Sermon for Holy Communion on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 5th May 2013
Rev. 21:10,22 – 22:5

What does heaven look like? This is the last Sunday in the Easter season, when, in the church, we are thinking about the 40 days after Easter, when the resurrected Jesus made his various appearances, for example to the people on the way to Emmaus and to the disciples on various occasions, for example to Doubting Thomas. On Thursday there will be Ascension Day: if you don’t get up in time for the service on Box Hill at 6:30am, there will be a service here at 8 in the evening. On Ascension Day we remember the extraordinary story of Jesus’ ascension, the story from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles talking to Jesus, and then

As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:9)

Where was he going? In Acts, two men clothed in white, two angels, presumably, appear, and say that he has gone to ‘heaven’, heaven, which is not really very helpful, because it begs the question where heaven is. I suppose that, in ancient times, at the time of Jesus himself, it was perfectly possible, even for educated people, to believe that heaven was a place above the clouds, just out of sight – but nevertheless in a definite physical location, ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ somewhere.

Ever since the time of the Montgolfier brothers and their early balloons, and certainly since the beginnings of aviation, we have discovered that, whatever it is that is above the clouds, it doesn’t correspond with the vision of the New Jerusalem.

I don’t want, today, to get involved in the various arguments that in some sense science and religious belief are opposed to each other, or contradict each other. But it is certainly true that some people have noticed that there is much less room today for a picture of God, or of the divine, which is limited to those things which we don’t know or which we don’t understand. That would lead to a God who shrank all the time, and maybe disappeared altogether as science grew more and more capable.

In the old days, when they didn’t know what was above the clouds or out in space, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that perhaps they were the places where God was, that they were, in effect, heaven. But then, as I’ve mentioned before in the last few weeks, this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book ‘Honest to God’ by Bishop John Robinson in 1963, which was perhaps the first time outside schools of theology or philosophy that people heard – and they heard it from a Church of England bishop – that God isn’t ‘up there’ or ‘out there’, that heaven isn’t a realm above the skies in some way.

One of the reasons for this is precisely that if you try physically to locate God somewhere, you take away all those attributes beginning with ‘omni-‘ in the way we describe God. Omniscient, knowing everything: omnipresent, present everywhere. Not present only above the skies.

One of the difficulties that we face when we are contemplating the divine is that God is beyond contemplation, that he is more than we can understand. But nevertheless, in the Bible, in the Old Testament in the prophets, and in the New Testament certainly in Revelation, the people who wrote those bits are trying very hard to share the visions they have had – and their visions, they believe, were revealed to them by God – which have given them glimpses of God.

So the vision of St John the Divine in the book of Revelation includes this wonderful picture of the holy city Jerusalem ‘coming down out of heaven from God.’ In Acts, the two angels say that Jesus will come back again, the same way that he has gone, up into heaven. So John the Divine has a vision of the Holy City, heaven on earth, coming down from heaven, from God.

But then, interestingly, the physical attributes of the city evaporate. It had no temple, no light or darkness: because the way you see, in the Holy City, is not a physical way. It doesn’t seem to have any buildings, but it does seem to have people in it.

Nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood …

Well, those are clearly references to the Jewish Law. Obviously you can take those words as literally as you like. Some people would say that if the Jewish Law, in Leviticus for example, identifies something as an abomination or falsehood, then clearly this passage in Revelation is suggesting that people who do those things will not end up in heaven.

Alternatively, as I think I would prefer to do, you can take this as an attempt to perceive the imperceptible, to perceive the divine with human eyes, and to say that in heaven, in the realm of God, there is by definition nothing that is faulty, nothing that is false or untrue. That goes rather wider than narrow considerations of particular laws and particular customs or moral principles which may have been grounded in the needs of the society at a particular time and place.

Similarly, the idea that only those who ‘are written in the Lamb’s book of life’ can enter heaven is a concept which has exercised the church over the years. John Calvin took this as evidence of predestination, that only those whom God had chosen in advance would go to heaven, would be saved.

That caused quite some controversy, because if people are either saved or not, irrespective of what they may do or what they may believe, then you could argue that there’s no real point in behaving well. We believe now, following Arminius, that this is too narrow, that God’s saving grace is open to everyone who believes and trusts in Jesus.

Then there’s the river of the water of life, the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, one fruit for each month, and its special leaves which ‘are for the healing of the nations’, presumably the idea being that they provide natural remedies. Let’s remember that the most common drug in the world, aspirin, was originally made from the bark of a tree.

But this isn’t biochemistry or physics; it is revelation. It is one man’s attempt to describe what is beyond description. The river of the water of life is a metaphor for something which is life-giving. If you don’t water your flowers, they die. So the water must in some sense be life-giving. Having fruit which is appropriate to each season is good. Now of course, with air freight and supermarkets, we can have seasonal fruit all the year round, but it doesn’t contradict the principle that we rely on God’s creation for nourishment at all times.

Now in the Old Testament, the Israelites never did anything important without prayer, and without a prophet consulting God – and God either supporting them or not supporting them in what they were doing. God was a present reality. If they obeyed him, God would support them. He would support them in a military way, overturning the captivity in Egypt, parting the waters and bringing them into the Promised Land. But Moses, the great prophet and the great leader, wasn’t allowed to go into the Promised Land because his people Israel had been so fractious and disobedient.

When the United Nations are deliberating whether to intervene in Syria, you can be pretty sure they won’t bring into their deliberations any consideration of God or what God would want in those circumstances. Which do you think would be a better way, the ancient Israelite way, consulting a prophet – or do you think that the modern way, a debate in the United Nations, would be likely to give a better outcome?

If George W. Bush and Tony Blair had tried to discern what God’s will would be, before they decided to invade Iraq, I wonder if the outcome would have been different. Perhaps they did spend time in prayer on it. It’s just that we haven’t heard about it. I wonder.

What would be good for our world leaders, would be good for us too. The message which we can take from these lessons as we approach Ascension, is to remember that the Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. He’s not an elephant in the room – but we’re not alone. Therefore let us not forget, or even ignore, Him, but, in our prayers and in all the decisions in our lives, let us allow the Lord to be a real presence.