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Is heaven our destination after death?


It could be God’s point of departure for coming to us

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Tom Long

GALVESTON, Texas — When we die, we don’t go to heaven, the Rev. Dr. Tom Long told the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators earlier this month. Instead, it’s the place from which God comes to us.

Long, who spoke twice during APCE’s Feb. 6-9 event, quoted theologian Christopher Morse, who wrote “The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News”: “We are called to be on hand for that which is at hand but not in hand.”

Our understanding of mission, he said, is rooted in how we view eschatology, which Long defined as where the world is going, how it’s going to get there, what God is doing and what we are to do.

Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition used to have this clear view of eschatology: We are “supposed to be working toward building the kingdom that Jesus will rule over when he comes again,” he said.

Dutifully, we established denominational headquarters and soon learned “we can do this better if we cooperate.” The National Council of Churches opened its doors a century ago, “and fortunately, John D. Rockefeller supported it,” he said. The industrialist and philanthropist believed that “we are literally establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth,” Long said.

“We were like busy worker bees. We got interested in education, sanitation and health. That happened because of eschatology,” Long said.

The downside? “The arrogance of it,” he said.  “The notion that we are building the Kingdom of God.”

A Second World War pretty much set that theory aside.

The story behind a stained glass window in a New York City church illustrates how mission can be done meaningfully and helpfully.

The preacher and author George Buttrick told the story of the stained glass, a view of the new Jerusalem installed over the chancel. It featured an image coming down from heaven like a bride adorned.

After it was installed, the congregation despised it, Buttrick reported.

“It had this gaudy aquamarine River of Life,” Long said. Parishioners were clear: “We live in New York. Our place of mission is the grittiness of the city.”

But because the stained glass was made on the cheap, its bright colors soon faded, “and the congregation could see through it to the city beyond, the skyscrapers and the tenements, and the window took power. God’s city and their city merged,” Long said, noting that in Revelation 21, “the gates of the city of God are open all day every day,” and there’s no night there.

We’d do well, he said, to “stop thinking of mission as our taking Christ to the world. Jesus Christ is already in the world.” Rather, it’s our job to join him “in whatever Jesus is already doing in the world.”

The radical Christian lawyer William Stringfellow was once asked by both the Harvard Divinity School and Harvard’s business school to lecture on the powers of darkness as he saw them during the Vietnam era. He delivered the same lecture to both budding pastors and future titans of industry.

“The divinity school hated it, but at the business school, they knew exactly what he was talking about,” Long said. “They had seen the power of Wall Street.”

The church, Stringfellow and others have discovered, is an institution, much like large corporations and big government are institutions. The big difference is that the church “is an institution that doesn’t have to worry about its own survival,” Long said, “so it can go forth in mission with confidence.”

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