"Ice Cream in Heaven": Sermon for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, Year A"

"Ice Cream in Heaven": Sermon for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, Year A"

Nov 12, 2017

Passage:1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Jill Walters

Series: Pentecost

Category: Love, Hope, Kingdom of God

Keywords: death, heaven, hope, love


With Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, we get a glimpse of people who were concerned in the early church about what happened to their loved ones when they died. Paul gives them, and us, a wonderful vision of hope in Christ about life after death.


May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 ​When​ ​I​ ​was​ ​in​ ​elementary​ ​school,​ ​my​ ​daddy​ ​used​ ​to​ ​pick​ ​me​ ​up from​ ​school​ ​everyday.​ ​I​ ​would​ ​go​ ​to​ ​his​ ​office​ ​and​ ​hang​ ​out​ ​until​ ​my​ ​mom got​ ​off​ ​work.​ ​​ ​The​ ​first​ ​thing​ ​we’d​ ​do​ ​when​ ​we​ ​got​ ​there​ ​was​ ​walk​ ​a​ ​block​ ​to the​ ​pharmacy.​ ​​ ​Pharmacies​ ​back​ ​then​ ​weren’t​ ​like​ ​the​ ​pharmacies​ ​now,​ ​not like​ ​CVS​ ​or​ ​Walgreen’s.​ ​​ ​

In​ ​our​ ​small​ ​town,​ ​both​ ​pharmacies​ ​had​ ​a “counter”​ ​where​ ​you​ ​could​ ​get​ ​cokes,​ ​malts,​ ​milkshakes,​ ​coke floats,​ ​ice cream,​ ​things​ ​like​ ​that.​ ​So,​ ​every​ ​afternoon​ ​I’d​ ​have​ ​a​ ​chocolate​ ​ice​ ​cream cone.​ ​​ ​Chocolate​ ​ice​ ​cream​ ​was,​ ​by​ ​far,​ ​one​ ​of​ ​my​ ​favorite​ ​things​ ​in​ ​the world.​ ​​ ​And​ ​it​ ​was​ ​all​ ​the​ ​more​ ​special​ ​because​ ​it​ ​was​ ​time​ ​with​ ​my​ ​dad.  

One​ ​night,​ ​as​ ​he​ ​came​ ​to​ ​tuck​ ​me​ ​in​ ​bed,​ ​I​ ​asked​ ​him​ ​what​ ​happens when​ ​we​ ​die.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​started​ ​to​ ​think​ ​about​ ​this​ ​lately.​ ​​ ​We​ ​rarely​ ​missed​ ​a Sunday​ ​in​ ​church,​ ​so​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​I’d​ ​go​ ​to​ ​“heaven,”​ ​but​ ​that​ ​wasn’t​ very comforting.​ ​​ ​I​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​go​ ​anywhere​ ​alone​ ​without​ ​my​ ​family.  

 So,​ ​Daddy​ ​painted​ ​a​ ​picture​ ​of​ ​heaven​ ​for​ ​me.​ ​​ ​He​ ​said​ ​it​ ​was​ ​a beautiful​ ​place​ ​with​ ​all​ ​your​ ​family​ ​and​ ​friends​ ​and​ ​you​ ​get​ ​to​ ​have​ ​all​ ​the chocolate​ ​ice​ ​cream​ ​you​ ​could​ ​ever​ ​want​ ​and​ ​never​ ​get​ ​sick!​ ​Well,​ ​that certainly​ ​sounded​ ​great​ ​to​ ​me!​ ​I​ ​wouldn’t​ ​be​ ​separated​ ​from​ ​those​ ​I​ ​love and​ ​I’d​ ​get​ ​unlimited​ ​chocolate​ ​ice​ ​cream! 

 I​ ​laid​ ​in​ ​bed​ ​quite​ ​satisfied​ ​with​ ​that​ ​answer.​ ​​ ​He​ ​had​ ​created​ ​a picture​ ​of​ ​heaven​ ​just​ ​for​ ​me,​ ​one​ ​that​ ​made​ ​sense​ ​to​ ​me​ ​at​ ​that​ ​time…one that​ ​spoke​ ​to​ ​my​ ​greatest​ ​fears​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​one​ ​that​ ​gave​ ​me​ ​hope.  

 That’s​ ​what​ ​Paul​ ​is​ ​doing​ ​in​ ​First​ ​Thessalonians.​ ​​ ​He’s​ ​speaking to​ ​the​ ​fears​ ​and​ ​the​ ​hope​ ​of​ ​the​ ​people​ ​in​ ​the​ ​church​ ​at Thessalonica. Remember,​ ​these​ ​are​ ​still​ ​the​ ​early​ ​years​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Church—uncertain​ ​and dangerous​ ​times.​ ​​ ​There​’s​ ​some​ ​structure,​ ​but​ ​doctrine​ ​that​ ​we​ ​take​ ​for granted​ ​is​ ​evolving.​ ​​ ​The​ ​Thessalonians​ ​clearly​ ​have​ ​faith​ ​that​ ​Christ​ ​died and​ ​was​ ​resurrected​ ​to​ ​save​ ​them.​ ​​ ​

But​ ​they’ve​ ​lost​ ​people​ ​they​ ​love.​ ​​ ​They don’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​be​ ​separated​ ​from​ ​them​ ​for​ ​eternity.​ ​​ ​And​ ​they​ ​don’t​ ​want​ ​their loved​ ​ones​ ​who’ve​ ​already​ ​died​ ​to​ ​miss​ ​out​ ​on​ ​the​ ​life​ ​of​ ​peace​ ​and​ ​justice they’ve​ ​put​ ​their​ ​hope​ ​in. Paul’s​ ​response​ ​is​ ​so​ ​kind​ ​and​ ​loving​ ​in​ ​this​ ​passage.​ ​​ ​He’s​ ​not building​ ​a​ ​theological​ ​argument.​ ​He’s​ ​responding​ ​to​ ​a​ ​specific​ ​group​ ​of people​ ​who​ ​are​ ​faithful,​ ​but​ ​are​ ​grieving.  

Paul​ ​is​n’t​ ​telling​ ​them​ ​that​ ​they​ ​shouldn’t​ ​grieve—“so​ ​that​ ​you​ ​may not​ ​grieve​ ​as​ ​others​ ​do​ ​who​ ​have​ ​no​ ​hope.”​ ​​ ​He’s​ ​reminding​ ​them​ ​that​ ​their grief is different because they do have hope.  God has revealed that hope through Jesus Christ.  Through Christ, all those who have died have a home with God.

Then Paul goes on to explain that their loved ones won’t be left out of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And even better than that, they’re going ahead of us. 

Remember, Paul is not giving a response to accurately depict what heaven will look like, he’s giving a pastoral response...a response to a hurting and scared Church.  So, he paints a beautiful picture:

      “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Imagine you’re living in the first century, probably even before the temple has fallen.  The Romans are mercilessly persecuting the Jews and the Christians.  You’ve only been a Christian for a very short time.  Danger is all around you.  You’ve seen people you love die.  And you believe that Jesus is coming back any day. 

Paul’s imagery would be very comforting.  You hear God sounding the command, the call of the archangel, and the trumpet blowing.  Then Jesus will come down from heaven and all their loved ones who have already died will rise up with Christ.  Then those who are still alive will ascend to the clouds together to meet Jesus.  And live in God’s presence forever!  

We, in this 21st century, still have these same questions.  What happens when we die?  Will we be reunited with our loved ones?  Even if our faith is strong, these questions return to us whenever we face the loss of someone we hold dear. 

And, of course, no one knows exactly what happens when we die.  I imagine that, just like our attempts to explain God, heaven cannot be justly described with the limits of our language.  But the Bible gives many beautiful images to comfort us...different images that may speak to us in different ways.  We all probably have different images that comfort us.

These images of heaven also remind us that Jesus preached that the Kingdom of Heaven is in the future, but it is also in the present.  It is now.  So, now that we know that we’ll be reunited with those we love, what are we supposed to do?  We’re supposed to help make “now” as much like God’s kingdom as we can.

This week, our bishop, +Scott Mayer posted an address about how we’re facing yet another tragedy.  This time in our own state of Texas with our brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs.  He expressed grief and sorrow.  He told us to “pray, of course.”  But he also said that “we are called to be the hands and feet and hearts of God in this world.”  He ended with prayer for peace, but also prayer “for courage to live faithfully and to strive for change.”

In many ways, we’re more like those first century Thessalonians than we admit.  We’re trying to figure out how to follow Christ in a world that doesn’t always make it easy.

We’re faithful people who reach out to our neighbors and those in need.  We worship, we study, we join others in living out our walk with Christ in the best ways we can.  We pray.  We’re a church of prayer.  And many of us have experienced the power of that prayer.    

I’ve also read comments this week where people have said that we should “stop praying” and start acting.  Start doing something to protect people from needless pain and suffering.

+Bishop Mayer isn’t saying that.  He says we must do both.  We must pray.  Pray that God’s will be done.  That we’re guided by God’s wisdom and purpose.  Pray that we can use the incredible resources of people from all walks of life who might be able to provide solutions to extremely complicated situations. 

I won’t stand up here and say that there’s one easy, quick solution.  That if we only did this one thing, the world would look like God’s kingdom.  We know better than that.  We don’t always say better than that, but we know better than that.  Alleviating this kind of pain will take a lot of time, patience, and working together. 

As part of the the Body of Christ, we know well about working together.  As Episcopalians, we’re amazing at worshipping and working with people who don’t share our doctrine or our political ideologies.  It’s truly a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.   We can show the world how it’s done. 

How can people who believe so many different things about God and have such different political views love one another so dearly?  How can we share one bread and one cup when we’re so different?  How can we work with one another in an effort to care for our neighbors when we disagree about some things so vehemently?

The answer, of course, is love.  We’ve been shown such extravagant and abundant love by God that we’re free to love one another no matter what our differences are.  Like Paul, we use that love to comfort one connect with one show one another a different way of living.  A life that is lived in hope.  A life that has hope even in the face of death. 

Paul ends this passage to the Thessalonians to “therefore encourage one another with those words.”  Not only is Paul writing to reassure the Thessalonians and us, that, even in death, we won’t be separated from God or from those we love.  Christ’s death and resurrection promises us that God will bring life and peace and justice to all people.  Death and destruction will not prevail.

So, hold on to that hope.  Share that hope with others.  Pray for God’s will to be done.  Encourage one another.  Love one another.   Amen.