We begin a new series on heaven today – a topic that isn’t often heard from many pulpits. Why is that? We’ll look at several Scriptures that give some images of heaven, and why thinking about heaven matters for followers of Jesus, based on Colossians 3.1-17. You can watch the message alone below, or the whole worship gathering just below that. The message began with a video of the song, “I Can Only Imagine”, by MercyMe, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_lrrq_opng
A friend of mine was living and studying in Toronto in 1992, when the Blue Jays won the World Series for the first time ever. I remember speaking with my friend and mentioning this. I got a quizzical look back.
My friend had no idea that Toronto’s franchise had won baseball’s biggest title. I was gobsmacked!
Maybe you’ve heard the pejorative phrase, “He’s so heavenly minded, he’s no earthly good.” Perhaps you can think of someone who fits that description pretty well.
And it’s true: it can be challenging to deal with people who have no significant awareness of their surroundings or their culture.
At the same time, though, there are many people who claim to be followers of Jesus who are so focused on this life that they have no grasp whatsoever on the future for which Jesus has ransomed them.
It’s possible to be so earthly minded as to be (dare we say it?) no heavenly good.
Granted, there’s a lot about heaven that we don’t know. All we can know is revealed to us in the Bible, and a lot of what people actually believe about heaven bears no resemblance to anything Scripture tells us about it. Even in the church, there’s a lot of “folk religion” that’s held tightly, at least when it comes to the afterlife.
The key, I suppose, is balance. As God’s people, we want to be focused on what Jesus has promised for us. And we want to live in the world in which God has placed us in the here-and-now. We need to ask the Holy Spirit, who dwells within each believer, to help us bring about that balance, so that people will take us seriously when we do point them toward heaven.
I invite you to do that today: ask the Holy Spirit to help you balance the delights of heaven with the needs of the world. When he helps you achieve that balance, who knows how many people may look to you to have the same hope for the future that lives in you!
“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.1-3, NLT).
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
This phrase has shown up in a couple of conversations I’ve had in the past few days, and it has stuck with me. It is variously attributed: some say it was Augustine of Hippo, others say it was John Wesley, and still others attribute it to one or another person.
It is a phrase commonly used among Christians, and almost certainly it arose from some sort of theological discussion. It remains an extremely helpful reminder to us as we look at what it means to be the church in various expressions today, but it has its share of challenges, too.
I think most every sane follower of Jesus can agree that “in all things, charity”, or love, is crucial. Jesus told us his disciples of old to love one another, and that applies to his disciples today, too.
What, though, is considered “essential”, and what is considered “non-essential”? That’s the tough question this phrase begs.
There will be a lot of answers to this, to be sure. But followers of Jesus generally can agree on some key essentials, such as a belief in the Triune God: God the Father, made known in his Son Jesus Christ, living in believers today by the Holy Spirit. Basic stuff.
We can consider essential that Jesus died for our sins, and rose again – bodily – on the third day.
But once you get past these key beliefs, the definition of “essential” starts to vary. And this is why, I think, we will always have denominations. There will be different branches of the church of Jesus that hold different tenets as essential.
The big challenge comes when a Christian group opts not to define what it considers to be essential. If a creedal church – one that upholds the ancient creeds of the early church – simply states that the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed, is what defines what is essential, is that sufficient? (After all, even the Nicene Creed has two versions, depending on whether you believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father. A lot of ink was spilled over that one a long time ago.)
The Bible is replete with statements that any church could consider to be essential, core statements of faith. I don’t think it’s up to each person alone to decide what is essential. Certainly, as an individual, I can read Scripture and discern what I believe is most important to my faith, but then I am wise to affiliate with a body of believers that holds those tenets as essential.
Whatever those essentials are, they need to be grounded in a simple reading of Scripture, and grounded in the history of the church. The Holy Spirit still works, to be sure, and the Holy Spirit never contradicts the Word of God.
So ask yourself: what is essential for your church? What is essential for you? And then ask the Holy Spirit living within you to enable you to live in charity – in love – even with those with whom you disagree.
Sometimes, that can be difficult, and sometimes it means keeping fellowship at a distance. That may be a different definition of unity, but in this day and age, it may be all we have.
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.13-14, NLT).
I’ve been reading a book entitled Imagine Church, by Neil Hudson. It’s about helping God’s people plan and vision for the future by encouraging whole-life discipleship.
Is that a term with which you are familiar?
It could be otherwise phrased, but what the author means by it is that our walk with Jesus touches every aspect of our lives: no part of who we are or what we do goes untouched by our faith life.
It was as if Hudson was revealing something new when I read that there are 168 hours in a week, and that we might ordinarily spend, say, 48 of those sleeping. That leaves 120 hours in the week. Perhaps the most committed Christ-followers could serve 10 hours per week in the church; that leaves 110 hours for work, family time, and fun.
The matter that the book tries to get to the bottom of is this: how can those 110 hours become hours dedicated to the Lordship of Jesus Christ? How can we leverage our work time, our family time, our recreation time as time that God can use to build our faith, and as time that God can use to make us more fully devoted followers of Jesus?
There are programs, there are formulas – but in the end, it boils down to the willingness of each individual Christian. Your church family may offer opportunities for you to grow in faith, as well it should. But are you taking advantage of those opportunities, and are you translating that growth into your everyday life?
It doesn’t matter what you do: you could be a labourer, a business owner, a factory worker, a sales person, retired or a student – whatever you do with those 110 hours, seek to be a disciple of Jesus in all of them.
The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. The Holy Spirit lives in each person who names Jesus as Lord, and the Spirit will help us to live fully and authentically, whatever we do, doing it for the Lord.
“Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ” (Colossians 3.23-24, NLT).