About ten years ago I was asked to attend a gathering in Toronto of United Church congregations that were experiencing significant numerical growth. I was out in the suburbs at that time and our church had begun to focus its considerable gifts and enthusiasm around the mission of outreach. We were attracting all sorts of Christians, Unitarians and Evangelicals, liberals and conservatives, traditionalists and brand spanking new believers, and people who belonged to every denomination known to God. Outreach was the unifying vision, the tie that bound us together.
At this gathering I met other clergy who were serving churches with similar experiences of growth. I have shared with you before the story of Scott, a Minister serving a United Church in Winnipeg. Before Scott had been called to this church the congregation had been in serious decline, aging, and in danger of closing. Scott was new to the United Church, he had been ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest but he had transitioned into the UCC. Taking stock one Sunday morning Scott saw only a small committed band of older believers. Scott also noticed that around the church were large pockets of new Canadians, predominately Filipinos, they were Protestants and they were meeting in a variety of settings to celebrate God’s presence. Scott decided to invite one Filipino family. The congregation was thrilled to see a new young family. The experience went so well Scott invited another family and then another. Soon there were more Filipino families than the persons whom had been attending that church for generations.
Scott invited these new families to share their gifts of music and enthusiastic worship. This was largely well received but there were some in the congregation who were disappointed, they are prayed and hoped for transformation but it had come in a form entirely foreign from the experience of the senior members. Scott told me that the kingdom of God had come to his church, broken into the life of an exhausted group of believers and what had come together was a “piece of heaven.”
When you think of heaven what comes to your mind? In my experience of pop culture, pastoral visits and eulogies at funerals the clear picture of heaven is a place, a rather static place, where we are forever young, surrounded by the people we always knew, in a beautiful mansion (John 14?), walking on a beach, maybe playing golf, perhaps sitting on some Muskoka chairs with our loved one. And of course, it is summer all year round. If this sounds like Florida to you, or perhaps some gated resort community, you are not alone.
And how do we get there? In days gone by there was a feeling of angst, would we go to heaven or hell. The universe was three tiered; heaven above, the earth for the living and hell below. This was in part informed by how our forbearers interpreted their universe; the earth was flat, the sun and all planets revolved around the earth (us) and heaven was just beyond the clouds above. Scientific research and discovery made those assumptions obsolete. Or least somewhat. Believe it or not I know many people who still believe heaven is a geographical place, just above the sky, just below outer space.
Still Jesus does talk of heaven and the early churches, those disciples who dedicated their lives to following Jesus, they believed in something called heaven. Many in the early church gave their lives to support what they believed in. They felt that their lives would not end with this sacrifice, just as Jesus’ life had not ended with the crucifixion. There was something to come, there was a heaven, and these disciples believed their true citizenship rested in this sacred place.
Christopher Morse is a well-respected theologian who has studied all of the scripture texts that speak of heaven, the great theologians in history who have written on heaven and delved into the pastoral questions that parishioners will ask about heaven. And Morse has penned this slim (148 pages), densely written, book The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News. There are five chapters and there will be five sermons in this series.
Let’s reflect together on the most famous of Christian prayers, The Lord’s Prayer. Do you recall the line, “Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” There is a clear expectation in these words that “heaven” is something we can and will experience on earth. I wonder what we thought when we said these words? How did we imagine that the kingdom would come to the earth? Could it be that the kingdom is a sign that heaven is indeed present at that moment, that in that moment, in that reality the kingdom, which comes from heaven, has come to earth and been made real for all those who have eyes to see, ears to hear. Notice further the words “Thy kingdom come”. Morse believes that we tend to overlook this aspect of heaven, that it breaks into our world, that we are not responsible to “creating” heaven but rather accepting it, celebrating it, and working with it to make it known to others.
There are 675 Bible verses that refer to heaven. Also, as Morse points out, we Christians are hardly the only movement to focus attention on something akin to our heaven. Plato, Aristotle, and Dante all make references to the “heavens”. In Greek thought the heavens were a higher plane, a celestial truth, a divine seat, from which justice would be understood in its most pure form. Morse writes that though Christians tend to think of heaven as some kind of warm North Pole where God, not Santa, lives and the residents carry on in a kind of never-ending resort the Bible is not so clear. “Most of the references to heaven in the Gospel testimony are not about blue skies or life only after death. Remarkably few of the six hundred and seventy-five instances of the term found in the Bible may be said to be reducible to such categories of interpretation.”
Morse believes that heaven “is less about a place we go to than one that comes to us, less about a timeless, static state than about a timely taking place.” In short Morse calls on us to consider that heaven is an arriving kingdom in our midst. Texts that buttress this understanding include Philippians 4:5 (The Lord is at hand), Romans 13:12 (the day is at hand) and James 5:8 (the coming of the Lord is at hand). Heaven is no state of denial of the harshest realities of earth. Nor is heaven any feel-good narcotic available for religious marketing. Rather it is an act of recognition, of discernment, of witness to what God is doing all around us, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians consumes much of Morse first chapter on heaven. Ephesians 1:21 describes Jesus in heaven not as far above the ground, but as “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Ephesians 2:6 says, “those raised with Christ and now “sit with hm in heavenly places”. In Ephesians 5:15-16 and 6:12 we hear that those seated with Christ are now able to “walk”, to “wrestle with challenges” and “stand”, making the most of their time. As Morse points out this gives new meaning to the old adage “where one stands on any issue depends upon where one sits.”
Finally, we come to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the passage we heard in church this morning, that proclaims that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). In short Morse reminds us that as citizens of heaven we are called to live in a rather unique way, not conformed by the world around us. We are called to live in such a way that others may “imitate us” as Paul boldly requests. Evidence that the early church did understand this interpretation of heaven is found in the so-called Eplistle to Diognetus, a third century document. It reads:
“Yet while living in Greek and barbarian cities, according as each obtained his lot, and following the local customs, both in clothing and food and in the rest of life, they show forth the wonderful and confessedly strange character of the constitution of their own citizenship…Their lot is cast in the flesh but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven.”
Friends, we are called to live as citizens of heaven, to be aware of it when its community comes to our midst, when “Thy kingdom comes” and we stand and make the most of our time. I believe our “cloud of witnesses” are present in this “coming”, and together we see and hear what God has called us to be. Thanks be to God for heaven, for heavenly places, for heavenly experiences, for heaven when it changes our world. Like my colleague Scott, may we recognize heaven when we see it and rejoice when it comes alive in our midst. Amen.