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Everything Jesus Taught . . . About Purgatory

May 12, 2024

The Rev. Megan Collins


This is our last week in our sermon series Everything Jesus Taught about Heaven. We’ve spent the past several weeks looking at Jesus’ teachings. We’ve talked about where heaven is. We talked about hell and about the resurrection. We’ve seen, week after week, that our ideas about life after death and what the Bible teaches about it aren’t always the same. 


Today we are going to spend our last week in the series talking about purgatory.

I realized just as I started writing the message for this week that it is also Mother’s Day.

I know that purgatory might not be the Mother’s Day message people are looking for.

It could have been worse. I could have picked this week to talk about hell. 


So . . . happy mother’s day to those who celebrate. 


To those for whom this is a hard day - for those of you who have lost children, or wanted and couldn't have children, or have a bad relationship with your mom, or have never wanted children and were made to feel some kind of way about that -  I truly hope this day lands as lightly as it can. We, as a church, are here for you, and we want to support you.


In an effort to bring together purgatory and Mother’s Day, let’s talk for a minute about that time I became a mother, and why it makes me think about purgatory. 


Most of you know that Dave and I have two kids. Well, we have two sons who were kids once and are now very much adults. When I was pregnant, I prepared as much as I could for the birth. I read books about birth. I took classes. I made a playlist to listen to. I learned to meditate. I made a birthplan of exactly how things would go on the day of my son’s birth. I can say now, that there are two things all of this work did not prepare me for.


First, it did not prepare me for the fact that you can make all the birthplans you want, but when your baby is over ten pounds sometimes the only way to get them out involves a lot more surgery than meditation and music.


Second, even though I had done everything to prepare for birth, I had done literally nothing to prepare for what would come next - being a mom. I had not changed a diaper, or babysat, or prepared a bottle. I was so busy thinking about the moment of becoming a mother that I hadn’t prepared at all for the thing I would spend the rest of my life doing, being a mother.


In what may be the strangest pivot I have made in a sermon, here is why that makes me think of death and life after death.


We spend a lot of time in the church talking about getting to heaven. We talk about the moment of death, about making that decision in your life about Jesus and how that “gets you into heaven.” We talk about justification, or conversion, when we decide to be a Christian. We talk about how the only way we are ever able to be in the presence of God is because of who Jesus is, not who we are. We believe it is the redemption we have received through Jesus Christ, through his perfection and goodness and sacrifice, that makes it possible for us to be in heaven at all. We know it is not about what we do, or how good or bad we are. 


That’s all good and true. But the getting to heaven part, like birth, happens in a moment. (Well, unless your baby is ten pounds and then it is a longer process). The crossing from this life into the next,  that’s a moment. Once we get there, the part where we are in the presence of God for eternity, that part is forever. 


So why are we not preparing ourselves for that?


Are you the version of yourself that is prepared for an eternity in the presence of God?

Me neither.


Think about what we have talked about over the past few weeks. We will be changed in the resurrection, but we are still, us. We will be a better version of ourselves, but still who we are. There is a moment when we become a Christian. Then at the end of our lives, a moment when we go to be with God. But there’s a lifetime on earth when we should be preparing for that, letting God change us into who we were meant to be. Because we’ll spend an eternity  living in the presence of God. Your work as a Christian didn’t stop when you prayed the sinners prayer. You need to let God continue to work on you, starting now. 


There’s a story Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke chapter 14 in verses 15-24. It starts out:


Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.


If you were hosting a party in Jesus’ time, you didn’t send one invitation, you sent two. The first was like our equivalent of a save the date, but you had to RSVP. The host would make sure everyone could come and there weren’t any conflicts. Then, once the host knew exactly who had committed to be there, the food could be prepared and the table set. Then when everything was set up, the call would go out to come to the party. 


 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.”


All of these people had committed to come and be at the table with the host. They had all said they would do whatever it took to come. But when the time came, they all made excuses. 


 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”


None of those invited will taste my dinner. Jesus is telling this story to a bunch of the religious leaders. These were people who considered themselves pretty committed. They followed the law, and make sure other people followed the law. They had RSVP’d yes to God. But when it came time to let Jesus actually change their hearts, they suddenly had a lot of excuses on why they couldn’t possibly follow Jesus. 


Church, this is us. We are happy to RSVP yes to the invitation God puts out for us to come to the party. We can be religious if it means a ticket into heaven. We can say yes to that invitation. But then when Jesus shows up in your life and wants to interrupt your schedule and start moving things around, so we start making excuses. You know Jesus, I just got married. I just bought a house. I just bought some oxen and I am dying to try them out. (Well, maybe not that one). But we’ve got others.  I’m too tired. I’m too busy. I’m too old or too young, or too (fill in the blank) to actually change. 


The invitation to salvation is one thing. But actually showing up to be with God? Letting God change us into who we need to be? We will make up all kinds of excuses to avoid that. 


Now let’s talk about purgatory. 


Purgatory is a part of the faith for our Catholic brothers and sisters. The Catholic Church defines purgatory as "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).


The basic idea is there is a place you go before you go to heaven to get . . . spruced up a bit. In the history of the church, the idea of purgatory was abused when some taught that if you just threw some money the church’s way, maybe your loved ones could get out of this purgatory place a little sooner and get on to heaven. As Presbyterians today, we don’t have a doctrine of purgatory. We don’t have a concept in our theology for a place where we can go between this life and the next to get our act together before we enter the presence of God. This feels like good news, right? No in between time of having to do hard things, just right from this life into the presence of God.


But are you ready for that?


Have you let God make all the changes in your life now to get you ready for heaven? Or did you just accept that first invitation to faith then stop showing up because of some excuses. Because what if this is the version of your life that you will have to take before God?


Every week in this series, when we talk about heaven and death and what happens after we die, we remind ourselves that all of our passages are full of imagery, and so at best we step into a place of trying to understand through a very blurry lens. What we really need to know is that because of Jesus, we are saved, full stop. We should have no doubt that we can enter into God’s presence fully confident because of who Jesus is, no matter how much of a mess we are.  


But for those who are curious, since Presbyterians don’t have a doctrine for purgatory, is there something that sort of washes away all the bad stuff in the moment after we die before we get to eternal life? Is there some sort of car wash we walk through before we see God? Because we know there is some talk in the Scriptures about a final judgment too. So what will it mean if we take this version of ourselves into heaven, into the presence of God? 


Rob Bell writes “Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes and perspectives. It’s very common to hear talk about heaven framed in terms of who gets in or how to get in. What we find in Jesus teaching is that he’s interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven. To portray heaven as bliss, peace, and endless joy is a beautiful picture, but it raises the question: how many of us could handle it, as we are today? How would we each do in a reality that had no capacity for cynicism or slander or worry or pride? It’s important then to keep in mind that heaven has the potential to be a kind of starting over. Learning how to be human all over again. Imagine living with no fear. Ever. That would take some getting used to. So would a world where loving your neighbor was the only option. So would a world where every choice was good for the earth. That would be a strange world at first. That could take some getting used to.” Then Bell writes this: "heaven comforts, but it also confronts."


Heaven comforts, but it also confronts. 


Are you ready for heaven? Are you prepared? Or did you stop at the part where you accepted the invitation but didn’t actually plan to change your life enough to come to the banquet?


At the moment of the birth of my first son, I became a mother. But I also had to take the past 20 years to figure out what it actually meant and learn how to do it. Perhaps there was more I could have done to prepare myself before I was actually holding my son in my arms. 


At the moment you accepted Jesus, you were saved. But wouldn't it make sense to spend every moment since then figuring out what how to actually live that out? Because one day, you will meet God face to face. We may not have purgatory, but, according to 1 Corinthians, there might be a little fire in heaven too. Let's take a look:


1 Corinthians 3:10-15:


According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 


In the letter to 1 Corinthians, Paul makes clear the foundation for all of us is Jesus Christ. But look what he says next:


Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, 


You have this foundation in Jesus Christ. But you are the one building on it. What you build in your life, that’s up to you, isn’t it? What materials you use, what choices you make, how hard you work, that’s on you, that’s the builders’ job to decide. But on the Day, Paul writes, everything you have built, it will be disclosed. On the day when you stand before God, you’ll have to walk in with the life you have built and hold it up before God. So what do you want the life you have built to look like? Paul goes on:


because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.


Paul says it will be tested with fire. Fire in the Bible does carry a tone of judgment or purification. It's also is indicative of God’s presence. The presence of God takes stock of the life you have built and:


 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.


Read this verse carefully. What the builder has made is tried by the fire. If it was built with the right materials, with things that last, the builder receives a reward. If it all burns to the ground, the builder has lost everything they built. BUT, even if everything burns, it says “the builder will be saved.” You had to walk to the fire, but you are still saved. Why? Because the foundation is still there.


No matter what you build in this life, the foundation of Jesus Christ is enough to save you.

You’ll be a little toasty, but you made it into heaven.  You can spend your life building things that matter only to you, and Jesus will still be enough to save you, in the end. 


But what if you built your life around becoming who God is calling you to be?

What if you worked to help the world be a little more like what God is calling it to be?

What life will you want to carry with you before God, in the end? 


It’s not just about knowing what it takes to get to heaven.

It’s about working now to get ready for an eternity in the presence of God. 


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