August 5, 2012 - Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Psalm 78:3-4, 23-25, 54
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
John 6:24-35

How many of you want to go to heaven? Do you want to go right now? This is an old joke; you have probably heard it before, but it contains an insight into how a lot of people think about heaven. There is this element of doubt in our minds. Even if we have a strong faith, the question remains: “What if all this is just make-believe? What if there is nothing waiting for me?” While we are unsettled in this way, it is difficult to really be anxious to find out.

Those of you who have heard me preach know that it is very rare to hear me tell a joke in a homily, but today I have another one: A man dies at the age of 100 and goes to heaven. He enjoys all the food and the games and wine. A month later his wife dies and he meets her at the gates. She asks if heaven really is so wonderful. He says, “It is. And if it were not for all of your oat bran and low cholesterol I could have been here 40 years ago!”

Is this what you think heaven is? A sort of party with free food and free drinks and lots of fun? This is how we describe heaven to children, but there comes a time when we have to grow up. If the joys of heaven were just more of the joys of earth, it would be terrible. Would you like to go to a party that just never ended? Imagine the most fun you have ever had in your life. Then imagine doing that for a year straight. Would that really be a good year? It would be a boring year. And heaven is not for a year; heaven is forever. What could possibly be interesting enough to keep us happy for 10,000 years? And when we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we have just as many days as when we had first begun. What will we do for a million years or a billion years or 10 trillion years? Anything we can imagine would be boring. I do not believe that hell needs any other punishment than crushing boredom. If you tell people to do whatever they want, forever is going to be a very, very long time.

And if heaven were just a continuation of the joys of this life, then God is rather unfair. It is very impressive, our first reading today. God provides food for 2 million people by making it fall out of the sky. This sign first makes us amazed at what God can do, but the question quickly follows: why does he not do that all the time? If he can work a miracle to make human life better, why would he ever stop working it? He can turn water into wine. Why do the rivers not run with wine then? He can heal the sick with a touch or a word of command. We often see Jesus doing this in the Gospel, but his ministry was only for 2 years. Why does he not heal every sick person ever?

There is so much suffering in the world that could be instantly cured if God decided to. The suffering of this world is mostly caused by human selfishness and the rest is caused by the dangers that are inherent to the world. They are not God’s fault. But why does he not use his power to fix everything as he demonstrates he can? Either he is not rich enough and would run out of food if he made it fall from the sky every day and everywhere, which we know is ridiculous, or he chooses not to. He chooses not to because we humans were made for something more than food or healing.

The world would be very strange if for the years of this life God did not provide what we need and then provided it as soon as we reached heaven. What is the point in refusing a gift now that he will give to us then? There is no point. What would be the point in lacking something now, just so that it could be provided abundantly later? There is no point. So the common conception of heaven is boring and pointless. It must be wrong. There must be something more.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Jesus is trying to get the people to look beyond the food to something more. He does not want us to be satisfied with a full belly. The something more, which will truly satisfy us, is love: the love of God and the love we have for each other.

It has been well said that God does not send anyone to hell, but people choose to go there. They get to the gates of heaven, and he says, “Welcome, this place is all about love.” And the person says, “Love? That’s not really my thing.” and walks away. Do not get to the threshold of heaven expecting your every selfish desire to be fulfilled. God will provide all we need, but the saints in heaven are not turned inward on themselves. Their last concern is what they need.

So we can start participating in the joys of heaven right here and now. In fact, if we ever hope to go to heaven we have to start now. St. Paul says: “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” He means that we should become like people enjoying heaven. We cannot experience the lesser joys of heaven here, but we can begin to experience the central joy of heaven: love. By loving God and loving each other, we will begin to experience heaven.

Let us begin right now: 8:30 am on this Sunday morning. Let us renew the spirit of our minds, letting go of our grip on the things of this earth, the material stuff that we think will make us happy. If we do this, we will be ready. When death comes, we will greet it like a friend; we will be anxious to continue what we have started here.