My friend Indi posted a message on Facebook this week which made me think. It went something like this:
I presume I`ll be leaving this planet earth in the next 20 odd years. It’s a sobering thought, not at all scary, but rather joyous of the unknown, but there`s no way out of this future. If I believe in the afterlife, should I try to be better person so I may enter heaven?? As there is no concrete proof of a heaven or an afterlife, maybe I should just be a better person, just for the hell of it. I think I shall carry on the way I have done for a long time, which is taking care of my family and travel, and be kind to others on the way. It’s weird how age creeps up on you.
It was typical of Indi somehow. I have known him maybe 20 years. He is a spiritual person, though not in a conventional way, a real seeker for the truth. He is someone who is not afraid of the Big Questions, and he is not afraid of putting them out there. And his statement on Facebook was about one of the really Big Questions: What happens when we die, and how does that affect the way we live now? Actually that’s at least two questions. And they are Big Questions, because people have been asking them since Adam was a lad.
They are there in the Bible readings set for today. Jesus tells a story about a man who asks his two sons to go and help in the vineyard. One of them says he’s busy with something else, thank you very much, but later he changes his mind and goes to work for the old man. The other son is keen to please his father and says yes of course he will go, but in actual fact, he never gets round to it. And it’s the son who actually does the father’s work, whatever he said at the time, who pleases his dad, not the one who says all the right things, but doesn’t bother to walk the talk. And Jesus goes on to comment that the people who recognised the truth in Jesus and responded to it are the ones who will get to the kingdom of heaven, even when they started out as the worst sinners you can imagine, rather than the religious people who talked the talk, but didn’t know the truth of God’s way when it was staring them in the face.
So Jesus is telling the religious people that actually, they have missed the point. They are going to find it very difficult to make it to heaven, because they are so caught up in their rules and regulations. They are too busy condemning others for not doing the right thing, that they cannot see the way to God when he’s standing beside them.
You see, getting to heaven is not just about saying the right words or doing the right deeds. If our hearts are in the right place, then what we do spills over into everything we do, and we learn to adjust the things we do as our response to being part of a loving God.
“Get yourself a new heart and a new spirit!” says Ezekiel in the Old Testament reading. That’s what it’s about, you see. Getting to heaven is about change, about being changed from the inside. Paul in the New Testament reading says, “It is God, who for his own loving purpose, puts both the will and the action into you.” God will make it happen if we let him. We don’t have to DO very much at all, but let God’s love work in us.
Paul also quotes a hymn that the early Christians used to sing – a hymn that we still sing – and we sung it 2 weeks ago. The hymn is about how Jesus left the glories of heaven to come and live alongside us and to die on the cross. And that’s how much God loves us, and wants us to be part of his story. God made us – there is something of God in us already, and when you say “Yes” to God, then the God part of us shines and grows, and we get those experiences of love and desire, maybe just glimpses, but they let us see that God is with us and wants us.
What we do in life comes out of who we are and how we relate to God, the truth, love. When we recognise God and we know that God loves us and we are part of God’s world, then eternal life starts – it begins now, and when we die, we continue on in eternal life. And what we do and how we behave comes out of who we are in relation to God, the truth, the love.
So my friend Indi doesn’t need to try to be good to get himself a better deal in heaven. He’s going there any way, whether he likes it or not. But he can get himself a better deal now, by following all the signs and signals that God has given him. He can go on looking for what is true and good and loving, and make space for what is true and good and loving in himself already to grow and flourish.
Heaven starts here and now. It happens when we recognise what God is already doing all around us and we celebrate it and promote it and don’t get in the way. God is working in us already. Recognise it. Let it happen. Let it shape you. You are working in the vineyard whether you know it or not.