Sermon preached at the Community Eucharist
All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane
Dr Elizabeth Phillips, Tutor in Theology and Ethics
12 February 2015
May I speak in the name of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glimpses of heaven . . . Both of our readings tell startling stories in which the curtains of heaven are opened ever so slightly and a glimpse of heavenly transcendence rushes into earth, momentarily lifting witnesses out of their normal existence, then departing just as quickly as it came.
Elisha witnesses a glimpse of heaven in the ascension of Elijah. As he watches, heaven appears on earth for a brief moment as a fiery chariot and a rushing whirlwind. Elijah is swept up, and he disappears along with the glimpse of heaven.
The disciples witness a glimpse of heaven in the transfiguration of Jesus. As they look on, heaven appears on earth as a transforming cloud. For a brief moment, the disciples see Jesus as if in heaven, clothed in dazzling garments and surrounded by those who have gone before. Then suddenly the cloud, the prophets, and the glimpse of heaven are gone.
These two stories become bound up with one another in Christian scripture, as Elijah appears with the transfigured Jesus. And as they descend the mountain, the disciples ask Jesus, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first? – meaning before the messianic age. In some ways each of these two stories is unique in the role it plays in the history of Israel and the narration of the life of Christ. However, these stories by no means stand alone as unique glimpses of heavenly transcendence. Whether in the form of visitations or visions, such glimpses of heaven play consistently central roles in biblical narratives: angels visit Abraham, a burning bush confronts Moses, Isaiah sees God enthroned in the Temple, Ezekiel sees dry bones becoming people, a sheet holding animals descends from heaven before Peter, a blinding light converts Saul, and John receives a whole book’s worth of heavenly revelations.
But how do these glimpses of a heavenly, transcendent realm shape the ways humans live in the world? Are earthly lives enriched or impoverished by heavenly visions and visitations? Many people, both atheists and Christians, believe that narratives in which humans glimpse heaven unfit us for life on earth.
For some of these heaven-sceptics, the main concern is living life to the full. People cannot fully live in the here and now when they are deluded with visions of a great beyond where they will someday find their future home, and people should not be encouraged to locate what is ultimately good outside of this world and outside of the time in which we live, where it is always out of reach.
For other heaven-sceptics, the main concern is oppression. Heavenly transcendence has often been used by Christians to encourage the patient endurance of oppression here and now because we have these glimpses of a realm in which suffering will end. Thus visions of a utopian realm which we will join in the future only serve to perpetuate the injustices of the present.
For still other heaven-sceptics, the main concern is moral dualism, us-and-them mentalities of right and wrong. Narratives of the coming-close of a time and place where good and evil are utterly clear allow people to identify themselves with the good, and to identify their enemies with evil, which will be defeated.
The heaven-sceptics make some good points, and their scepticism arises from ways in which narratives of glimpses of heaven have been used in genuinely terrible ways. But we can listen to these cautions against misuse without agreeing that glimpses of heaven on earth will and must always be used in these ways. How might these glimpses of heaven equip us for, instead of distracting us from, faithful living in the here and now?
To answer this, I think we need to turn to the very glimpses of heaven which heaven-sceptics often find most objectionable: the apocalyptic. Apocalyptic visions, seen most clearly in the bible in the books of Daniel and Revelation, are those in which a heavenly figure reveals to a human a glimpse of realities which are future and transcendent, yet which are directly related to here and now. These texts were written in and for oppressed and persecuted communities who needed reassurance beyond all visible circumstances that God was still in control of human history, and who needed resources for questioning the power claims of their oppressors. Their visions often included the future, dramatic toppling of those oppressive powers. They functioned to jolt people momentarily out of perceptions which seemed inescapable so that they could see that their circumstances were not final inevitabilities nor ultimate realities. Persecuted Jews and Christians were given, through these glimpses of heaven, the ability to stand before their oppressors and say, ‘You do not determine the unfolding of human history, and our destiny does not rest in your hands.’
The Transfiguration, of course, is a very different sort of glimpse of heaven. Where the apocalyptic texts mainly functioned in relation to contemporary political powers, this glimpse of heaven primarily functioned in relation to contemporary discussions of the identity of Jesus. Yet we see a similar function in both: the glimpse of heaven is a jolt which can shake people out of their status quo perceptions and open up possibilities for seeing what is ultimate in new ways. The Transfiguration was a glimpse of heaven which opened up the possibility of seeing a reality which the disciples had just barely begun to dare to imagine: that Jesus was the son of God.
In all the synoptic gospels, the Transfiguration is framed by the same series of events: Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to die, and that if they want to follow him they have to follow him to the cross; Jesus, Peter, James and John climb a mountain together where Jesus is transfigured; they go down from the mountain and find the other disciples incapable of casting a demon out of a little boy, whom a frustrated Jesus readily heals; the disciples are amazed by Jesus and he immediately tells them again that he is going to suffer and die. Even though these stories come long before the passion narratives, through these declarations of Jesus, the Transfiguration is framed by the passion.
Taken out of this context, the Transfiguration seems to be, straightforwardly, a decisive revelation of the divinity of Jesus. And it is certainly that. Through this glimpse of heaven, Peter, James and John have their eyes opened anew to the reality of Jesus as the son of God. The placement of the Transfiguration in the gospels, as well as the liturgical marking of the Transfiguration immediately before Lent, can also open our eyes anew, as it gives us the opportunity to see how the divinity of Jesus and his passion are inseparable from one another.
Jesus told his disciples, ‘I am going to suffer and die, and you must be willing to suffer and die with me.’ They thought, ‘Hmm. That’s odd. Whatever could he mean?’ A thundering voice out of heaven says, ‘This is my beloved son. Listen to him!’ And Jesus says, ‘I am going to suffer and die.’ We cannot understand how God has come near to us in Jesus apart from his suffering and death.
We have little glimpses of heaven before us just now. There is an inscription in the South Aisle from Revelation: ‘I beheld and lo a great multitude which no man could number of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues stood before the throne and before the Lamb clothed with white robes and palms in their hands and cried with a loud voice saying, “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.” Alleluia. Alleluia.’
There is a glimpse of heaven which jolts us out of our routine perceptions: all peoples of the world gathered in worship around – of all things – a slaughtered and enthroned lamb. Slaughtered and enthroned. Passion and divinity interpreting one another. The one who is worthy, the one who gathers us, the one who was transfigured, the one who is ascended and glorified is the one who bears even in his resurrected, glorified body the marks of his suffering and death – as we see in the little glimpse of heaven depicted here above us, where the enthroned Christ reaches out to us with wounded hands.
As a community we find ourselves now in a fairly profound moment of uncertainty. I find that this time every year tends to be one of personal uncertainty for many of us, which seems to arise because it is both an odd moment in the academic year, as well as a time when we feel the toll taken on us by the months of winter’s darkness. And this year we have particular reasons to feel uncertain and unsettled. Who will our new principal be? What will happen to ministerial education in the Church of England? What is our role in the whole host of sweeping changes currently under debate?
Because of these unsettled uncertainties, I am thankful that Lent begins next week. I find Lent to be the most clarifying season of the Christian year, and I wonder if that is because it is the season in which the divinity and the passion of Christ most clearly interpret one another, and we are invited to understand ourselves anew in light of both his divinity and his passion in profound ways.
And so my prayer for us during Lent is for glimpses of heaven. These may not be such dramatic ones; Elijah may not be involved. But I pray that they may jolt us out of our status quo perceptions of one another, of our community here, of our church, of ‘leadership’, so that we may see all these things anew in the light of the mutually interpreting divinity and passion of Jesus Christ. And that in this light we may be reorientated and equipped anew for the lives we are called to live in this world, here and now.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.