Mother Teresa died and was greeted at the Pearly Gates by Saint Peter . . . so the typical heaven’s door joke opens. We’ve all heard a thousand different versions featuring everyone from golfers to geriatrics and pastors to prostitutes. Most of them also have Peter asking the poor soul standing at the gate, “Why should I let you in?” The answer is usually the punch-line.
These punch-lines produce more than a chuckle; they also reveal what many popularly believe about life and death and heaven and the God who is supposed to be living there. These jokes show us that many an un-truth is spoken in jest.
Eugene C. Scott joins Mike in writing A Daily Bible Conversation twice a week.
TODAY’S READING (click here to view today’s reading online)
INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS
Isaiah 41:17-43:13: Because the arts, such as poetry, are often difficult to interpret, many are therefore very uncomfortable seeing the arts as valid ways to communicate truth. God seems to have no such misgivings. This chapter continues the beautiful poem describing God’s power, wrath, love, grace, and concern for Israel and his creation. By using artistic words and poetic concepts, God is able to deliver to us some hard truths we may shy away from if stated in mere propositional language.
Ephesians 2:1-22: “We are God’s workmanship,” Paul writes in verse 10. The word we translate “workmanship” is literally and better translated “poetry” or “artwork.” Would that the Bible translators were more comfortable with metaphorical translations. If we are “workmanship,” we can only be one of many: identical fenceposts standing in a row or silver automobiles rolling off an assembly line. But if we are poetry or art, we are unique, painstakingly written or drawn not just designed with a purpose but carrying a message and an image of the Artist himself. As I wrote yesterday, you and I are works of art!
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THE WORD MADE FRESH
Have you ever noticed how the punch-lines of these gone-to-heaven jokes usually boil down to what the person knocking on heaven’s door did or didn’t do in life? According to these jokes, entrance into heaven depends on how good each of us are during our lives down here.
One such joke features Mother Teresa and God eating very simple meals together in heaven. Eventually she asks about the sparse menu. God answers, “Let’s be honest Teresa, for just two people, it doesn’t pay to cook.”
I don’t find that idea funny. If Mother Teresa is the standard my good works have to measure up to, I might as well not even knock on the door. Further, if anyone of us, even Mother Teresa, could earn heaven, why did Jesus let himself be tortured and nailed to a cross to give us eternal life freely? Instead why didn’t Jesus just write out a check-list of attittudes and actions that we could fill out and present to Peter at the gate?
Because, as Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” By definition you can’t earn a gift.
This is the beautiful theological truth behind birthday presents. How ludicrus it would be for anyone upon opening her birthday gifts to say, “Thank you for recognizing how hard I worked to get here. These gifts will remind me each day of the effort I put into my conception and birth.”
Just as there is no way anyone earned his or her birth and the gift of life, so too none of us can earn being born again and the gift of eternal life. All we have to do is receive God’s gift of grace and forgiveness and open it.
Another un-truth spoken in these jests is that Peter usually stands as heaven’s gatekeeper. In reality Jesus gave Peter keys to the kingdom. But since Jesus flung the doors wide open, I’m not sure what Peter’s keys are for. Jesus is the way. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus, even Peter.
Finally notice how these jokes place heaven “up there.” Yet, Scripture speaks of heaven as a kingdom that contains earth. In the end, the earth will be reborn just as we have been. But until then it is an imperfect piece of heaven here and now. We will not walk for eternity on clouds. Paul says we “have been saved” and are “seated in the heavenly realms.” This is all written in the past or present tense. Heaven begins when we are “in Christ” not after death. Heaven is here and now. Yet there is a piece of it to come. Fuller Seminary Professor George Eldon Ladd called this the “already/not yet” truth of the gospel. Our theology lived out and conveyed in these jokes expresses only the “not yet” part of what Jesus gave us from the cross. Paul desperately wants us to live in the “already.” Mother Teresa didn’t care for the sick and dying and castoff of Calcutta to get from earth to heaven. She poured her life out to them to bring heaven to earth.
Please don’t think I can’t take a joke, I love a good comedy routine and punch-line. Still there are many truths and un-truths spoken in jest. We can laugh at both, but eternity may hang in knowing the difference.
- Which passage spoke most to you?
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Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO and writes a blog eugenesgodsightings.blogspot.com