Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Whole New Beginning” (John 14:1-3)
May 14, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today I am preaching about heaven.
From 2003 to 2012 ABC aired an inspiring television show called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Every episode featured a needy family having their home completely renovated according their specific needs, and often their specific wants as well. To top it all off, the entire cost was covered.
One episode featured the Cadigan-Scott family of Livermore, California, near San Francisco. Unexpectedly the mother had passed away from a heart attack, and just sixteen days later the same thing happened to the father—leaving their eight kids—seven daughters and one son—without parents. The two oldest siblings, Jennifer and Janice moved back home to help their siblings regroup. In their application video Jennifer says, “I just wanted to let you know how much this would mean to me to see my family have a nice home where we could all live together.”
The team from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition arrives. Through a megaphone Ty Pennington calls out, “Good morning, Cadigan-Scott family!” The kids come out of their home—clapping and yelling and jumping with joy. “We’re here to give you a home makeover,” Pennington grins. The team then informs the kids that while their home is being renovated, they will be sent on an all-expense paid vacation to Walt Disney World. “So, kids, show me the house!” Pennington adds, and the kids gladly do so before packing to fly to Florida. It is very moving.
In today’s gospel lesson from the Last Supper, Jesus talks to his disciples about going to heaven to prepare a place specifically for them:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also (John 14:1-3).
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. The disciples’ hearts were troubled because Jesus had just told Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13:38). Peter the rock, was about to reveal his weakness, and this left the hearts of the disciples very troubled.
Jesus then commands his troubled disciples, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” To believe means to trust—“Trust in God, trust also in me.” Why would Jesus command this? Because he was going to prepare a place for them in heaven—“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Jesus was not only going to prepare a place for his disciples in heaven, he promised he would eventually come and take them to himself so they could be together forever in heaven. It is little wonder that this gospel passage is so often read at funerals.
In his 2012 book, Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, recounts his 2008 near death experience (NDE) during which he became convinced of the reality of heaven. While in heaven he met a girl whom he had never seen but with whom he felt a familiar connection. He had been adopted as a young child, and later learned he had a birth sister named Betsy, who had died. Late in this book he describes what happened when he received a photograph of Betsy in the mail:
I opened the oversized envelope and pulled out a framed glassy color photo of the sister I had never known… She had long brown hair and deep blue eyes, and her smile, radiating love and kindness, seemed to go right through me, making my heart both swell and ache at the same time (165).
On the following day something else happened to Dr. Alexander:
The next morning, I was in our bedroom reading more of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross book On Life after Death when I came to a story about a twelve-year-old girl who underwent an NDE and at first didn’t tell her parents about it. Finally, however, she confided in her father. She told him about traveling to an incredible landscape full of love and beauty, and how she met and was comforted by her brother. “The only problem,” the girl told her father, “is that I don’t have a brother.” Tears filled her father’s eyes. He told the girl about the brother she did indeed have, but who had died just three months before she was born (168).
Listen to what happened next:
My eyes traveled over to the bureau… (to) the photo of the sister I had never known…I had seen her heavenly self—the one that lived above and beyond this earthly realm, with all its tragedies and cares. But now there was no mistaking her, no mistaking the loving smile, the confident and infinitely comforting look, the sparking blue eyes. It was she. In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond (168-169).
At the Last Supper Jesus knew his death was imminent, that he was about to go to “the realms beyond,” to heaven, and he spoke comfortable words to his disciples about trusting in him because he was preparing a place for them in heaven as well. Listen to how one biblical scholar describes this:
In spite of the threatening circumstances, Jesus spoke with calm assurance of the divine provision for them and took for granted that they would have a place in the eternal world. Jesus never speculated about a future life; he spoke as one who was as familiar with eternity as one is with his hometown…The purpose of his departure was to make ready the place where he could welcome them permanently (Merrill C. Tenney in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 9 143).
Who do you want to see in heaven? Maybe like Eben Alexander, it’s your sister. Or maybe it’s your father. In the title track of his 2003 album, Dance with My Father the legendary singer Luther Vandross wrote about his late father:
Back when I was a child
Before life removed all the innocence
My father would lift me high
And dance with my mother and me
And then spin me around till I fell asleep
Then up the stairs he would carry me
And I knew for sure I was loved
If I could get another chance, another walk, another dance with him
I’d play a song that would never ever end
How I’d love, love, love to dance with my father again
Luther Vandross had his wish fulfilled two years after this album was released when he joined his father in heaven.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” “Trust in God, trust also in me.” Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper are his words to you today. In his incarnation Jesus entered fully into the world “with all its tragedies and cares” and in his passion and death the day after the Last Supper he atoned for the sins of the world.
And in Luke’s account of the gospel Jesus’ final words were words of belief, of trust in his Heavenly Father—“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). This is a direct quote from Psalm 31 in which the psalmist wrote, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth” (Psalm 31:5, The Book of Common Prayer 622). The God of truth into whose hands Jesus commended his spirit is the same God of truth who has redeemed you—so you can believe in him, you can trust in him.
Back to the Cadigan-Scott family…The eight siblings, riding in a stretch limousine, return home from Disney to find thousands of Livermore citizens welcoming them home. There are neon-colored poster board signs with their names on them, and other signs too—“Welcome Home!” or “Home Sweet Home!” or “Dreams Come True!” “I never could have imagined that there would been that many people,” Jennifer, the oldest, says. Her sister Kelli adds, “You know I never thought anything like this was going to happen. It just changed my life.”
The kids take their position behind the charter bus that is blocking their view of their new home. “So did you guys have a good time at Disney World?” Pennington asks. The siblings grin and nod yes. “As you can see,” Pennington continues, “The town of Livermore has gathered and has been out here supporting us the entire time. Are you guys ready to see your new house?” The kids are clapping and yelling, “Yeah!” “Bus driver,” Pennington cries, “hit it!” The bus pulls away and the Cadigan-Scott siblings see their gorgeous new home for the first time—complete with new driveway, landscaped yard, the works.
And rushing out of the house, with open arms and smiling faces, come the design team to welcome them to their new home—happy hugs galore. As they gather at the front door Pennington says, “Alright, guys, this is the big moment. When you walk through that door, it’s going to be a whole new beginning.”
The kids enter their new beautiful home. There is a stunning kitchen, a new dining table that comfortably sits everyone. Then each and every kid walks into their respective new bedroom, which reflects their favorite colors and interests. “This is so beautiful,” one sister says while sobbing with joy on her new bed, “I live here.”
The son, who is an avid guitarist, walks into his new bedroom and sees electric guitars hanging on his walls. One wall is literally an amp with multiple speakers into which he can plug his new guitars and jam. One sister says, “Every room fits every person exactly. All the designers (were) right on the money.” The new backyard features a pool and fire pit, and even a mini-golf course.
And, representing their deceased parents, there are two doves painted on a light fixture on the ceiling in the foyer, and two newly planted redwood trees in the backyard. “For us to see two doves when we walk in and two trees when we walk out,” one daughter says, “is a good reminder they’re looking down on us.”
Finally the kids are told that everything has been paid for. They are given the mortgage to the house and they throw it into the fire pit. Then they all jump for joy into the pool and celebrate. Jennifer simply reflects, “This is more than any of us kids could have every asked for…thank you” (Season 1, Episode 12).
The Risen Jesus—who knows you better than you know yourself, forgives you more than you forgive yourself, and loves you more than you love yourself—has prepared a special place for you in heaven, where “every room fits every person exactly.” And when your days in this world, “with all its tragedies and cares,” are over, Jesus himself, “radiating love and kindness,” will take you to be with him in that special place in heaven—where you will be greeted by many open arms and smiling faces and given “another chance, another walk, another dance” with your Heavenly Father, where you will walk through the door to a whole new beginning, where for all eternity you will know for sure you are loved.