A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 10 May, recorded in the dining room of Sherborne Vicarage
From our first reading, the story of the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr: “Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look’, he said, ‘I see the heavens opened…’”. [Acts 7. 55-56]
Heaven. Christians don’t talk much about heaven these days, and I suspect seldom think about it. At the moment, we find it hard to remember what day of the week it is, let alone to think about eternity. But heaven is what we are made for. Heaven is where the road goes. Heaven is the destination that gives point and purpose to our whole journey through life. If you read the history of the Christian church in any century you will discover that the Christians who have done the most earthly good are precisely those who have been the most heavenly minded, who have had this other dimension in their lives, who know Jesus not as a dead hero but as a living Lord, who live in conscious fellowship with the saints in whose company we laud and magnify God’s Holy Name.
And if that all sounds a bit high-falutin’, let us come down to earth – literally. In the nature of things I attend more funerals than you do, and spend more time with the bereaved. I have taken many hundreds of funerals in the last 42 years, and I can tell you this, that there is all the difference in the world between a funeral where death is seen as the end, final, full stop, and one where through all the sorrow and the distress there is an awareness of this other dimension, of our Christian hope, of life being lived more fully and more gloriously in the presence of God.
So why do I believe that heaven is our ultimate destination? After all, this wasn’t a belief man came to easily. There’s virtually no mention of eternal life in the Old Testament, and even by Jesus’ time only some of the teachers of Israel were prepared to accept it. But I believe in heaven, and I believe I’m going to heaven, because I believe in God.
Yet a recent newspaper survey suggested that Christians these days don’t believe in heaven anymore; that the majority of churchgoers positively disbelieve in it. If that is true then, my brothers and sisters, it should not be. I believe, and I hope you believe, that one day I will see and you will see our Lord face to face, in that heavenly city where there is no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying nor pain, where God wipes away all tears from our eyes. I have taken too many funerals and seen death too often to believe that the coffin or the casket of ashes can contain the real person, the real personality – the person made in the image of God with whom I have laughed or cried or argued or talked. You can’t put a personality in a box, no, no matter how many bugles you have sounding the Last Post. Rather, as the last note of the Last Post dies away on earth, I believe the trumpeter on the other side will be sounding Reveille.
A long time ago, a Canadian Bishop called Charles Brent asked the question ‘What is dying?’, and by way of an answer asked us to imagine ourselves down at the coast, looking out to sea:
I am standing on the sea shore. A ship sails and spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon, and someone at my side says, ‘She’s gone.’ Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says, ‘’She’s gone’, there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up the glad shout, ‘There she comes.’ And that is dying.
And that is dying. And it means that the words of the great Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter – ‘I preached as a dying man to dying men, as never sure to preach again’ – are neither sad nor depressing, but full of hope and assurance. And it is that hope which gives us perspective in this world, perspective in this time of pandemic, and shows the things of this world at their true value.
In the enacted parable of Lazarus, Jesus says to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’ These are words spoken at every funeral service, and yet you will often hear them intoned so sadly and mournfully that they are robbed of their tremendous meaning. But for those of us who know that Jesus has defeated death, who know that for us death is behind us and only love ahead, they are the most triumphant expression of our faith, which brings home constantly the sense of the eternal. ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’ Which means that I can say, and you can say, with utter conviction and assurance: ‘Upon a life I did not live, upon a death I did not die, Another’s life, Another’s death, I stake my whole eternity.’ And for that, thanks be to God.