Sermon: Heaven

24 April 2005 at :00 am

Sermon at Eucharist, 24 April 2005
Westminster Abbey
by the Very Reverend Dr. Wesley Carr, The Dean of Westminster

Heaven

John 14.4.

Dr Albert Einstein was going on a train to an out of town engagement. The conductor asked for his ticket. But Einstein could not find it. He rummaged through his pockets and his brief case but to no avail. The conductor said, “We all know who you are Dr Einstein, and you surely bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it. Everything is OK”. He went off down the aisle, but before going into the next car he looked in amazement as he saw Einstein down on his knees looking for his ticket. He came back and gently said, “Dr Einstein, I know who you are.” But Einstein replied, “I know who I am too,. But without the ticket I don’t know where I am going.”

Today is the last Sunday of the Easter season. We have covered many topics, and by now in earlier times we would be focussing on our eternal destiny where we might end up– the question of heaven. From Einstein’s two answers we can extract a major difference between us and those who lived before us. We are less certain that we do (or even can) know who we are. We go to our counsellors and therapists and sometimes our priests to uncover who we are. The famous philosopher was walking the park and straight across the grass. The park attendant yelled “Who do you think you are?” Replied the philosopher, “I wish I knew. I wish I knew.” We are too uncertain about saying who we are and have a great longing to learn more about ourselves, about me, my rights, my gender, my faith and indeed even my worship.

The second question, “Where am I going?” does not worry us quite so much. The question of eternal destiny is not at the top of our agenda. But today I am going back a bit and wish to talk about that destiny - heaven. From the gospel of St John Chapter 14 “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” It’s not an easy text. It has been used to justify all sorts of things. Most easily it is read as a universalist statement that everyone can be accepted. Some read it as meaning private paradises from which they look down upon the tormented souls in hell. This saying has often been taken as an image of heaven.

What is that? It is not as sometimes thought hierarchies of angels and archangels, golden pavements and glassy seas, beautiful music and songs to the harp. In fact the minute we see this saying of Jesus as referring to dwelling places in heaven, then something fundamental has changed. Because those words altered the whole character of the belief of that day about death. Death was in many faiths a strange journey to an unknown and sometimes frightening destination, an underground pit in which wraith-like figures might move. It was by contrast with this world grey and at the best usually depressing. But when this text appears with its reference to many mansions the picture changes. Homes provided by a Heavenly Father are a world away from the grey underworld; they are full with joy and life and light and colour. Gradually other ideas developed that it was the place when we would finally be reunited with loved ones where the inequities of the world, handicaps, sickness, bad luck, will be made right. And notice it is not our perception of death that had changed; it is the understanding of death which has altered.

“The mansions” are not what we regard as such, big houses with large gardens. The word refers to ordinary houses with which Jesus and his disciples would have been familiar. Hospitality demanded that the stranger would be accommodated but not in a hotel but in a lived-in house. There on behalf of the whole village someone gave the traveller food and rest. There were normal houses but slightly larger. They were where a stranger would usually be given hospitality. Often, for example, the disciples went ahead of Jesus to prepare the way. This meant claiming such a room. The stranger arrived in public view and there was no secrecy about it. It was the sort of place on the steps of which Jesus sat and healed the sick at the beginning of his ministry. This is the world about which Jesus speaks when he talks about “many mansions”. But just as this changes our understanding of death so it also changes the way in which the disciples relate to their Lord. Hitherto they have gone ahead and prepared the way. But this time he turns it on his head. He is the one who leads the way to his Father’s house and the disciples, instead of going ahead, follow.

What is heaven like? The answer must be “I have hardly the slightest idea.” We think of no pain or tears or certainly no death, unhindered fellowship with God and because of that with other “people” if we dare call them that. But it seems that we are simply accruing ”good things in heaven” in order to compensate for the awful things which happen on earth. Wish fulfilment can be an aspect of religious faith. The progression of belief is well known. It starts with the New Testament with reference to heavenly worship. A short while after when the monastic tradition emerges heaven is a place of solitude where the individual has an intense personal relationship with God. This mighty Abbey building is typical of the medieval idea of heaven as the place where everything fits an has its place, music and architecture match each other. With the Reformation much of this imagery disappeared. The elect, that is true Christians, praise God in this world and the next in very similar fashion – they enjoy it. With a huge leap we come to today. Liberal or Conservative seem to agree that eternal life depends on God, whose gift it is and that is all we know.

In the end all these views come down to roughly two. First, there is heaven which God, as it were, brings into this world. As a result things like social life, marriage, sexuality and work are eternal because they are instituted by God. The other model moves in the opposite direction: God is somewhat distant and heaven is something to which to aspire. The believer is taken out of this world into heavenly places. Yet neither of these stances seems to destroy the idea of heaven, even though it is something about which, by definition, we can know nothing and about which we can fantasize.

Life becomes, as the Venerable Bede describes the experience of the sparrow. Out of the dark and cold it flies into the great hall where the fire is blazing. For a moment it is warm and is seen by others. But then it flies out the other end back into the dark and cold. Bede is illustrating the brevity of life but also its significance. For it is the time when we are truly ourselves and know it – that is we are stilling round the fire as itwere in the presence of God. But where we come from and where we go to remain equally obscure and unknown.

The Abbot’s Pew is one of the treasures of Westminster Abbey and belongs to the Dean for time being. It is one of my great privileges. If you don’t know it look up the left as you pass the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. An Abbot pushed a hole through the wall to give him this balustrade overlooking the nave. It’s not a chapel although it has a small altar there; it is not a museum although it has some historical artefacts there. It just is. On the wall as a frieze there are some words: To see thee is the end and the beginning; Thou carriest me and thou goest before; Thou art the journey and the journey’s end”. I am not certain who wrote them, but is likely that it was written in the 6th Century by Boethius a Christian political figure who wrote on “the consolations of Philosophy”.

Those words capture one idea of heaven which we can still appreciate. That Christ is both the beginning and the end, means that there is no facet of human life that lies outside God’s reach. He carries us and goes before us – I think this refers to the cross: he goes forward boldly to his cross; he can be trusted to support us with whatever. There is no escaping the cross but there are ways of being carried and supported. So we come to the end: “thou art the journey and the journey’s end. The “and the journey’s end” gives us both meaning in this life and significance in the next. It allows every human experience for good or ill (and every human being has something of both) to be taken seriously. They are all parts of the journey that we shall only understand when we reach its end. But the end cannot be reached while the journey is in progress. So he interweaves both the idea of the present and of the future, of earth and heaven in a memorable phrase which can be used as an acclamation, as a prayer, as an aspiration and as a description of experience.

So to claim, as some do, that heaven is simply the presence of God in this world and the next is insufficient. Similarly to suggest that heaven is a place of rest and escape from this world is equally wrong. For heaven turns out to be both the process of living and the final achievement whatever that may mean for each of us.

Have you even begun the journey?

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