Our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Ephesians 1:1-14, is one of the majestic passages in the New Testament. It pictures Christ now Lord of the universe, and we, the people of faith, are the inheritors of the gift that he has given to us. Paul uses the most extravagant language to describe this. In fact, it is the language that was reserved for royalty, for the Caesars, used at national festivals, and royal celebrations. Paul intentionally co-opts this royal language to talk about Christ, now King of kings and Lord of lords. Listen again to this language.
God, who has raised Christ from the dead and seated him on his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him Lord over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
That is not ordinary language. That is cosmic language. But the most amazing thing of all in this passage is that the inheritance that we receive from Christ is resurrection. The power of God that elevated him into the heavens will raise us into his kingdom. “In Christ,” he wrote, “we have obtained this inheritance.”
Paul tells the Ephesians, “You will see this inheritance with the eyes of your heart.” That is such a lovely phrase, “the eyes of your heart.” It is reminiscent of Pascal’s, “The heart has reasons the mind knows not of.” Pascal, the great French mathematician in the 17th century, right at the start of the Enlightenment, realized that reason, which in those days people believed would be invincible, had a limited realm in which to rule. It was effective only with the senses. It can work with what the senses can give it, what can be seen. But it was helpless to probe the depth of the mystery that surrounds this life.
The mystery that surrounds us belongs to different modes of perception. That is why he said, “The heart has reasons the mind knows not of.” It is the heart that is able to see into that mystery. And it is why Paul said to the Ephesians, “I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your heart, so you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and the power for us who believe.” You will know that inheritance through faith, through the eyes of your heart.
Laurence Stookey wrote, “Faith needs visual aids.” So the Church has provided images of heaven to help us to understand the inheritance awaiting us. In fact, the first churches, in places like Ephesus in present day Turkey, the place to which this letter was addressed by Paul, were constructed with domes to represent heaven. They would paint, or portray in mosaic tiles, the figure of Christ, now up in the heavens, ruling in the heavens. That image is called the “Pantocrator,” which is the Greek word for “Almighty.”
All around the edge of the dome, looking down on the worshipers below, would be the saints. The saints are the Christians who have received the inheritance and are now in the kingdom. The Eastern churches especially provided these visual aids to illustrate the triumph of the saints, the inheritance that we receive by Christ’s resurrection.
In the West the visual aids in the churches are generally of the human Jesus, particularly of the suffering Jesus. You go into so-called Western churches, particularly the old churches in Europe, your eye will be drawn not to the dome and to the exalted Christ, but to the altar, and to the crucified Christ. But in the Eastern churches, the Eastern Orthodox churches, such as Ephesus, to where this letter was addressed, it is the victorious Christ in heaven that you will see.
Back in 988, Vladimir I, the pagan king of old Russia, wanted to adopt a religion for his people. He sent envoys to visit Judaism, and Islam, and Christianity. In those days Christianity had already split into West and East, so he sent two emissaries to Christianity. One went to the Western church, the Roman church, as it was found in Germany. Then he sent another emissary to Constantinople, to St. Sophia’s Church, the Eastern Orthodox church. Those emissaries wrote this. “The Greeks led us to the edifices where they worshiped their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells here among men.”
Faith needs visual aids, because the heart has eyes. The message of these churches is that heaven and earth are one. There is a continuum between this life and the next life. It is dramatically portrayed in the architecture, and in the art, and in the drama of worship, as the worshipers gather each week.
We who are the inheritors of what is called Western Christianity, especially Protestant thinking, are deprived of that – although many Protestants would not consider it a deprivation. My progenitors certainly would not have considered it that. They were proud that they had rid their church of “adornment.” That’s what they called it, “adornment.”
There was good reason for their protest. But there are also good reasons for providing art, and music, and the drama of worship to enlighten the eyes of the heart to see the faith.
Rollo May, the great psychologist, was visiting one of those Eastern Orthodox churches. It happened to be on Mt. Athos, in Greece, where all those monasteries are. He visited on Easter Eve a church in a monastery. He described it this way. “The only light was the light from the candles. The incense hung heavy in the air. At the end of the service the priest gave everybody three Easter eggs, with a veil decorating them. Then he said to each person, ‘Christos Anesti,’ Christ is Risen. Each person answered, ‘He is risen, indeed.'” In that church, with all its visual aids, all the drama of that, Rollo May, for the first time in his life, was moved to think about what he had just said, “He is risen indeed.” He thought, “What would it mean for the world if he is risen? What would it mean?”
The early Church knew what it would mean. It would mean that Jesus is Lord over all things, including death itself. And those who believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life. They built churches and decorated them to enlighten the eyes of the heart to see what they believed.
But there was an unexpected consequence to this belief. If heaven is our goal, then this life has a purpose beyond itself. It is the beginning of a journey that ends beyond our sight. That means that what you do here makes a difference. As Jesus put it, “Do not therefore store up treasures on earth where moth and rust will destroy them, but build for yourself treasures in heaven.”
Which meant that what we do here on earth is of ultimate significance. A cup of cold water given to somebody who is thirsty is not just a little thing, it is celebrated in heaven. The repentance of a sinner, a person who turns his life around, not just a life change. It’s the reason for angels rejoicing. A sacrifice that is made here is not merely an act of generosity, it is hailed in heaven as a battle for good over evil. If heaven is our goal, then this life has ultimate significance. What we do here has ultimate meaning.
The final act of our life is on another stage. So blessedness, that’s what “beatitude” means, or happiness, is for those who do the right thing, even though they do not see the consequences. For there is a continuum between earth and heaven. The significance of what I do cannot be confined to this earth, to here and now. But it will be remembered then, and there. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now I know in part; then I will know fully.”
Extending the stage for moral behavior beyond our sight also give significance to the meaning of stewardship, what Jesus talked about consistently in his parables. He said that what we have now is here, given to us, not to spend, but to invest. Even if it is a widow’s mite, or a mustard seed, or even if it is just a single talent that we have, we are to see it not as ours alone, not just to spend, but to invest, to make sure something good is going to come of it, because (and this is the punch line of all the stewardship parables), someday we are going to give an accounting of our lives. Someday the full significance of all our deeds will be known to us and will be celebrated.
Karl Marx, and all others who are uncomfortable being lumped with Karl Marx, but who naively share his same materialism, believe that the doctrine of heaven is a panacea, that it is a religion for the weak, an opiate of the masses. But nothing could be more to the contrary. Nothing has stimulated human beings more to do good works and to try to make the world a better place than the belief that what I do here now is of ultimate significance.
Saints arose because people of faith need heroes. They need models of what it means to be faithful in this life. It is believed that the saints are now in heaven cheering us on. I like to think that it is like being at Qualcomm Stadium, 65,000 people there cheering. You are on the field. Or if you change the metaphor, you are on stage now. You are faced with a terrible decision, or you must endure some painful experience in your life, and you don’t want to face it. Or you must do something, or some decision you must make, or deed that you must do, that is going to make a difference in this battle between good and evil. Those who have gone before, those who have faced what you are facing now, or have faced much more than what you are facing now, they are up there, on their feet now, cheering you on, giving you courage to face what you must face.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
The Christian doctrine of heaven does not diminish this life, it enriches it and makes it more significant. Perhaps the greatest evidence can be found in that age in history where the saints were the most popular. In fact it was called the “Age of Saints,” when people named their children after the saints, hoping that their children would be like them. It was the Middle Ages. Barbara Tuchman wrote about those ages probably more eloquently than anybody else.
In one of her books she talks about the building of the cathedrals in the 13th century. She said it was one of humankind’s most astounding and audacious feats. In one century, 600 cathedrals, or major churches, were built in France alone. The cathedrals in England, the Cathedral at Salisbury, where the tallest spire was built in just 38 years. And the spire on the church in Germany at Freiburg, constructed entirely of filigree, out of stone, as if some supernatural spider had spun that web. In Sainte Chappelle, the chapel in Paris, where there is no visible support for the fifteen windows that swallow up the walls.
She described it as a period of incredible innovation and audacity. Many reasons are given for this accomplishment. Each discipline has its own reason. The political scientists say it was because the monarchies in those days provided a stable political environment. The economists say it was because of the rise of capitalism and the accumulation of surplus wealth. The engineers say it was because of the invention of the flying buttress and the ribbed vault.
That is all true. But that does not explain why it happened. Why it happened, she said, was because of belief. Belief about God. Belief about Christ. Belief about who we are. Belief about what we are supposed to do with our lives. Belief about why we are here. And belief about what awaits us in the end.
It was belief. In fact, it was this belief, this magisterial belief, “that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, has seated him at his right hand, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.”
And in Christ each one of us has received this inheritance. And with the eyes of our hearts we are able to see the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.