Two weeks ago at the 10.30 service at St Matthew’s I preached a sermon on heaven. I have since come to think that sermon was mistaken or at least inadequate. I have come to this conclusion because of feed-back from people who heard the sermon and also from discussions with people about heaven over the last couple of weeks.
In my previous sermon I sought to answer three questions about heaven: ‘Does it exist?’, ‘What is it like?’ and, ‘Are we going there?’ I spent most time on the second question, ‘What is it like?’ I am not now sure these are the right questions to ask about heaven. I am somewhat chastened by a parable Charlie Bond told us last Sunday at the 10.30 service. This parable goes something like this.
A traveller meets an angel carrying a bunch of keys and a bucket of water. The traveller asks the angel what he is going to do with the keys and the water. The angel tells the traveller that, with the keys he is going to lock the doors of heaven, and with the bucket of water he will douse the fires of hell. ‘But why? ‘ asks the traveller. The angel replies, ‘Well then we will really see who loves God’.
And this parable is echoed in the collect for today: I’ll read it again.
‘O God who has prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
In other words we cannot have a complete answer to my second question two weeks ago, ‘What is heaven like?’ because it ‘passes our understanding’. But I don’t think this means we cannot understand what heave is like at all, just that it is much bigger and better than we can understand.
Moreover this collect – echoing the parable – also makes it clear that our primary desire should not be to understand what heaven is, or is going to be, like but to love God ‘above all things’ even heaven –or rather especially heaven. And that we should pray for this love rather than any understanding of heaven.
My answer to the question, ‘What is heaven like?’ a couple of weeks ago – perhaps for the best of motives– was ‘we cannot be sure’. I thought we couldn’t be sure because at the time I thought there wasn’t much in the Bible about heaven but now I think I was wrong: there is a lot in the Bible about heaven. Jesus talks about himself as coming from heaven – referring to himself as the Son of Man – as in visions from the book of Daniel - and proceeds to tell us many stories of heaven: they are called parables. Jesus begins many of these parables with the words ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’.
Now you might object at this point that, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God (as he calls it in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels), he is not primarily talking about somewhere we go to after our death but God’s reign, his sovereignty here on earth. But to this I would say, one of the main things we do know about heaven – and I did say this two weeks ago - is that it is a place and time where God is and reigns. So I am certain that we can learn more about heaven from looking at what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven.
So what can we learn of heaven from looking at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. Well lots but perhaps the first thing to say is that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven he suggests that it’s both here now and yet to come. This implies that, at least to some extent, heaven can be grasped or at least glimpsed here and now. This seems to me an important aspect of heaven: it transcends time and space. This was again something I touched on in my previous sermon. I realise that some people feel that here and now their lives are more like hell than heaven, and to talk about grasping or glimpsing heaven here and now takes away some of the hope of a better future, but I don’t think we can get away from the fact that time and place are fairly, but not utterly, meaningless concepts when it comes to heaven.
The parables are not primarily about the location of heaven in time and space. Their importance does not lie in that they are set in first century Palestine but that they are stories for everywhere and for all time.
The parables tell us about God’s justice in heaven: a different sort of justice to that we have become accustomed. Think here about the parable of the labourers in the vineyard who get paid the same however long they work. But they also speak of judgement – a judgement that puts things right and is less harsh than our judgement of ourselves. Think here about the parable of the wheat and tares.
They tell of freedom from prejudicial assumptions and the restoration of human relationships based on a shared humanity rather than relationships based on a common nationality, race or even religion. Think here of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
They tell of forgiveness and of healing of what has gone before. Think here of the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son (more commonly known as the parable of the Prodigal Son).
They speak of celebration and sheer joy. Think again of the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son but also the many stories of banquets and feasts to which all are invited regardless of power, wealth or status. .
And if it is true that Jesus talks about heaven through his parables might it not also be the case that he demonstrates heaven through his miracles? The miracles are enacted parables. That is they are not done like magic tricks to amaze or to demonstrates Jesus’ power. The can be viewed as foretastes of heaven: where storms are stilled, where food and alcohol are plentiful, where bodies are healed and relationships restored.
Take just one healing miracle – the healing of the blind man in John’s gospel. Here the man is healed of his physical blindness – but the story is also told to show how Jesus has come to restore the sight, not just of a single person born physically blind, but for all so that we might see in a new way. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthian church, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’
I have not provided here an exhaustive list of the features of heaven that we can discover from the parables and miracles but it’s a lot better than I could do two weeks ago when my big concern was whether there was time and space in heaven. I do think there are a lot of unknowables about heaven and these are two of them. I argued two weeks ago that we cannot conceive of a heaven without time and space and I still think that is true. But that surely isn’t the end of the matter. There is also the justice in heaven, the freedom, the forgiveness, the healing, the celebration and joy to consider. And last but certainly not least there is the certainty of being with God in heaven – which is to return to Charlie Bond’s parable and the collect for today which I’ll say again:
‘O God who has prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Amen