If someone were to ask you what you imagine heaven to be like, what would you say? Would you describe heaven as something of a celestial day spa, with soothing music and relaxing messages? Or is heaven in your mind like a Club Med, with sandy beaches and fruity drinks? Maybe heaven for you is a "Field of Dreams" where your major league fantasies will finally come true. Or is heaven simply a place where all your bills are paid and you can catch up on sleep?
I imagine that many of us, at times, think of heaven along these lines. However, who here this morning would say, "Heaven is where I can finally, after all this time and effort, really and truly love my enemies?" Or how many of us think: "I can’t wait to get to heaven, where I can really love the people that I really love to hate?"
If you think this way, then you are either a saint-in-the-making, and God bless you!, or you’re lying through your teeth. More likely, if we ever do combine heaven and our enemies in the same thought, the scenario is that heaven is the place where we will be and our enemies won’t- because they’ll be in that other place! Right?
Today’s readings from Scripture give us some clues about what heaven will be like in reality. The passage from Revelation describes heaven as where God will dwell with us in an intimate, personal, loving way. We’re also told that in heaven there will be no sea- which in the Bible is a symbol of chaos and evil. Instead, creation will be renewed and perfected. Sadness, weeping, death, and pain will be no more, because God will be there to wipe away every tear.
I think you’ll agree that this is a lovely and beautiful image of heaven. This image can be a great inspiration and hope for us during whenever we suffer or life gets tough. However, because it speaks of peace and happiness, it’s this image that can lead us to think of heaven along the lines of a spa or a Club Med. The danger then is to conclude that heaven is nothing more than an escape from our present misery, or a reward for enduring an unhappy life. We’ll then begin to live our life as if it were meant to be miserable and unhappy. And that’s not a healthy perspective at all.
We can find a complimentary image of heaven in today’s gospel when Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us. It’s true that Jesus doesn’t specifically mention heaven here, but it’s certainly implied, because heaven is filled with love. Heaven is where we will be able to love God, and love each other, in a totally perfect way.
Think of it like this: Jesus loves us unconditionally- without exemptions or exceptions. We don’t have to earn his love, nor is his love given as a reward for our good behavior. Instead, Jesus’ love is a free and undeserved gift. It’s constant and unchanging- in season and out. Jesus loves us always and everywhere- in spite of all the hurtful, selfish, greedy, and ignorant things that we choose to do.
This is good news indeed! And it’s also the model for how we’re to love others. Just as Jesus loves us, we are to love others unconditionally. We’re to love without demanding that our love being returned. We’re to love without the expectation of a reward. We’re to love without the anticipation of a desired outcome or result. As Americans, this is hard for us to swallow, because we always want a good return on our investment. But as Christians, we are called to love simply for the sake of loving.
This includes loving our enemies and those who are difficult to love, or resist our love. And we certainly can’t put expectations on people like that; we can’t demand results or to receive their appreciation. In other words, we can’t love them simply because we’re trying to make them change or to be nice to us. Those are selfish motivations, and that isn’t Christian love at all. Besides, when they don’t change and they aren’t nice to us, as will often be the case, we’ll get frustrated and stop trying. They may change, and that’s great when it happens. But that’s not why we love them.
Jesus says that loving people like this is the hallmark of the Christian. He doesn’t tell us that it’s an easy thing to do. If it were easy, and if it did come naturally to us, he wouldn’t have had to command it in the first place! But he did command it, because if we were left to our own devices, it would be easier, and seemingly more sensible, to love only those people who love us back. We reason that life is hard enough as it is without having to waste our time and energy on those people who don’t like us or care about us.
And let’s be honest: Life is hard. That’s why it’s nice to think of heaven as a release from our present hardships or as a reward for our patient endurance. That’s why a day at the beach may seem like a little bit of heaven on earth. However, real heaven on earth is experienced not necessarily through leisure, or even how well things may be going for us, but through love. And if we do love, we’ll begin to understand that heaven is not an escape from earthly existence, but is instead a continuation and perfection of what we’ve begun to live and experience already. Heaven may indeed be a place free of misery. But heaven is free of misery precisely because it is full of love. With this love, we can always taste a little bit of heaven, even when things may seem like hell.