Picture this: early Easter Sunday morning, while basking in the riches of a good sunrise service liturgy and watching the morning sun engulf the church with a warm and brilliant light, I noticed a middle-aged man riding up the hill to the church on
a bike. He was wearing a faded red sweatshirt, jeans, running shoes, and had a disposable water bottle sticking out of his back pocket. By the time he reached the pine tree, he was winded and had to do small switchbacks up the reminder of the driveway. I started to walk down to him but he waved at me as if to say, Stay where you are. After a few agonizing minutes, marked with huffs, puffs and groans of hard labor, he finally pulled up.
He took a long drink of water. Then, after he had caught his breath, he introduced himself as John and said, “I’ve got a question for you.” After another moment of breathing and water-drinking, he told me a story.
A nephew of his, a good looking kid, went to church but after high school said he didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. He got involved with the wrong crowd, got addicted to crack cocaine, and later overdosed and died.
John looked at me square in the eye and asked, “Is he in heaven?”
My first thought was to explore this topic using a variety of methods including a historical survey on what Heaven is and a theoretical model based on 19th century theological views on salvation and how it pertains to our modern understanding of paradise. Instead, I said, “I don’t know. It’s not up to me.”
“Harrumph” he said, like it might not have been worth the hard ride up the hill. I agreed with him. “Harrumph” – my lame answer wasn’t worth the trip.
He then said, “How can he be in heaven? Jesus said, ‘Anyone who believes in the Son of Man will be saved.’ My nephew didn’t believe.”
“Look,” I replied, “God is full of mercy and grace. God is love. God is full of compassion. We can’t begin to understand the depth of God’s understanding and mercy.”
John stared at the pavement. He wasn’t buying it.
“Yeah, I suppose,” he replied. “You know, I talked to a Lutheran pastor about this and he said, ‘No, definitely not. No one can come to the Father except through Jesus. If he didn’t believe, he’s not in heaven.’”
I chuckled, “Good thing it’s not up to him.”
John didn’t laugh.
After a moment of awkward silence, I said, “This is how I see it. Jesus made friends with drunks, addicts, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He even called them friends and told the religious elite that those people would get into heaven before them. I think that when your nephew was undergoing his last high, Jesus was there. Your nephew saw him in all his glory. And, when Jesus reached out his hand, I’ll bet your nephew took it.”
A little smile crept up along one side of John’s mouth. “Okay, pastor. Thanks.” And he rode off.
Was this a chance encounter? Or is“John” an angel who was doing an Easter morning theological spot check. On a day full of wonder and amazement, with Easter egg hunts, beautiful music, hams to eat, chocolates to devour, it all added up to nothing because here was someone who was deeply troubled about salvation and his nephew.
I’ve been reflecting on this encounter for a week now. I don’t know if his nephew is in Paradise. I hope that in his last few moments that he did see Jesus and took his hand. In this Easter season of hope and new life, and in light of this very difficult question, I cling to faith in a compassionate God who always calls his creation home.
May you be drawn to the light of this season and may you grab the out stretched hand of Christ who is always willing to receive, -