by Jason Micheli
Philippians 4.15-23 (click to see Scripture text)
In his clinical memoir, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the late neurologist, Oliver Sacks, writes about a patient named Jimmie G, a man who was charming, intelligent, and memoryless.
Over and over, after only a few moments, Jimmie G’s memory was a slated wiped clean. Despite his salt-and-pepper hair, Jimmie existed as a perpetual nineteen year old GI forever meeting his doctors and fellow patients as though for the first time and always speaking of the distant past in the present tense. And over and over, every day Jimmie would look out the window or see a color television screen or hear a bit of news and realize the world was not as he thought it. “Jesus Christ,” he’d whisper every time with the recognition, “Christ what’s going on? What’s happened to me? Is this a nightmare?”
And then a moment later he would forget again.
The constancy of Jimmie G’s memory loss made him incapable to doing the simplest of tasks. A skilled typist from his submariner training, Jimmie could punch out a a paragraph’s worth of copy only to find himself staring blankly at the typewriter a moment later.
“One tended to speak of Jimmie, instinctively, as a spiritual casualty— a “lost” soul, Oliver Sacks writes.
“Was it possible, I wondered, for a man to be de-souled by a disease? ‘Do you think Jimmie G has a soul?’ I once asked the nuns who cared for Jimmie. They were outraged by my question, but could see why I asked it. ‘Watch Jimmie in chapel,’ they said, Watch Jimmie in chapel, at communion, and judge for yourself.’”
Though he himself was not a believer of any kind, Dr. Sacks heeded the sisters advice and went to chapel to observe Jimmie G in worship.
“I was moved, profoundly moved and impressed,” Sacks writes, “because I saw here an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I had never seen before in Jimmie or conceived him capable of. I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue, and I could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirt with the Spirit,”
There, in worship, Jimmie existed in perfect alignment of the present with the future, of the moment with the end.
“Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed, by a feeling. There was no forgetting, no disease then, nor did it seem possible or imaginable that there should be, for he was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible mechanism but was absorbed in an act, a doing of his whole being, a continuity and unity so seamless it could not permit any break.”
“Seeing Jimmie in chapel,” Dr. Sacks writes, opened my eyes to another realm to which the soul is called.”
The Apostle Paul concludes his correspondence from captivity in Rome with this innocuous seeming final sentence: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
We seldom stop to notice that to call Jesus both Christ and Lord is to heap upon him all the authority of both earth and heaven.
“Christ,” after all, is the Greek term for the Hebrew title, מָשִׁיחַ, In Latin, it’s “Caesar.” In English, it’s “King.” And by calling Jesus “Lord” the apostolic message points back to the Old Testament and identifies Jesus as Adonai, the the unutterable name revealed to Moses form the Burning Bush.
To say “Christ Jesus our Lord,” then, is call the one born to Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate both the King of Kings— the ruler of the universe— and the Second Person of the Trinity, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God…by whom all things were made…whose Kingdom shall have no end.”
Christ Jesus the Lord is the consummation of all things. He is the one in whom all things will come to an end. Today is the final Sunday of the Christian year. On the liturgical calendar, today is Christ the King Sunday.
The last holy day to be added to the liturgical calendar, Pope Pius XI instituted Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to relativize all our temporal political enthusiasms by concluding the liturgical year with Jesus ruling over history as Lord and King.
That Christ rules over history is but a reminder that history has its end in him. Including our own. Christ the King is a reminder: none of us is getting out of life alive. And if we have any hope that death will not eclipse us, if we have any hope that our lives will not come to nothing, it’s that Jesus Christ is Lord. That is— our hope is in the promise that the humanity of Jesus the King has been united with the Lord, the eternal Son of God.
Our hope is in the good news that because the humanity of Jesus has been united with the Being of God, our eternal life is possible. Eternal life, therefore, is not natural.
That Jesus had to die, that God had to raise Jesus from the dead is proof that immortality is not innate to us. Rather, eternal life is a gift made possible only through the union of Christ’s humanity with the Son of God. The name we give to the union of our humanity with the reality of God is heaven.
In my previous sermon, I invited you to consider a question. To get your attention, I characterized the question as “one of the top five questions” for Christians to ponder. Sure enough, shortly after the sermon, a baker’s dozen of you emailed me, asking me for the other four questions.
You’re in luck. Two of the other top five questions are relevant for Christ the King; in fact, I think these might be the two most important questions of all.
The first question: What will we do in heaven?
Usually, when it comes to heaven, the questions are about location, “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” But rather than location, I think the important question is about vocation, “What will you do in heaven?” Set aside for now the question of who gets there and how.
If heaven is a “place” where there is nothing to fix, no deficit to make up, then what on earth will we do heaven? That question (What on earth will we do in heaven?) is best answered by considering another question: Would God still have come to us in Jesus if there had been no fall?
Would the eternal Son have become incarnate even if we had not sinned? That is, if there had been no need for his cross, then would we still have gathered at his creche? These are two of the most important questions.
What will we do in heaven? Would God still have come to us at Christmas if there had been no need for Good Friday?
And, I believe, those are the two questions for making sense of what we do in the meantime, for if Christ is Alpha and Omega, not one or other other, if Jesus is the first and the last, then our answers to these two questions should be commensurate with one another.
How we understand our end and how we understand his beginning are mutually determined. Let’s consider the second question first.
Would God still have come to us in Jesus if there had been no fall? Whether we realize it or not, it’s a question we answer in the affirmative every time we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we call God Trinity, we’re saying that God’s decision to be with us in Jesus Christ— God’s decision not be God without us— is eternal and therefore prior to God’s determination to be God for us on the Cross.
The with comes before the for; therefore, the with takes precedence over the for.
It’s true that Jesus saves us. It’s true that his death and resurrection reconcile God’s creation. It’s true that through him our sins are forgiven, but that’s not why he comes.
The answer is so simple and straightforward it’s hiding from us in plain sight. God comes to us in Jesus because God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
That is, from before the foundation of the world, God elected not to be God without us. Jesus comes to be with us at Christmas because he was always going come. The incarnation only unveils what was true from before the big bang.
What we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery, the mystery that the nativity is an event God set on his calendar before God created time itself.
Even if there had been no need for a cross, there still would have been a creche because God has elected to be no other god than Emmanuel, God-with-us.
In other words—
Jesus is not made for us. We are made for him. We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life. Thus, at Christmas, we are the gifts God gives to himself.
Because before the stars were hung in the sky, before Adam fell or Israel’s love failed, God’s deepest and abiding desire is is friendship. With us.
The answer to the question about the end lies in the beginning. Knowing why God comes to us in Jesus is necessary to understand what we will do when we come to him in the life everlasting.
In John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, Liza is the strict, moral matriarch of the Hamilton family. When she and her husband, Samuel, lose their daughter, Una, Liza retreats from her grief into the household chores necessary to prepare for the funeral and reception.
Stiff and aching with mourning, “Liza looked forward to heaven,” the narrator observes, “as a place where clothes did not get dirty and food did not have to be cooked and dishes washed. Privately there were some things in heaven of which she did not quite approve. There was too much singing, and she didn’t see how even the elect could survive for very long the celestial laziness which was promised. She would find something to do in heaven. There must be something to take up one’s time— some clouds to darn, some weary wings to rub with liniment.”
Liza is right to insist that there must be something to do— something more than celestial laziness— in heaven; however, Liza makes the same mistake as many Christians in that she conceives of eternal life as the continued being of her mortal life.
In other words, a heaven that is simply and only about overcoming mortality is not an eternal life worth having.
A heaven where Jason just goes on being Jason forever would be hell. Heaven is not our continued being. Heaven is our continued being that is a being with.
If before the world began— before, even, one plus one equalled two— God elected not to be God without us, then heaven is where God finally gets what God wants. Therefore, heaven is the state of being with God and being with one another and being with the renewed creation.
This is why the Bible doesn’t speak of heaven as the dwelling place for Christians. The Bible speaks of heaven as the dwelling place of God. Heaven is the realm we go to be with God and “enjoy him forever.”
If God was always going to come to us as Jesus because the Triune God has shaped his entire being to be with us, and if eternal life is not just the continuation of our lives on the other side of death but is an everlasting life with— with God and with one anther— then, back to my original question, what on earth will we do in heaven?
Once you understand that from before creation God elected to be God with us, for the home of God to be with mortals, then you discover that Jesus, as Emmanuel, is not part of some grander plan.
Jesus is the plan.
Emmanuel is not the means by which we gain admittance to the good place. Emmanuel, God-with-us, fully human and fully divine, the incarnate God is heaven on earth. Jesus is the life of heaven made flesh. Jesus is the embodiment of what it will be like for us to dwell eternally with God and one another. The life of God-with-us is a glimpse into our future life with God.
In other words, it’s not just that in the life of Jesus we learn more of God’s will for our lives than we ever wanted to know. It’s that in the life of Jesus we find as much as we need to know what it shall be like to dwell together forever with God.
Therefore, to know what we will do in heaven, to glimpse ahead to what we will do with God and one another, we look back to when God came to earth and dwelt among us.
If Jesus is more than God’s eternal decision for us, if Jesus’ incarnate life is the form our eternal life with God will take, then immediately we discover that whatever else may occupy us in heaven, one of our chief activities will be to eat and drink with sinners.
This is why the most frequent complaint levied against Jesus (This man parties with sinners!) is also the most common image the Bible uses for heaven (A great banquet party where the DJ never stops and the kegs are aways full).
What the incarnate Jesus does most often is what we will do in eternal life.
In heaven, every day it’s dinnertime at Zaccheus’ house.
Only, there will be no allergies, no eating disorders, no inequalities in world trade, no fatty foods, no gluttony, and no price tag.
If the way of the Son in the far country of Sin is the way of the Father’s House, then in heaven we will rejoice and give thanks, regarding everyone we meet as precious as a prized coin we’d tear apart the house to find.
If in Jesus’ earthly life we glimpse our heavenly life, then in heaven we will all be like foolish fathers welcoming every prodigal who has ever slighted us as worthy of a fatted calf feast.
If Jesus is the life of heaven come to earth, then we will all be like the woman at the well, with everything we’ve ever done known yet not condemned.
And so, in heaven, one thing we will not do is run away in shame.
Instead, one thing we most certainly will do is rest from the weariness of all the stones we’ve been carrying to cast at others.
We will rest— not in celestial laziness— but in the sabbath of his grace, a grace which says forever, “I do not condemn you.”
What we will do in heaven is what he did on earth.
We will treat children like they own the joint. We will give all the penthouses and VIP suites to the poor and those that mourned, to those who starved for justice, and those who worked mercy and made peace. I don’t know about darning clouds, but I do know, in heaven, we won’t think twice about stooping down to wash another’s feet. And even more surely, I know that from the abundance of heaven’s storehouse, we will, like Mary, lavish upon Christ something like six-figure perfume, for in heaven Jesus Christ is the poor one we will always have with us.
And speaking of devotion, if his incarnate life is an image of our eternal life, then that means in heaven our relationship with God will no longer be something external or in addition to us. But like Jesus, our relationship with God will just be us. His prayer in the garden will become our own, “As you Father are in me, I am in you.”
“I have known Jimmie now for nine years,” Dr. Oliver Sacks writes in his clinical memoir, “and neuropsychologically he has not changed in the least. But humanly, spiritually, he is at times a different man altogether— no longer fluttering and lost, but deeply attentive to the beauty and soul of the world. In communion in chapel, there is in Jimmie a pensiveness and peace I’ve rarely, if ever, seen in any other. I had wondered when I first met him, if Jimmie was not [a lost soul] condemned to a meaningless fluttering on the surface of life…”
Instead, Dr. Sacks concludes, if there is a heaven, then Jimmie G has made himself more prepared for it than most and thus Jimmie— memoryless Jimmie— is more likely to recognize his Maker when he arrives.
The only lesson the twelve disciples ever request from Jesus is that he teach them to pray.
Since, as good Jews, the disciples already prayed three times a day and likely had all the psalms committed to memory, their request should be understood not as a how question but a what question.
What specifically do you want us to pray, Jesus?
And Jesus responds by saying that whenever we pray, we should pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is heaven.” Implicit in that petition is the understanding that heaven is a realm where things are done. And if heaven is a place where specific things are done, then Jesus’s prayer also suggests that the things we do on earth as his people are meant to prepare us for what we will do in heaven.
As we’ll sing during Advent and into Christmas, “Fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.” This is why in the creed we move immediately from expressing belief in the Church to affirming the life everlasting.
And it’s why we pray at the end of the Eucharist, “Make us be for the whole world the body of Christ, who are redeemed by his blood, until Christ comes back and we feast with him in glory.”
The things Jesus has given us to do on earth, the practices of the Church, they’re not the ways we earn our place in heaven.
Christ Jesus has already ventured to the Father’s House to prepare a place for you.
They’re not the way you earn your way into heaven.
The things Jesus has given us to do, the practices of the Church—
praise and adoration,
confession and pardon,
giving gifts and gratitude,
sharing our joys and concerns,
blessing children and being with the poor and the oppressed,
incorporating strangers into our friendship through water and the Spirit,
and eating together at the Lord’s Table—
these are the means by which the Living God, Christ our Lord, fits us for heaven, to live with him there.
Heaven is what is laid open for all to see when, on earth, the Church is truly the Church, worshipping God, eating with him at table, and living as friends of the Father’s only Son.
Discipleship, therefore, is about learning to love the things that are not in short supply.
For what we will do in heaven, what we can practice here on earth, there is no lack.
The Church makes no sense— we’re not all that effective at anything— unless the Church exists solely to get us acclimatized on earth to the peace and praise that awaits us in heaven.
Of course, to say that we will do in heaven what Jesus did on earth, to say we will do tomorrow and forever what Christ has given the Church to do today in the here and now, leaves unanswered many other questions about what else we might do in heaven.
Eternity leaves a lot of room for other possibilities.
For example, I can’t say if there will be clouds to darn or weary wings to rub with liniment, but I do know that if Jesus is heaven come to earth, then we will not be doing either of those things, or anything else for that matter, alone.
Because God has arranged every quark and atom, right down to God’s own own name, so determined is he not to be God without us.
In the interim, this means there is no way for you to be a Christian by yourself.
15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. 16For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you. 22All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.
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