The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      17th June 2018
Living for Now, Living for Glory
Jeremy Fletcher

2 Corinthians 5. 6-10, 14-17

One of the things which convinces me that there is a God is the Church pf England’s lectionary. Sometimes, like today, it gives us a reading which is exactly for now. Is it, I wonder, an example of God’s sense of humour that at the beginning of the World Cup, and with England playing tomorrow, 2 Corinthians 5 verse 9 says ‘whether we are home or away we make it our goal to please God’? You could not make it up. Julia and I have had our own ‘away’ experience this last week. Yes there was football, but it was all Portugal. In fact it was all Ronaldo. The only shirt you can buy in Faro airport has a number 7 on the back. 

In 2 Corinthians Paul has been reflecting on the promise that, after death, we will be clothed in a new body, and that we will live a new life on glory. Because of the death and resurrection of Christ we have died and been raised, and we now live in the ‘in between’ times. We belong to heaven: ‘away’. In other places he refers to the Christian as a ‘citizen of heaven’, who is therefore an ‘alien’, who in one sense does not belong any more to this life on earth. But, we remain ‘at home’, and as long as we do we must live by the rules of heaven, so that on earth we please God. At home in the body, or away with the Lord, our goal must be to do such things and live such lives as will gratify and glorify God.

I wonder whether you have a vision of heaven. In Alice Sebold’s book The Lovely Bones, Suzie, who has died and gone to heaven, realises that the heaven she sees is in fact of her own construction. The other citizens of heaven have their own versions, some of which coincide with hers.. Perhaps inevitably our visions of paradise will be shaped by what makes us happy and what excites us now. That which you long for, which you cannot have, or have experienced only fleetingly, is what will inform your view of the paradise we are promised. 

It can almost be that we see heaven as a reward for all our hard work, like the best kind of holiday for which we have saved and saved. The Netflix comedy series The Good Place paints it that way. It is not so for Paul. He would say that this way of constructing a vision heaven is too small. In fact he restrains himself from expounding any such vision. He does recount an experience of being taken to what he calls the ‘third heaven’, but will not say what he saw. For the sake of his readers and hearers he approaches things from a different angle.

For Paul heaven is not the reward we will get for being very good. It is the place which is already ours because we are ‘in Christ’ and Christ is risen and ascended and glorified. We are not asked to live well so that we might qualify for heaven, we live well because we are already citizens of heaven. We are already a new creation, already the old has passed away, already the new has come. It is true that, at home in our failing bodies, we only glimpse this, but in the Holy Spirit we are given a guarantee of what we will see fully one day. We have the boarding card, the room key, the down payment. ‘’He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” says Paul in verse 5 of Chapter 5. 

This has a number of consequences for the church. Paul tells the Corinthians that this should affect their life together, their work as a church and their proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. Christ has died for all, therefore, if people will accept it, they have died, been raised, and are ascended with Christ into glory. All people are, potentially, citizens of heaven. Paul says that he cannot now look at anyone from a purely human point of view. The love of Christ, forgiveness, redemption and new life, are open to all. There is a real sense of momentum and urgency about Paul’s preaching here. ‘The love of Christ urges us on’, he says. The free gift of love and forgiveness is there for all – what is stopping you offering it at all times and in all places. If you really believe that you are a new creation, what is stopping you letting others know? I would hate to think that it is good taste and English reserve. These are the words of eternal life.

Paul is also clear that it is not just our speaking but our life together which will itself be a form of proclamation. It’s to do with that verse again. We should live according to the rules of the kingdom of heaven not because we might fail to make it there one day if we don’t, but because we are already with the Lord and in Christ. Home or away we make it our goal to please God. That will inform our organisation and our structures, our living according to the laws of our land, our use of money and influence, our speaking and our action. 

The church is to be a sign of the kingdom of heaven. Now we can build a place such as this which architecturally is meant to point people to glory, but it is the way we will inhabit it and organise ourselves which will demonstrate what we believe. That’s why Paul spends whole chapters in the letters to the Corinthians talking about disputes to do with ethics morality and doctrine. You are citizens of heaven, says Paul. Act like it. That might be our prayer for the PCC, the Deanery Synod, the Diocesan Synod, and General Synod, all meeting soon.

I wondered what your vision of heaven was. I bet it wasn’t the church as it is now, though it might have had some ecclesiastical elements to it. Some have said that the music played will be Bach, though the angels listen to Mozart for fun. Paul tells the Corinthians that all they need to know of heaven is the ascended Lord Jesus Christ, and that, as citizens already, they know all they need to live with the Lord. In worship we aim to build a foretaste of what we will experience one day. In hearing the words of life and handling the bread of life we grasp the heel of heaven. May our lives demonstrate that too, so people will see and hear, and come to that knowledge themselves, in Christ who is to be praised now and for all ages. Amen.

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