up by the book of Leviticus ever since I came out during college. For many years, if asked to name a “favorite bible verse” I would quote Acts 11:9, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The beating heart of this story, for me, has always been Peter’s account of his own conversion as he reports back to the apostles and believers in Jerusalem, “the church,” who hear his account of the Holy Spirit poured out on a Roman Gentile’s household and come to the realization at the center of the book of Acts and, I believe, of our Christian faith: “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (v.18)
The apparent irony of my love for this passage in light of my earlier skepticism about the more recently published accounts of heavenly visions is not lost on me. Why should Peter’s account get preferential treatment over Colton Burpo’s (the boy from Heaven is for Real) or Alex Malarkey’s (The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven… then recanted)? The simple answer is that I believe there is a difference between scripture and fiction, or even scripture and memoir, and that the difference amounts to more than the length of time between authorship and readership. It is that scripture represents the set of stories and histories that the church, gathered around the font and the table, has continued to experience as trustworthy accounts of how God works and moves in the world, in the church, and in us.
The scriptures we read this morning speak of heaven in very different terms than those used by modern authors in the sub-genre of spiritual memoirs we might call “heavenly tourism.” It is noteworthy that Peter does not have to die (or nearly die) to catch his glimpse of heaven. Instead it is as he is out on the road (living!), carrying on with Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, that Peter experiences his revelation. He is not swept up into heaven and given a tour of God’s place of residence. Instead he perceives heaven to be the place from which all manner of living things he had been taught to regard as unclean emerge.
In all my years of loving this story it had never occurred to me that the unclean beasts are lowered down on a sheet from heaven, as if perhaps to say, that they too could trace their origins back to God. They did not come wading out of the sea, or marching up from the pit. They came down from heaven, those supposedly unclean creations of God, with instructions that nothing which God has made clean should ever be called profane.
Furthermore, we read a passage from Revelation — another source of inspiration for insanely unbiblical works of fiction in recent times — in which heaven is once again revealed only as it breaks into the here and now.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God’s own self will be with them.” (Rev. 21:1-3)
Scripture’s ultimate word about where and how God acts in human experience is not a fantasy of escape, it’s the promise of God’s divine presence in the very places where we live and work and eat and sleep. Heaven is God meeting us in the places we are ready to give up on, saying, “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)
Including us. We, who are so often ready to give up on ourselves; we are the ones God is making new. As Jesus sits around the table with his friends for the last time, with Judas who will betray him and Peter who will deny him, Jesus does not blame them, or berate them. Instead he instructs them to love one another. To love one another in acts of humble service: the washing of feet. To love one another in acts of costly service: the sign of the cross. To love one another to the end. To love the traitors and the disappointments and the skeptics. To love ourselves, and when we see those things we most despise in ourselves reflected in our neighbors, to love them too.
I sometimes wonder if the reason we are so captivated with stories of the afterlife is that we have given up on the present. If there is no hope for the world we live in, then why not invest all our hope in a future world?
Because God has not given up hope for this world, and that is the message scripture has for us about the place we call heaven. It is here and it is now. It is coming to us in the form of reconciliation with the people we’ve been taught to hate and fear. It is God’s living presence in a city we have yet to inhabit, in people and places left for dead. It is love expressed in service to one another. It is the lifting up of our voices to sing God’s praises and proclaim with a confidence we are still growing into that all that God has made has been bathed in God’s love.
That chorus, the one with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, the one that meets us at this table every single week is all the heaven I need, and it is for real. As real as the cracked sidewalks of our broken-hearted city. As real as Christ crucified. As real as bread and wine and bodies and water. As real as you and me. As real as the resurrection, here and now. As real as God with us, making all things new.