Love Your Neighbor: A Vision of Paradise

Good Morning Church,

Today marks the final Sunday in our sermon series on loving our neighbors. I would like to take this time to talk about vision setting, having purpose that motivates, and excitement for our faith that we can live by. In order for us to meet all of those purposes, I would like to take us back one hundred and fifteen years. Let’s take a moment and close our eyes and imagine that it is the morning of October 1, 1905. We have all arrived for the dedication of our new sanctuary. There are 450 people standing outside awaiting the doors to open. Once they have opened we file in and find a seat in the now packed auditorium. The beauty of the stained glass and the light it produced fills your heart with gladness. The organist walks into and sits into their seat and with the movement of their fingers they unleash the power of the new organ. The Bishop and the minister process in, followed by a choir singing songs of praise. You feel the majesty of this moment, years in the making. The long process of establishing this beautiful place to worship and praise has finally come to this climactic moment. You feel the weight of this monumental day and as the service continues you relax into your seat and anticipate the grace that you will now experience.

I imagine that this might be how the people of this church felt on that early October morning in 1905. There was an aura of promise that this place brought to each and every person who walked through those doors that important morning. The church felt alive and was ready to move forward to new heights in the ministry of Jesus Christ. I know this because of Mrs. S. M. Billings, who paid for our stained-glass window representing Jesus in the temple as a child, in honor of her late husband. Over the course of the 4 years, between when the prior church was deemed unusable and the erection of this worship space, she donated 8,000 dollars of the 33,000 that this church cost to build. What makes her story even more remarkable was that on the day of dedication, when the church still had around 18,000 dollars in debt, they were able to raise 10,000 that morning. Mrs. S. M. Billings gave an additional 2,000 dollars. She had been empowered by, inspired through, and comforted in this church that she called her home. Her love of Christ and this church is evident in the gifts that she gave and forever we are able to be reminded of her passion by looking at this window that she dedicated to her late husband.

There is something truly beautiful in this testimony of faith from a beloved child of God over 100 years ago. She lived into the grace of God and left a legacy of faithful living and sacrificial giving for all of us to be inspired by to this day. Let’s take a moment and simply acknowledge how beautiful her love of this church and the mission here was.

The warmth that I felt reading her story, if only a brief portion of it, was overwhelming for me. The church, for all its faults and missteps, has had moments and people who shine brighter than the world around us. Whether this light shines through the ages with a legacy gift that teaches the generations or an individual that puts aside all feelings of worry in order to bring the light of Jesus to the community abroad, we are forever changed by the life that they chose to live.

The faithful of the early church were not numerous, but they were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. That “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us are people like Mrs. Billings, from every age and all corners of the globe. They may have gone on from this place, but they are still present in the examples that they have left for us. They believed in “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. I too believe in this. I believe that we are called to work to build the kingdom of God on earth and not simply wait to go to paradise. Jesus was not telling us to believe in him and that then you can just sit till you go home. We are called to evoke that paradise into this world, but that begs the question what paradise truly is?

As a kid, I had a lot of ideas from what I was taught in church. I figured paradise would just be church from the time you walk in and on into eternity. If I can be honest, this was not exactly very appealing to me at the time and is still not really all that appealing to me today. This is not to say that I do not love church, but I also see that there is so much more to our time with Jesus than that. As the years went on I never really thought about what paradise would be like. I went to seminary and never really considered what it would be like. Yet, when I moved to PA something changed. I met Steph.

When we were first together, Steph told me what she believed heaven would be like when she was a young child. She envisioned that once you passed through heaven’s gates, you joined a long line up in the clouds, but nobody minded the wait because of what lied ahead. Everyone had to take their turn, but at the end of the wait, each person had their own special time with Jesus, one-on-one, at a table to enjoy a delicious slice of white cake with white and pink frosting. Now, doesn’t that sounds truly wonderful! I love cake. I love Jesus. It was so simple and yet I believe is probably closer than anyone has ever come to truly defining for me what paradise will be like. The reason being that what makes Steph’s younger self’s impression of paradise so special is the intimacy that she was experiencing with Jesus.

Intimacy is the name of the game. When we remember the saints that have gone on before us, we remember the lives we shared with them. When we think about the current saints that are sitting amongst us, we think about the joy and laughter that we share in our common love of Christ. When we think about the future saints that have yet to come along, we think about the promise of their lives and have hope for what Jesus will do through their generations. And this has been the pattern for all communities of faith from the beginning of time and will be until the time we are all home with Jesus, but that time is not here yet. We have much work to do in the lives that we are living today.

The “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us are people from every age whose lives were determined by their faith in God. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews compares them to sports fans in the stands of a stadium. They have already finished their race. But they do not lose interest in those who are still struggling and running. They urge them on and applaud them. That is how witnesses support our faith.

When people are sitting in this space in 20 or 50 years, what legacy are we going to be remembered by? What will be the defining qualities that future generations will look back on us and say made life as it is today? Are they going to be inspired by our work? Are they going to be in awe of our faithfulness to Jesus? These are the kinds of questions that I have always been asking and probably will always ask. As we sit here today and remember the people who have made this church a home for us, what are we doing to prepare for the next generation? What do we need to do that we have not begun yet?

The “great cloud of witnesses” is watching and praying for all of us here today. Praying that we will be faithful in the uncertain times that lie ahead, because the future has always been uncertain. I believe that if we live for the intimacy that Steph’s vision of paradise offers, we will be hard pressed to stay the same. We will always be changed because we will be more in-tune with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Remember that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Following the teachings of Jesus will give us the guidance for how we can be the church in any uncertain future. Let’s be inspired by the good work of the church throughout all of human history and convicted by the failures of the church, so that we never repeat them again. God has given us a great gift and the “cloud of witnesses” are always around us to remind us of the simple truth that God is with us.

Friends, let the intimacy of our lives with Jesus to be the motivation, guide, and purpose for the work that we do every day. Let’s not take for granted any moment that we have together and continue forward in the grace of Jesus. Mrs. S. M. Billings has given us a great example of faithful living. She entrusted this space in all its beauty to us, to be used as a testament to faith in the risen Lord. The calling that we have today is to bring the intimacy, love, and kindness of Jesus Christ to all of humankind. We have a unique privilege to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this life and in the next, when we join that “cloud of witnesses”. Yet, let’s take advantage of every moment we have here in this life to share and spread the kingdom of God throughout all the world. In doing so we honor God, love each other, and comfort the world. Together, with the grace of Jesus, there is nothing that we can not do for the kingdom. And all God’s people say. Amen.