No sermon this week as I’m out of the pulpit, but this nugget of a story has been toying with my subconscious for a few weeks.
The kingdom of heaven is like the story of a man died and went to heaven. Having been a churchgoer all of his life, and being fluent in both the Scriptures of the Bible and the issues of his day, he arrived at the gates with the knowledge that grace had saved him. Still, he was reasonably surprised to discover that it was his own pastor who greeted him at the gates.
“Why, pastor, I thought it was St. Peter who’d meet me here!” he exclaimed, clapping a hand on the pastor’s back. “My, you do look well!”
“Certainly, my friend,” the pastor replied, shining slightly as he spoke. “There’s a certain amount of getting acclimated here that lets you get comfortable. You’ll see. Let me show you around.”
The two men walked into heaven, and the newcomer noticed the way that light seemed to emanate everywhere. People laughed and smiled, and everyone appeared fit and healthy, amidst a garden of beautiful plants with animals of all manner running about. When they came to the first building, Bill inclined that his former parishioner should enter first.
Inside of the deceptively large building, a solemn celebration of the Eucharist was underway. Priests shook incense everywhere, and the people in the pews glowed as they participated in the prayers and recitations.
After a few moments of restless sitting, the man exclaimed in a forced whisper, “I’m a good Protestant!” and his pastor led him out of the door toward another building. Here, he barely made it through the common area, where coffee was being consumed and donuts shared, as the sounds of a raucous rock concert shook the partitions.
“C’mon, Pastor, you know that’s not my style!” he complained, and the pastor took them back out, but not before reaching for a donut himself.
In the courtyard, a group of musicians had set up simple percussion and some stringed instruments, and led a group of relaxed worshippers in Taize. The newcomer hurried on by, but was drawn by the sound of the piano to another structure.
Upon entering, he quickly stepped to the side. “Oh, this is black church,” he whispered. Watching the congregation with their hands in the air, and the sporadic explosion of call and response, he wiped his hands on his pants and headed for the door.
Hurrying to keep up, the pastor arrived at the next building as the man passed through the portico. With a sigh of relief, his former parishioner settled into the back row as the organist fired up “Amazing Grace,” and the congregation sang along.
“This, this is heaven,” the man breathed.
“Well,” the pastor said, fading from the man’s view but reappearing as the Apostle Peter… who still looked a bit like the pastor. “Let me show you something, before you get too comfortable.”
Taking his hand and stepping outside, the pastor/Peter led the new man outside, as the structures they had entered faded and were replaced by something brighter, centered around the pulsing glory of God. Slowly, the man turned, realizing that he could still hear the organ, but now it was joined by the piano, and the Taize chanting, the bass guitar, the everyday household materials-turned-percussion instruments, and the voices of millions of people singing a song.
“This, my friend, is heaven,” said the pastor/apostle/angel. “There are no churches in heaven, just plenty of room.”
“But, all these people know the words,” said the man finally. “What are they singing?!”
“That,” said the angel, with a smile. “That’s love.”