Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Heaven with Us
Good Heavens, a four week Advent sermon series on the waiting for heaven among us. Week 3 of 4, preached December 12, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
Christians usually imagine heaven somewhere else, not here, out there. But when Scriptures or Jesus talk about heaven, or the Kingdom of Heaven, it not as much about a place somewhere else as it is a way of being that is already here, already happening around us, and is coming in all its fullness.
This Advent, Caitlan and I are preaching a new sermon series we are calling Good Heavens, images of scripture and stories of Jesus that imagine heaven, the heavens, the Kingdom of Heaven in ways that may sound different than what we’ve been taught or heard, but that are very good.
Two weeks ago, we heard about Heaven on Earth, the great garden of creation in Genesis at the beginning, and at the end how Revelation is an imagination and promise of our journey home to that garden, and an invitation to eat from the tree of life. Heaven on earth is where we came from, and where we are going.
Last week, Caitlan showed us heaven in the flesh, and not just the flesh of a perfect child, or even a perfect little girl who could bear that child. In our listening for God and saying yes to God like Mary did, we too birth heaven in the flesh right here and now.
Today, we listen for Heaven with Us. Let’s pray and listen to the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Colossians 2:6-3:4
6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives into him, 7 rooted and built up in him and (being) established into the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy (or) empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe,[c] and not according to Christ. 9 For in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, the one who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were (sacrificed) with a spiritual (sacrifice), by putting off the body of the flesh in the (sacrifice) of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through (the) faith(fulness of) the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God[e] made you[f] alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed[g] the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are just a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling[h] on visions,[i] puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking,[j] 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe,[k] why would you live as if you still belong to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.
So since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your[a] life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
This is the word of the Lord (Thanks be to God)
Sermon Heaven with us
What is Paul talking about? “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives into him, 7 rooted (in him) and built up in him (and) (being) established into the faith, just as you were taught.” It sounds like Paul sees something happening in his people, in his church, that is worrying him.
He’s seen this before in himself. He can remember when he was not sensing his connection and proximity to the real, the above, not knowing how close and yet how far from holy, heavenly he really was. Paul was once a Pharisee, what his culture said was the holiest of the humans. He had many rules imposed on him about food, drink, rituals, festivals, things he couldn’t handle, taste, or touch, very clear expectations of piety, humility, and body. They saw all of that as holy. And as a Pharisee he put those rules on others, and persecuted them for not obeying.
Then, Paul found Jesus interrupting him and was blinded to the ways he used to see things… rules, regulations, expectations, culture, power, religion, scripture, politics, faith, ritual. Paul was blinded to seeing things like he had always been taught and conditioned to see them.
Jesus turned his head, brought him into the home of a supposed enemy, where he found healing and community, and there Paul saw something else, another way, it seemed new and felt very old, an inherent way of becoming the individual he was always born to be AND at the same time a way of living in heavenly community of faith, hope, and love right here, with no more male and female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.
Paul no longer saw things the way culture and religion and tradition, rulers and authorities had told him to see them. The rules fell away, and Christ’s body, heavenly community, heaven with us became Paul’s highest calling. Paul’s awakening awakened many others around him, and many churches were born and grew and shared things in common and made life easier for all those they welcomed. But as those churches matured a little, like this one at Colossae, they were forgetting.
A strange thing is happening to Christian religion in our world and in America. Or perhaps its not that strange at all. Throughout time, especially in cycles of Christian religion, there are moments of great inspiration and commitment, discipleship and sacrifice, where the person and story of Christ are powerful and attract a great number of listeners who become believers who become followers, just like what happened with Paul and so many of Paul’s early churches. The communities they build and the lives they lead as they awaken to Heaven with us are amazingly, beautifully different than the cultures and worlds around them. They see what Heaven with us is, and could be, and they cannot unsee it, and they gladly, thankfully work and teach and play to help others see it and to help it come in all its glory.
Of course, others, the culture, the systems and structures, the rulers and authorities, especially those in power or with privilege will resist and try to force those faithful individuals and communities to re-conform and compromise. As faithful Christians get a bit tired, or older, and Christian churches or communities get a bit more establisthed, they lay down a principle or two. They begin to soften their passion and commitment. They settle for maintaining what they still have and for waiting for some heaven beyond instead of working and playing and teaching and risking to reveal and grow heaven with us, right here, right now.
The Christian religion is least successful when it conforms to the norms of what was and is, and bends to the whims of those too tired or too afraid to move, rather than risk everything in faith to follow Jesus and reveal heaven among us to all those around us.
Paul is seeing that in the church at Colossae. So he’s warning them, inviting them, to pause, turn, and remember. Let me see if I can say Paul’s complicated words again in a shorter clearer way.
“8 Let no one captivate you with their well-intentioned philosophy (or) their ill-intentioned lies … that are not according to Christ. 9 in Christ the whole fullness of God dwells … and you have come to fullness in him, (and he is over) every ruler and authority… you were buried with him… you were raised with him through the faith(fulness of) God... 13 you were dead … God[e] made you[f] alive together with him, … he forgave us all … He disarmed[g] the politicians and pundits and made an example of them, defeating them… So do not let anyone condemn you… Do not let anyone disqualify you… (or make you follow their ways instead of Christ’s way.) (So many of the things the world teaches) have an appearance of wisdom … but are really self-indulgent, of no value to living heaven with us… you have been raised with Christ, (so) focus your mind and your eyes on (heaven with us) … your life is (protected) with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your[a] life is fully revealed, you all will also be revealed with him in glory.”
When we see and believe heaven with us, here and now, when we awaken to Jesus being with us and walking us down a path to the fullness of his joy, then his life, his way of teaching and loving and risking becomes our way. His story becomes our story. We find our truest, oldest, deepest, fullest identity in him. We see ourselves as he does, with love, compassion, and honesty. We see the world as he does, in all its brokenness and at the same time with love and hope and healing, as heaven with us. We see death and we see new life, heaven with us. We see sin and we see forgiveness, heaven with us. We no longer only see the half that some harsh critic or naïve Pollyanna tried to sell us. We see it all, and it is more than we knew, more complete, more whole, more real. Our identity in that wholeness is uniquely ours as unique creations of God, each and every one of us, and at the same time amazingly united and bound to all the rest of God’s creation, heaven with us.
Jesus knows who we originally were and, underneath it all, still are. Any other identity others try to put on us, or we accept upon ourselves, those things are not heavenly. They will not last, and are dying away just as we are. Our truer identity is not dying but coming alive, our heavenly identity. Even now, in Christ, we are being called to remember, to live our truer identity as if it was new, even though it has always been with us. When Jesus’ vision and promise of heaven is here and now, with us, we become our truer selves. We become free from the silly things others try to use to bind us or control us. Our free selves gladly become integral members of the common unity of heaven and earth, where all things are being restored and made whole, even if the restoration seems partial or slow.
You friends have already been raised with Christ. So don’t just wait and look for heaven beyond. Look for heaven with us. Live and work, play and strive for heaven with us. Set your minds on heaven’s wholeness and joy for you as an individual, and heaven’s peace and justice for all our communities. You’ve already died, and your new life is promised and protected, hidden with Christ in God. So let this new life in heaven with us reveal it in all its glory to those who are still looking for it.
May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.