Heaven on Earth

Text: Luke 7:11-17
Date: Pentecost II (Proper 5) + 6/6/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

This is the choir and band rehearsal room or music room of Lutheran High School Northwest. That is it’s main function. That’s what it was built for. That is what it is when students arrive with their instruments or sit according to their voices as Soprano, Alto, Tenor or Bass. Sometimes this room can be used as a study hall, or for a faculty meeting or devotions, or other functions. On Sunday morning, however, when we gather here “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” that changes everything. Oh, it may still be recognized as a high school music rehearsal room, even though we do our best to make it a sacred space with an altar and lectern, candles and crucifix. But it isn’t until we announce our gathering to be “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” that it truly is more that a redecorated music room and becomes nothing less than a sanctuary, literally a sacred or holy place, Heaven on Earth.

Heaven on Earth. It’s a phrase used to describe unexpected perfection and goodness in the midst of what is only our normally expected
brokenness. It is something other or more than our daily and dreary experience or expectations. Another word for it is transcendence. It is why Christians have employed candles, incense, special vestments and paraments, special architecture, furniture, tableware and various symbols, colors and art to express the transcendence or other-worldliness of being in the presence of God. These things do not make for the transcendence but only express or symbolize it.

Part of what makes for this transcendence is like what we are doing today. We gather and hear stories of resurrection. We heard about the prophet Elijah raising from death the son of the widow of Zarephath. Then we told the story of Jesus raising from death the only son of a widow from Nain. There were other resurrections in the New Testament, of course, the daughter of Jairus, and, of course, Lazarus. But where we assume these all died again, there was one, permanent resurrection, namely, that of Jesus Himself. We gather and hear and tell the stories of resurrection because resurrection has become a new, albeit hidden reality to our lives as baptized children of God. It’s part of what makes this heaven on earth. It’s even why we meet not on Saturday or any other day of the week, but Sunday; not only the first day of the week but, because of resurrection, the resurrection of Christ, it has become the eighth day of the week, the eternal day, the first day of eternal life, the day when heaven invaded our earth and brought new, eternal life to light.

To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, to be daily forgiven and absolved of our sin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to come together, to “synagogue,” to gather as Church, the Body of Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to experience resurrection even now surrounded as we are still by all manner of sin, separation, death, the loss of hope, oppression and depression, fear and failure. Resurrection, Christ’s resurrection, proclaims the release from sin and death, reconciliation with God, new life and hope because it marks the victory of Christ’s suffering and death for it all, for the life of the world. Because Christ died, we live. Because Christ was raised from the dead, we are raised to newness of life now.

We see ourselves among the “great crowd” following Jesus that day as He approached the town called Nain. We’re part of that great crowd following Jesus because we have heard Him speak and believe that in Him there is hope for life and love and joy. How different the “considerable crowd” we run into coming out of the town called Nain that day. They were not filled with joy or hope. Rather some were weeping, others stone-faced sober at the reality, the supposed finality, the seemingly inconsiderately random force of death they beheld as they were carrying the dead body not only of a mother’s son, which is bad enough, but her only son, “and she was a widow.” How truly sad. How truly sad people are in all corners of our world today. For death and hopelessness and fear still mark our days and years.

But then it happened. The Lord spoke out of compassion, saying to the woman, “Do not weep.” Then, stopping the procession with a touch, He spoke words of resurrection. “Young man, I say to you, arise.” It was not just because of His compassion; it was not even in the commanding word “arise,” but it was because of the “I say to you,” because of who it was that was calling forth from death to life that the man, “the dead man”(!) “sat up and began to speak.”

An aside: it always strikes us as strange if not a little funny to think of this detail, the man not only sitting up but suddenly speaking. What did he say? But this is not for humor’s sake. During my operation two weeks ago I fully expected to be asleep under anesthesia during the procedure. I wondered beforehand, when I would awaken, if it would be only a few hours since the expected procedure had been successfully performed or a few days later because of a more extensive, unexpected operation. As it was I was actually awake during the whole (boring) thing! Maybe the dead man didn’t know that he had died at all. To awaken being carried in a funeral procession, however, had to be a strange if not disconcerting thing. So certainly he would have at least had some questions.

It was because of who it was that called forth the man from death to life that resurrection happened. For this is the Son of God who came, as the prophet said of Him, “to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). And it is because of who it is that has called you forth out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9), out of death into resurrection life, buried with Him by baptism into death, “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

That newness, resurrection life happens already now every time we confess our sins and receive forgiveness, every time love triumphs over revenge and hate, every time faith steadies and holds firmly to all of God’s promises even in the midst of doubt or darkness of circumstance. It is the conviction that believes there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), and that knows, just knows that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, not things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:37-39). In that conviction, faith, hope and love we walk through our days in this world to the promised bodily resurrection and life everlasting with Christ.

Heaven on earth. It happens every time we gather, whether here or wherever, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as we hear the life-giving Word of the Gospel, as we receive faith’s sustenance in Christ’s sacramental body and blood, and God’s continued promise and benediction of love. It is the difference between only hearing about the resurrection and actually living in its liberation, freedom and newness now by faith even as “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”