Sermon at Matins: Heaven

18 December 2005 at :00 am

Sermon at Matins, 18 December 2005
Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian


The traditional theme for Advent sermons is 'the four last things,' but this year, unusually, only three of the Sundays in Advent fall in December. I knew I would only be preaching three sermons at Matins in Advent, so my thoughts turned to Dante, and his hugely influential vision of Inferno (that is Hell), Purgatorio and Paradiso (that is Heaven).  Dante's vivid imagination was fed as much by classical sources as the Bible, but people think they know what Christians believe about heaven, purgatory and hell largely because of the pictures that Dante created in all of our minds. Some of these pictures are extremely misleading.

Dante's Divine Comedy tells the story of an epic journey through the underworld, up Mount Purgatory and into the heavens. Following his path is a bit like being on a train at Disneyland. You see a series of scenes in three different places: the underworld, purgatory and heaven, ascending higher all the time. This gives us a poet's picture of what he imagines to be the eternal destiny of human beings, and is also a way of instructing us about our moral and spiritual experience now. Jews and Christians, like the ancient Romans, have long spoken as though there were places to which the dead go – but this imagery of place is a metaphor. What this imagery of place is about is a state, a state of being in, or not being in, relationship with God. At the centre of Dante's imagery about hell is the idea that people can become conscious of the absence of God as something they have chosen to their own bitter regret. Hell is where (again, to use metaphorically a word of place) God is not. At the centre of Dante's teaching about purgatory is the realisation that for all of us when we die the work of God in us is far from complete. We are far from ready be in the presence of God, so the refining and purifying work that goes on in a Christian's lifetime may be expected to be completed in God's good time (to use the word 'time' in what again can only be a metaphorical sense). At the centre of Dante's imagery about heaven is the conviction that God is doing a good work in each one of us who will in any way let him and that the fulfilment of human life is to be fully united with God – in a relation that begins on this earth but can only be completed when the earthly constraints of time and of place are finally removed. To be in heaven is to be perfectly free to be oneself; it is to be bathed in the love of God.

The traditional Christian understanding of heaven as God's dwelling place is based upon the Bible, but it must be taken for what it is: a way of speaking about what cannot really be expressed. We don't know how literally the Jews thought God lived in a particular place: sometimes the Old Testament locates his dwelling place on Mount Sinai, making his presence known to the Israelites in cloud and fire. Later, the Temple was spoken of as the place where God made his name to dwell, so in a special way his glory could be found there. That was where the prophet Isaiah had his vision of the Lord 'high and lifted up' so that just the hem of his robe filled the whole Temple (Is 6:1). God himself was far 'above' and far beyond what a mere mortal might experience of him in the Temple; but a specially holy mortal like Elijah might at the end of his life be taken straight 'up' in a fiery chariot into the presence of God: we are told he ‘ascended in a whirlwind into heaven' (2 Ki 2:11).

In the Greek of the New Testament, just like English, French and German, there is one word which means both 'sky' and 'God's dwelling place'. Jesus, like Elijah, ascends into 'heaven' (Acts 1:9-11) and in Matthew's Gospel Jesus frequently speaks of 'The kingdom of heaven'. In Mark and Luke Jesus usually talks of ‘The kingdom of God' – so in these three Gospels the work God can be interchangeable with the word 'heaven'. 'Heaven' is a way of speaking about the presence of God. And since 'kingdom' really means something more like 'reign' or 'rule', we can say that what Jesus is telling us about in, for example, the parables about the kingdom of God are the ways in which God – or heaven - can be encountered on earth: when Jesus says, ‘the Kingdom of heaven is like Ö ', he is not telling us about a place.  He is telling us about a state in which relationships are completely changed from the way they normally are on earth:  'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' (Mt 5:1). 'Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come' (Mt 6:9-10).  God's kingdom comes in every place where God's name is hallowed, where God is welcomed and honoured.

Thinking of heaven as though it were a place, and a place ‘above' the earth is, nevertheless, based on a number of passages in the New Testament. For instance, when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is about to be stoned to death, 'filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  ìLook,î he said, ìI see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God!î (Acts 7:55-6). The vision is very similar to that of Isaiah in the Temple. When the early Christians asked where Jesus is now, the answer was, 'In heaven,' and when they asked where believers would go when they died and were with the Lord the answer (based on Jesus' words to the dying thief, 'Today you will be with me in paradise') would be 'to heaven'.

What Dante, other poets and, of course, many painters have developed is the imagery of the Book of Revelation in which the Seer has a glimpse into heaven: 'there in heaven a door stood open!' (Rev 4:1). The Seer's vision is extraordinarily vivid, just like the poetry of Dante's journey, but should again be read as metaphor. For instance, the heavenly harps, which have now become a cartoonist's joke, come from the Seer's vision of heavenly praise (Rev 5:8). Just as David sung the praise of God to the music of the harp, so here we are shown a glimpse of the praise of God in heaven (Rev 5:8), in terms of the most beautiful musical instruments that are heard on earth.

It is not news to say that Christians don't take literally the idea heaven as a place above the sky; we don't believe we go there to sit on clouds; and we don't believe we shall be given wings and a harp. All this has become a bit of a joke. These days many of us are pretty clear on what we don't believe about heaven but we are less confident about what we do. When reflecting on what we do believe about heaven, on what happens when I die, it may be helpful to remember that the Fourth Gospel uses different language again.  John's language for what Christians can hope for when our earthly bodies wear out – and for what Christians experience now - is 'eternal life'. 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life' (Jn 3:16). In the Fourth Gospel Jesus (who is depicted as coming 'from heaven') talks about the state of being truly alive – that is of being in right relation with God - which begins now and continues beyond the death of our bodies. 'I came that they might have life, and have it in all its fullness' (Jn 10:10). For John, Christians are fully alive, fully alive undyingly

In all four Gospels, in the Book of the Revelation, and in the rest of the Bible there is a whole range of ways of talking about what it means to know God now and what will happen to us when our bodies die. The writers are all struggling to talk about something wonderful, something beyond the experience of any human being, something quite inexpressible. This is why anything said about heaven has to be said as a metaphor. To end, I would like to give one more picture of heaven, this time from the great Christian writer Augustine. For Augustine, who led an extraordinarily active and pressurised life, heaven is a place of rest, but of such active rest that it includes all the best things about being alive now. To be in heaven is to experience the eternal Lord's Day for which in seven great days, or eras of creation, God brought all things into being: 'There', he says, talking of heaven, 'we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be, in the end, without end!  For what is our end but to reach that kingdom which has no end' (City of God, XXII.30)  Amen

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