Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they
follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
Her little room was on the third floor of an old rooming house. She was a “war bride” from the Second World War, a tiny Finnish nurse named Ida Manners. Ida had fallen in love with an American army doc-tor, who married her and moved her back to the States. After he died, she was left with her one child, a son, whom she raised but who, after he was grown and married, paid very little attention to her, sad to say. But Ida was a woman of joy; she was one of Jesus’ lesser known but truly faithful sheep who simply radiated his love and care for others.
We Burgoynes loved that little woman. She baby-sat our children frequently, and they absolutely adored her. One time, a neighborhood boy carelessly knocked Ida down—but came to regret it deeply the next day when one of our sons encountered him in school. Frail though she was physically, Ida was a giant spiritually. Her love for the Good Shepherd expressed itself in a generosity of spirit that belied her son’s neglect (about which she never complained) and her poverty of cir-cumstance, which reduced her to living in that tiny third-floor room. Ida had one of the most upbeat outlooks on life I have ever known.
But the years took their toll, and Ida got sick; and we stood watch as this tiny woman’s health slipped gradually away. One day, when she had taken a turn for the worse, and the end seemed near, Joannie and I went to the old rooming house and climbed up to her third-floor room. We expected it to be a sad occasion. But it wasn’t—anything but! Lying in her bed, terribly weak but with a bright smile on her face, Ida said something I’ve never forgotten. She said, “I am so excited; I think I’m going home!” And not long thereafter, she did. But the wholehearted excitement which Ida displayed on the eve of her death has stayed with me ever since as a poignant reminder that our ultimate home is indeed with the Good Shepherd, who cares for his own, in this life and the next, and who allows no one to be snatched out of his hand. That’s what heaven is all about, that unshakeable companionship with God in Jesus Christ. I want to spell that out a bit this morning.
You know, when we’re young, we give very little thought to heaven, and eternal life, and what happens on the other side of death. At least that’s the way it was with me. But in these latter years I find I have a far more than casual interest in these things! And the Easter Season, which is always about resurrection, and this Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is always about Jesus the Good Shepherd, invite us to focus our imaginations on what heaven is really all about. So, here goes!
In the first place, Christians do not see heaven as simply the survival of the soul! Read my lips now—I can’t imagine anything more boring than that! I see heaven as really exciting—just like Ida did! And everything in the New Testament points to that. I can’t think of anything more exciting than being in the company of Jesus—with his boundless enthusiasm for life, his incredible wisdom and understanding, his irre-sistible and overwhelming love for every human being. To be with Jesus was, and is, to live a life full of surprises, full of adventure, full of joy. Just ask Simon Peter, or Mary Magdalene, or Paul the Apostle—or St. Francis, or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—or a lot of college students. I’ve spent a good deal of time around them, and there’s nothing more exciting than college students who suddenly come alive with the spirit of Christ. And then they start doing crazy things like spending their summer vacations working among the poor in Latin America, or giving a year to the Peace Corps after graduation.
You see, the excitement of heaven starts here—right now—in this life! The mistake I made for years was thinking of heaven as a far-off state of being, to be experienced only after physical death. That’s why it was so easy to dismiss it as simply irrelevant when I was young. Heaven starts here and now! No one became more convinced of that, and that death is simply a milestone along the way, than Paul the Apostle. For him, death and resurrection took place in Damascus when he embraced the Christ whose followers he had tried to destroy and was baptized into the Christian fold. “Do you not know,” Paul said, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4) The old life was dead and buried for Paul; the new had begun!
Now, trust me, I’m not trying to skirt around the realty of physical death, or the pain which can accompany it, or the mystery of what lies beyond. Jesus, in the face of his own death, prayed that God might re-move this “cup,”—even as he committed himself to God’s will. And his only descriptions of life after death were those tantalizing pictures he offered of an enormous home with many rooms, or a huge banquet with all God’s people, or a cosmic gathering of all the nations before the heavenly throne. The passage from Revelation today picks up on that throne image. It declares that God on his throne shelters all who have suffered persecution and suffering in this life: [he] “will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” I believe that! The Good Shepherd shelters us—death is nothing to fear at all!
Some people find satisfaction in those “near-death experiences” we often hear about. A UVA professor, Raymond Moody, wrote a book about them called Life After Life. He talks about the tunnel through which many patients reported moving, outside their bodies, and the bright light they saw at the end. Some years ago in Hampton I heard Dr. George Ritchie, a well-known psychiatrist, who told of an out-of-body experience as a young enlisted man in the army when he became critically ill. He said he literally died; and then he had the strange sen-sation of floating above the bed and looking down at his own body. He experienced moving away into an adjoining room where he heard con-versations which he later reported accurately and which he could not possibly have heard from his bed. Eventually he returned to his body.
Also attending Dr. Ritchie’s lecture were my associate rector from St. Andrew’s in Newport News and his 100-year-old mother Lula, for whom death was obviously not far off. I couldn’t wait to ask her afterward what she thought of it! Did she find his story helpful? What do you think she said? She said, “No!” (Her clergy son didn’t find it helpful ei-ther!) If you’re wondering what I thought of it, I found it interesting and even believable, but in no way essential to my faith in Christ, and in the resurrection which is ours in Christ.
Along with our friend Ida, I look forward to a heaven which is far more exciting than long tunnels and bright lights and out-of-body experiences. I believe passionately in the reality of heaven, and of all the experiences of heaven we have right now, in this life, in the beauty of this world, in the company of friends and family, and in the companionship to which we look forward with our loved ones after death—and all of it because of our eternal companionship with the Good Shepherd.