Monday, 30 July 2012

Heaven 2

St Matthew’s Church, Oxford, 15th July 2012.

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

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


St Matthew’s Church, Oxford, 1st July 2012.  Readings: Revelation 21 and John 14: 1-6

This is the fourth in our series of sermons on the ‘last things’: death, judgement, Hell and Heaven.   You might think I have got the easy one: Heaven.   But in many ways I think the subject of Heaven is just as difficult as say the subject of Hell.  If we can get our heads around Hell, Heaven is relatively easy to comprehend.   But the reverse isn’t really the case.

In this sermon I want to pose some questions about Heaven.   I don’t intend to give you many answers.   For example I am not going to paint for you a rosy picture of heaven such as the one on the right.

Some of you might find that unsatisfactory but tough.   In the end we all have to make up our own minds about Heaven – just as we have to make our own minds up about God.   I, nor anyone else, can tell you what to believe about Heaven. 

But I also want to encourage your belief in Heaven.   I am rather assuming here that we all do believe in Heaven at least to some extent.   Forgive me if you don’t.   

Now we don’t say the Creed – the agreed statement of what Christians believe - very often at St Matthew’s – at least not at the 10.30 service.  However it is worth looking at it from time to time.   The Creed says two things about Heaven.

Firstly that Jesus has gone there:
‘And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
And ascended into Heaven’.

And secondly that there is life after death:
                ‘And I look for the resurrection of the dead,
                And the life of the world to come.'

But it should be noted that the Creed says nothing more than this.   In saying the Creed we say nothing about what we think Heaven is like. 

In this sermon I am taking Heaven to be a time and place after death.   I know some people think Heaven is here and now – or at least can be glimpsed here and now – but this sermon is one of a series on the last things so by Heaven I mean the life of the world to come which is not Hell.  However I’ll come back to the possible timelessness and spacelessness of Heaven later.

So what does the Bible tell us about Heaven?   When choosing bible readings for today’s service I wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice.   To be frank descriptions of Heaven are few and far between in the bible – much less common than descriptions of Hell. 

I ended up with the reading from John’s gospel:  where Jesus is talking about Heaven as a house with many rooms.    And the reading from Revelation: which is John’s vision of Heaven as a rather strange but beautiful city.   And of course there is the notion of heaven as a banquet, a party, which I have talked about many times.

In wondering what to today I started by wondering what people really wanted to know about Heaven.   The first question I think people want the answer to is, ‘Does it really exist’?    The second is, ‘What is it like?’ and the third is, Am I going there?’  

So let’s start with: ‘Does it exist’?     I think we do rather have to assume that it does.   The Bible is surely pretty clear about this: even if it has little to say about what heave is like.  We affirm our belief in Heaven every time we say the Creed. 

Even John Lennon, in one of his best known songs, which begins with the words ‘Imagine there’s no Heaven,’ starts with the assumption there is a Heaven – either on the part of the singer or the person the song is being sung to. 

I am afraid I cannot prove to you that Heaven exists.   Just as I cannot prove that God exists.   We have to take the existence of Heaven on trust – because God has promised it.   This promise is a promise we know we can trust because Jesus has risen from the dead.    As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised our teaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those how have [died]’.

The second big question people seem to ask about Heaven is, ‘What is it like?’  
Now Heaven, almost by definition, is a nice place and somewhere God is.  When the Bible does talk about what Heaven is like it is clear at least on these two fronts.   Jesus says to his disciples ‘Let not your hearts be troubled…In my Father’s house there are many rooms’. John says ‘He {God] will dwell with them, and… there shall be no mourning nor crying nor pain any more’. 

We often used to sing a chorus at St Matthew’s which begins, ‘Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace, I want to see my saviour’s face, Heaven is a wonderful place.’

But beyond the recognition of Heaven as where God is and that it’s a wonderful place we are likely to have many questions.   Let’s start with some seemingly trivial ones first.   

First will we have to wear white clothes?   Mrs. C.F. Alexander in one of her best known songs: Once in Royal David’s City, views Heaven as a place where we ‘like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around.’   She gets the notion of wearing white clothes from various verses in the Bible including Revelation 6: 11.  Do you think we will be wearing white clothes?

Next what will we do in Heaven?    The rather common – if now somewhat old fashioned idea - that we are going to spend a lot of time playing harps also comes from Revelation.   Revelation 14.2 says, ‘And I heard a voice from Heaven like the sound of sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne.’  

But this verse hardly seems to justify the notion that we will all be continuously playing harps in Heaven.    But, if not, what we will be precisely doing?   Will we eat and drink in Heaven - as the song that we will sing after this sermon suggests?   Will we work, will we sleep?   The Bible is distinctly unclear.   Mrs CF Alexander’s suggestion that we will wait around sounds rather lame to me.

Interestingly – and as a bit of an aside – people seem to be distinctly uncertain about the last line of Once in Royal David’s City.   One version has it that, ‘All in white shall stand around’ and another that, ‘All in white shall be around’.  And indeed perhaps we will do nothing in Heaven but just be?

But surely the most pressing question people have about what Heaven is like is whether we will be able to meet our friends and family there?  This is clearly a big question people want to know, particularly when someone they love has just died.    What might usefully said to help us with this question?   Two things perhaps:

Firstly that being is surely relationship.  All agree that Heaven is where God is and being in Heaven means being with God: having a relationship with him.   But our relationship with God is not, and surely never will be, mutually exclusive of our relationships with other people.  If in Heaven we are to have a relationship with God then might we have relationships with other people as well?

Secondly our promise and hope of Heaven – as I said earlier –is based on the resurrection of Jesus.  When Jesus returned from the grave he was recognised by his friends – in some cases not immediately to be sure – but this surely too gives us confidence that in Heaven – we will keep our identities – at least to some degree – retaining the possibility of being recognised for who we are.

When thinking about what Heaven is like we run – I think – into a number of difficulties.   I have assumed up to this point in my sermon that Heaven is a place and also a place where time is in operation.   

But is it really?   In the old days people used to think of Heaven as a physical place - under the earth or beyond the stars – but in a physical place nonetheless.    Nowadays, knowing the Earth is not flat and how far distant the stars are, we no longer think of Heaven as an actual place.   Or do we?   It seems to me that we cannot imagine Heaven without thinking of it as somewhere we go, or can we?

And it is also nearly impossible to think about existence in places without also thinking about time.   When I said that many of us would like to know what we will be doing in Heaven you might have recalled that doing, as opposed to being, involves time.   We can do anything without time.   Playing a harp – for starters – requires time for it to be meaningful.   A tune involves a sequence of notes played over a period of time.   

Without time that tune could only be a single note infinitely short in duration.   Having a conversation with someone we love involves a sequence of exchanges over a period of time.   A common notion of Heaven is that it is everlasting.   But if for God there is no time then is there really time in Heaven? 

It seems to me that all visions of Heaven necessarily involve seeing it as located in space in time.   One of my reasons for thinking this is that Jesus both in his earthly life and in his risen life was located in time and space.   

The incarnation means that the physical body, located in time and space, is made holy.  In the end our physical body may be transformed but must retain its physical connection with time and space.  Jesus talks about Heaven as a house with many rooms and that he is going there to prepare a place there and then come back.  In other words that Heaven is a physical location located in time.  This perhaps sounds shocking to our modern ears – or would do so if the words had not begun to be taken as a sort of metaphor or parable.

St John’s vision of a new Heaven in Revelation rather plays with the notion of space and time.   Revelation seems to have a view of time as circular or at least cyclical rather than linear and where the events are set seems indistinct.  But John’s Heaven is not entirely timeless and spaceless.

A vision of Heaven that I particularly like and commend is that to be found in CS Lewis’s book The Great Divorce.   In this fantasy the narrator takes a bus trip from Hell to Heaven.   The inhabitants of Hell can make this trip if they want and stay in Heaven as long as they like if they choose to.   Most of the travellers on the bus choose to go back to Hell but some stay.  Lewis’ vision of Heaven is of a land where the grass hurts the feet of the people from Hell because it is so real and where the inhabitants are shining spirits who are on a journey from the plane (where the bus from Hell lets off its passengers) to the mountains where God is.  Lewis’ vision of Heaven is located firmly in time and space – albeit on a grand scale.   For instance he talks about Hell being a grain of sand down a crack of the earth of Heaven.     

The third big question about Heaven that I think most people want to know is, ‘If it exists, am I going there? I cannot presume to answer this for you.   All I can say is that God has promised us Heaven if only we can grasp that promise. 

Now a promise is a performative form of speech.   I have talked before about the difference between descriptive words and peformative words.   Descriptive words – if true - just reflects the world like a mirror.  Performative words if true change the world.   There is a vast difference between me saying Heaven is like this - say a place with grass and mountains - and God saying I promise you Heaven.    The first set of words changes nothing and may even be untrue, the second set of words changes matters completely.   But God’s promise of Heaven needs us – to whom he is making the promise – to trust that promise.   We need to engage with God’s performative words if they are to become true.

Since I have been using lines of songs to illustrate different perspectives on Heaven, here is one last song relating to the question of how we get to Heaven.   There is a song many of used to sing around campfires as children which began, ‘You'll never get to Heaven In an old Ford car 'cos an old Ford car Won't get that far.‘    And there was another verse which ran: ’You'll never get to Heaven in a Playtex bra ‘cos a Playtex bra. won't stretch that far.’   This song reminds us that in the end, not only can we not really know what Heaven is like, but we cannot get there under our own steam either.   We just have to trust in God to prepare a place for us there.   Any provisional description of what Heaven is like is less important than God’s promise of its existence.

So to summarise what I have said.   There are, I think, three big questions about Heaven:  The first is, ‘Does it really exist’?    The second is, ‘What is it like?’    The third is: ‘Am I going there?’    Although I said I wasn’t going to supply many answers to questions, my answers – in short - to these questions are:  Yes to the first, yes Heaven does really exist.  However we can’t really answer the second - ‘What is Heaven like?’ - beyond the promise that God will be there and it will be a good place to be.   And my answer to the third?  Well yes I hope I am going there, and I hope you are coming with me.