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The Reverend John Leedy
November 3, 2019
Ephesians 6:18; John 17:1-11, 20-24
A Reading from the Letter to the Ephesians
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
A Reading from the Gospel of John
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf;
I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
What is heaven like? I love this question. It’s one of the more frequent ones we hear from the kids in Sunday school. What is heaven like? I don’t know. I’ve never been there. What do you think heaven is like? Oh, well, there are angels and rainbows and dinosaurs and milkshakes and candy and Jesus. Yes, child. That is what heaven looks like, and it sounds great.
We all have ideas about what heaven is like right? Maybe your visions of heaven come from Dante’s Divine Comedy or from Ted Danson in the Good Place. Maybe the Book of Revelation has helped paint your picture of heavenly bliss, of shining gates and crystal seas, mythical beasts and flying seraphim encircling the throne of God.
Maybe for you, heaven comes equipped with a mansion, robe, and a crown as the old hymn goes. Perhaps your vision of heaven is filled with streets of gold, pudgy little baroque angels with harps and halos, fluffy white clouds and ol’ Saint Peter there with his keys and the book of life. It’s fun to think about what heaven looks like. It’s the place of eternal joy, of no more tears or pain, the place where war and suffering, sickness and death are no more.
But as fun as it is to build our own perfect vision of what eternal life will look like, something tells me that there is more behind the question of “What does heaven look like” than a detailing of what sort of amenities that we can expect when we get there. What happens when we die? Is there life after death? Are my loved ones safe with God? Those are the big ones, right? Those are the questions behind the question, “What is heaven like?”
Over the past several weeks, our preaching theme has focused on unpacking the various parts of our worship here at UPC. Today’s theme is the Prayers of the People, or as I often refer to it in youth group, that really, really long prayer after the sermon. Prayer is a universal tenet of religious practice. Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Buddhists, and Christians, we all seek to connect to a presence beyond ourselves, a being or power that transcends our everyday reality.
In prayer, we communicate our thanks and praise to God, but also our lament and needs. And God is big enough to hear it all. Prayer is also our way of listening to God. Sometimes, many times, prayer is less about what we say to God and more about listening to what God says to us. Prayer can take many forms and has been wrapped into countless spiritual disciplines. Prayers before meals, prayers at the various hours of the day, praying the labyrinth, praying while doing chores, praying the Psalms, contemplative prayer and meditation, praying in nature, lighting candles, baking bread, the list goes on and on. Much of the Christian practice of prayer happens individually.
It’s the brief prayer in the parking lot, “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me find a parking space.”
It’s the prayer when a student opens their test booklet and puts pencil to paper.
It’s the prayer at the bedside of sick parent.
It’s the prayer for the homeless person as we roll down our window to hand them a dollar or a bag of food. These individual prayers are important to the life of faith as they help harmonize our daily lives with the living presence of God.
But when we gather in this place, we offer a special kind of prayer – the Prayers of the People, or, when we prepare to receive communion, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. These are the prayers we make all together, in one voice and in one spirit. Even though these prayers are usually spoken aloud by one of the pastors or the other worship leaders, we all participate in the prayer, in the meditations of our hearts and speaking together the Lord’s Prayer and the Amen.
In this ancient tradition of prayer, we offer praise and thanks to God, drawing upon God’s long history of faithfulness toward us before we turn and offer our petitions to God. By juxtaposing the praise of God’s faithfulness and our own offerings of lament, we break open hope – that God has listened in the past and God will listen here and now.
But the question remains, why offer this kind of prayer all together in the first place? Why do we pray as a people when it would be so much more convenient to ask that we all just pray, on our own time, wherever we are? Why do we pray together? Well, to answer that question, we first have to ask another. When we join in the Prayers of the People, what exactly are we being joined to?
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the celebration in the church’s year when we remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us, our ancestors in the faith and saints of the church. Presbyterians have a complicated relationship with the saints. Often, our minds go to people like Saint Francis, Saint Julian of Norwich, Saint Benedict, or Saint Theresa of Avila, heroes and heroines of the church by whose teaching and example we receive inspiration.
But we struggle with some of the historical doctrines of this particular vision of sainthood. We struggle with the idea that particular canonical saints intercede on our behalf to God. You’ve seen those little medals with engravings of the saints on them? On one side is the icon of a saint and on the other side are the words, “pray for us.” Yuck. We Presbyterians don’t believe in all that. That’s a Catholic thing, right?
Well, take a deep breath, and go with me for a second. I don’t think that’s just a Catholic thing.
In the reformed tradition, we believe that all the baptized are joined into the royal priesthood of God, the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints of light. Yes, that includes Saint Francis and Saint Theresa and all those folks. Yes, that includes Christians in every church in every place throughout all time. Yes, that includes our loved ones from this church who we remember today. And yes, that includes you and me.
And when we talk about the communion of the saints or the great cloud of witnesses, we often talk about it as this veiled presence which joins us in worship, up there somewhere in the balcony, cheering us on and encouraging us to run the race that is set before us. But I think it’s more than that. I think the communion of the saints is more involved than that.
We believe that God exists in the realm of eternity, beyond and outside our human notions of time, and that the communion of the saints exists with God in that place outside of time. Even the best and brightest of scientific thought affirms that the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
If we believe this, then we also must believe that when we join in prayer together in this place in this time, that we are praying alongside Christians from a thousand years ago and a thousand years into the future – all at the same moment. We are joined in prayer with our loved ones we have said goodbye to in our lifetimes and with our great, great grandchildren whom we will never meet.
So why is it strange to ask the saints to join us in prayer? We do this all the time, right? Hey Sarah, I’m really going through a hard time, would you keep me in your prayers? Dear Facebook, surgery tomorrow. Thoughts, prayers, and good vibes appreciated. Dear Jan, my dad is sick – will you put a prayer request in the church newsletter?
We ask one another, fellow saints, to pray for us all the time. We ask a saint to intercede on our behalf every time we ask on another to keep us in our prayers.
And if our prayers are joined by Christians in every time and place, then when we all join in prayer together, the temporal distinctions between past present and future, alive on earth and alive in God, all of those distinctions fall away.
When we shed the illusions of time and see the veil between life and death to be truly as thin as it is, we begin to hear voices. We hear the voices of the saints interceding to God on our behalf.
We hear the voices of saints praying for us and with us, the voices of…
Saint Peter and Saint Andrew,
Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Dorcas,
Saints Francis and Benedict, Augustine and Aquinas,
the voices of Saints Hildegard and Julian, Theresa and Clare, Saints Calvin and Luther,
Katherina and Marguerite,
the voices of Saint Barbara, Saint Andy, Saint David, Saint Bob, Saint Margery, Saint Peggy, and Saint Virginia – all these voices and so many more joined as one great cloud of witnesses in the prayers of the people.
When we pray together, we are joined to the holy one-ness of God – the singularity of existence, of soul, of meaning. This great and holy one – this unimaginable unity of voices offering thanks and praise and petitions to God – this is what we are joined to when we pray together – and… this is what awaits us when we die.
What is heaven?
Heaven is a holy one-ness, a seamless unity with the living God and Jesus Christ, bound together by the Holy Spirit with the praying saints of every time and place.
Christ said as much in the garden of Gethsemane, in his own prayer of the people, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, so they may become completely one.”
So no, I don’t know if there are rainbows, or dinosaurs, or milkshakes in heaven. I don’t know if there are streets of gold or chubby angels. I don’t know what heaven looks like.
But I do know what it sounds like.
The Lord be with you… May it be so. Amen.