Holy Communion 17th March 2019
Discipline and Glory
Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1
If I have a problem with Lent it is that it can lead us to concentrate too much on our day to day behaviour: what are doing or not doing, and how we are feeling about it. There is of course lots of good to be gained in giving up the bad stuff, and in recognising what we might be depending on too much (talk to me about what happened to my mood when I gave up coffee last), but it can be as if, by stopping or starting something, we are working our way to glory by improving ourselves. It can all feed into a narrative that salvation is the reward to be found at the end of a lot of hard effort. I eat and drink the wrong things, I do the wrong things or don’t do the right ones, and if only I can break those habits and replace them with good ones my place in heaven will be more secure.
You could easily read St Paul in in that way. In Philippians 3 he contrasts the Christian, who focusses on heaven, with people who focus on earthly things, including their physical and sensual desires. The simple assumption: earthly stuff is bad. Give it up. You need to get to heaven and it won’t be that way. Earlier he has said that he is ‘pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call’. He’s not there yet, and there is more to do. The simple assumption: this is a long race with lots of fences. You are nowhere near the finish and you could fall at any time.
Those assumptions would be wrong. Paul’s talk of heaven, the goal to which he presses on, is not about climbing a ladder or hurdling the last fence or completing a multi question test so that only as we cross the line at the end God can say we have finally made it. Paul is writing in the context of a discussion about some people in that church who think they have already arrived at perfection and therefore their behaviour from now on is irrelevant. They don’t need to behave at all like Christians – nothing matters because they are already perfect.
Paul says to them that they are half right. In Christ we are already citizens of heaven. But that means that in being faithful to Jesus Christ we must demonstrate and explore what we already are, citizens of heaven. We have arrived through the death and resurrection of Christ, but we are yet to arrive because we live on earth and the fulness of glory is yet to be revealed. If we are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, we cannot live as if we are not, but must reveal our citizenship until our life ends – the fullness of perfection awaits us. We carry on not to win the prize eventually, because we already have it.
What does it mean to have our citizenship, our commonwealth – what the AV calls our ‘conversation’ –in heaven? What’s your vision of heaven? What comes to mind when you hear the word? In Alice Sebold’s book The Lovely Bones, the characters realise that they are all inhabiting their own ideas of heaven, which are different from each other. Perhaps your mind has gone to The Good Place on Netflix. 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.
This isn’t what Paul is thinking of. It is not the reward we will get for being very good, as in The Good Place. 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 2 Corinthians 5: 5
This has a number of consequences for us. Here Paul says that one day we will have a new body: that our current physical state is not the full truth about us. That’s a good reason not to give in to our bodies, and to put Lenten discipline into action. That verse about our frail bodies being conformed to his glorious body has been taken up into the funeral service, and it is one I can never say without tears, as I remember those who have struggled physically, or held the tiny one who has only lived fleetingly. One day we will be conformed to the body of the glory of Jesus Christ. We are more than our human bodies! That means using our physicality, mind body and spirit well now. We are not our cravings, our dependencies, our addictions, and in heaven there won’t be any. Start practising now!
Being citizens of heaven, having our conversation in heaven, affects our life together now. Heaven will be active. So look to yourselves now, says Paul. He goes on in Chapter 4 to ask a couple of warring church members to try to agree together. Our life together will itself be a form of proclamation, a demonstration, a foretaste of heaven. 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. That should affect 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.
That’s about our buildings and the highest aspirations of creativity, and about the way we organise ourselves and speak to each other. Some of the things Christians say to each other are truly dreadful. The Kingdom of heaven is the tea rota and the flower arrangers and the PCC and the Deanery Synod and the General Synod too. It’s about the way we communicate with each other about our differences, be that about theology, sexuality, ordination, or the positioning and brightness of lights in the church. We can be hurtful. We are heaven’s citizens. Don’t be hurtful.
Was your vision of heaven the church as it is now? 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. A holy Lent is about ensuring that we are not distracted by our bodies, but that’s not about hoping that one day if we are very good God might let us in. It’s about exercising our citizenship now, so that we will attain it fully one day. I hope your Lent will be heavenly, so that together we can show people what heaven is like, and introduce them to Jesus, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.
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