The Life of the World to Come

April 30, 2018

Categorised in:

Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Isa, 60.1-14, Rev 3.1-14 at Mattins on Sunday 29th April 2018, the Fifth of Easter.

It must be the long, cold winter, but this year the angel of death seems specially close at hand. We’ve just lost David Edwards, the former Dean of Southwark and Norwich Cathedrals, who spent a very happy retirement in Winchester with his wife Sybil, first at St Cross and then next door in the Morley Cottages, before Sybil died and David had to move into a home. David was a prolific author, writing over a million words, including a book called, After Death? Past Beliefs and Real Possibilities. It’s still available as an e-book.

 I remember reading it and thinking just how great a role the imagination plays in any vision of the life of the world to come. This is not to say that people simply make things up about the future, but that they anticipate whatever lies ahead as best they can with the help of images, and these images are grounded in religious tradition. That’s why Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam all have different visions of the future.

You may have noticed that I talked about ‘the life of the world to come’ rather than heaven. The first of our readings today certainly isn’t about what happens when you die; it is a vision of the restoration of Jerusalem; it’s about Israel’s life after exile, back in Jerusalem, the capital city of their homeland.

It isn’t difficult to see what human imagination does in terrible situations like this: everything which is bad at present will turn to good in the end. At the moment the people are scattered and estranged from Jerusalem, but in the end the Holy City will become their universal home and stand as a beacon, at the centre of the world. At the moment the Jews are at the bottom of the pecking order, slaving away for others, but in the end they will be at the top, with others conscripted to do their work, rebuilding their own city walls for them.

The oppressed imagination works by contrast. But what is distinctively Jewish here is the reason why this national restoration will happen. It will happen only because of the Lord God. The prophet Isaiah summons his people to hope in God: ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you’. Despite the encircling gloom, the Lord will come to deliver them: ‘For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you’. Israel’s God will come and turn things around. He will overrule oppression and defeat darkness.

Note here the amazing intertwining between the theological and political visions, which is a part of the great Jewish legacy to the world. Judaism could not imagine a God who had created the world and who had called a nation to act for him and serve him acting only to save individual souls. God’s action was going to make a real, political difference. The sort of difference we hope for as a result of the meeting of the leaders of North and South Korea – an obvious, newsworthy difference to the world.

And notice how imagination is rooted in belief. It is the belief that God can and will deliver that gives the imagination wings. In the end, despite every present appearance, there will be safety, wellbeing, prosperity, abundance and pre-eminence among the nations because the Lord has risen upon his people, like the dawning sun, and like the sun, he will cause his sleeping, despairing people to arise and shine.

That’s a lot of hope – hope for a people and a nation who wanted their story not to end in a whimper but rather to come to a glorious climax and conclusion. There are many sorts of death we might fear and by no means all of them are about our post-mortem survival. We worry for our children and grandchildren when we are gone; we now worry for the future of our nation among other nations; and we need a God-shaped vision to give us total hope for the life of the world to come.

But I promised you a hope which addressed our concern about individual survival after death. What will it be like, we wonder?

Well, our New Testament lesson offered two images. The first is based on the fact that every ancient city held a roll of its citizens. We are told that the names of those who die in Christ are written in the book of life in God’s eternal city. What’s more, we are told elsewhere that those names have been written there since the foundation of the world.

In our Absolutely Basic Christianity group last week we were puzzling over the idea that God elects those people who are saved: ‘how unfair and discouraging is that!’ some objected. But if God is in charge, if God can’t be caught out by our decisions, then the idea that we are saved from the foundation of the world, before we are even a twinkle in our parents’ eyes, should be an assurance that we are well and truly saved. Death is then the gateway into that city. And if we imagine St Peter at those pearly gates, let’s not think of him as Santa checking up on whether we’ve been good girls and boys but as pronouncing God’s much wiser eternal decree.

The other image is again deep and searching. We are in the law court: those who have stood by Christ’s side in suffering are acquitted from a judgement that falls on others who’ve been lax and spiritually timid. A favourable verdict is given to those who have lived faithfully when the chips were down. Will those at Sardis or in any church today be like Christ and risk themselves to win the martyr’s crown or will they shy away from their calling?

I don’t want to talk about individuals here, but as a priest it’s my privilege to have been with a number of people as they’ve faced severe illness and death; it’s also a privilege to have stood by people as they have made courageous choices based on what is sacrificial and what serves and blesses others. These actions are not just admirable; they matter to God as signs of living faith; they show us preparing well in the present for the final, merciful acquittal of God, who wants to say to each one of us at our life’s end, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’.

Now you may be disappointed that I’ve only offered a couple of vague ways of imagining heaven – the roll of honour and the verdict of acquittal – to add to the political images we heard earlier from Isaiah. The truth is we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like; but we do know the way to eternal life. What controls the Christian imagination of the life of the world to come is the resurrection of Jesus. In his rising from the dead we have come to know that it is only by passing through the trials and sorrows of this world that we can defeat death.

At the centre of the courts of heaven the Lamb of God sits upon the throne. Only He is worthy to lay bare the secrets hidden there. Those gathered round him sing: ‘You are worthy to take the scrolls and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation’.

We look forward seeing this kingdom unfolding, even as now our imagination fails us, and we pray that in Christ we would be made worthy to share in His heavenly glory.