Easter 3 ~ Waiting for Heaven
Do you like fish? Jesus does.
It is significant in the story that we have just heard that when Jesus appears, as from nowhere – a mystical thing perhaps – when he does, he speaks to the disciples, and he also eats fish with them. Eating a meal is not the action of an apparition – it is a physical, material, biological activity. That he does so, and that St Luke brings attention to this detail of the event is significant, because it underlines the physicality of the resurrection. Jesus is not a ghost – a new, or semi-real version of the man they ate and drank with, listened to, debated with and often misunderstood. No, he is the same, a physical being, who does the same things as he always did. There are several resurrection stories like this, where Jesus is seen eating with the disciples – food is important in the Bible, just as it is important in our lives, and just as food sustains us in life, the food in the Bible sustains our faith. The disciples last ate with Jesus at the Last Supper, and then there are first suppers – first suppers after the resurrection, at which the physical reality of the resurrection is demonstrated by Jesus doing something normal – that is eating a meal.
And he did so for many reasons:
Firstly, because he was hungry. Being hungry is a fundamentally natural state to be in.
Secondly because meal fellowship was even more important then than it is now. And it is quite important now. Eating together is a social convention, an opportunity for conversation and time together. So Jesus wants to join them, and does so, to be part of their table fellowship. So they in turn offer him food, as the rules of hospitality dictate, and accordingly he eats.
Thirdly, he eats to show them, and us that his resurrection is a bodily one – he is not an apparition, ghost or mere spirit. He is the risen Christ, bodily present among them.
Fourthly, and I don’t mean this as flippantly as you might suppose, fourthly, he ate fish with them because it was very nice. Fresh fish, just caught, fried in olive oil (broiling is frying, remember), who wouldn’t? What’s not to like? Jesus ate fish because he was hungry, but also because he liked fish. And to eat something because you like the idea of eating it, because you fancy it, is also a very human attitude – a distinctively human thing perhaps, that may distinguish us from other animals. Most animals eat to live, but we eat for pleasure – we enjoy food, we centre our social occasions around food, and if we want a social occasion we make sure that food and drink are provided – otherwise, well, it’s just not a social occasion.
Which brings us to heaven. For in all of this we have skirted around a problem. And the problem is the very big one. What happens when you die?
And again, there are various answers, the first, and last of which has to be: we don’t know. We both begin and end any enquiry into what happens when we die, with the humbling and realistic answer, that in the end, at the end, we don’t know – we can’t say for sure. And whatever our faith teaches us and inspires us to believe about what happens when we die, it doesn’t give us chapter and verse about what actually happens, about where we go if that’s the right way of putting it.
And indeed, it isn’t the right way of putting it. The idea of some kind of journey, with some kind of destination place, heaven – or indeed, the other place – these are concepts which give comfort and not a little understanding. ‘Heaven is where you go when you die’ – it’s a long standing viewpoint, but it does inspire ridicule in some quarters, philosophical questioning in others, and it should at the very least encourage us to raise our eyebrows if we have been reading our Bibles. For the Bible does not teach spiritual disembodied eternity in heaven.
I’m not saying that there is no such thing as heaven, or an afterlife, nor that death is the end, nor that there is no hope for us when our time comes. Far from it. But I am saying that if we look at the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the nice place in the sky where you go when you die is a million miles away from the resurrected rabbi eating fish with his followers.
The history of heaven is quite interesting, and helps explain why and how we have become so hung up on it. And there are wider dimensions too, with almost every religion having a concept of heaven, that is not dissimilar from what you probably think I think of when I mention heaven. Opinions and teachings vary about what heaven is like (although it is generally a good place), and about who gets to go there (everyone? Or just the good guys?), but heaven is a given to most faiths. Problem is, we don’t quite know what we are talking about.
Different understandings of heaven in history tell us something about the values of different eras and contexts. For Puritans and Protestants, on both sides of the Atlantic, heaven was all about the praise and constant worship of God: a vision founded on the book of Revelation. In the Victorian age, the importance of family became associated with views of heavenly life; and this idea manifested itself most strongly in the Mormon idea that families were bonded one to another for all eternity in became the ultimate domestication of the afterlife.
For slaves during the campaigns for abolition, and during the American Civil War, heaven was seen as a glorious afterlife, a release from their earthly chains. Slaves sang for a sweet chariot to swing low and carry them home, because their temporal home was so miserable. And this phenomenon has repeated itself wherever there is hardship, poverty or injustice. Heaven is the place where all that is wiped away.
So it is interesting that in the more prosperous last few decades, heaven became a sort of glorious Disney World - or, a transfigured Harrods, a celestial materialistic mansion where the redeemed are rewarded with the type of riches they had sought, and perhaps even been denied in life. It is a familiar view and strikingly prevalent: none other than Billy Graham said that heaven
“is far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Heaven is like the most perfect and beautiful place we can conceive - only more so.”
Heaven is a place apart from this world where we find peace and light and love. And many people are very happy with that.
But someone who is not happy with that is one of the world’s leading theologians, Tom Wright. And his view is basically shared by one of the world’s most influential theologians, that is the Pope.
Tom Wright, until recently Bishop of Durham, and now returned to academia in St Andrew’s, Scotland, says that Heaven, Biblically speaking is not so much a future destiny but another, hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension, as it were. Just as God made heaven and earth; in the end he will remake and join them both together forever. This is the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in what he calls a ‘lasting embrace’.
In opposition to any of this one has the view recently put by Professor Stephen Hawking, who it will be clear, fundamentally misses the point, and who like Richard Dawkins argues with views that are either not held by Christians, or shouldn’t be. Hawking said in the Guardian a year or so ago:
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
But this secular dismissal of a pie in the sky when you die afterlife is based on a misconception of the afterlife, and we needn’t be threatened by it. For in the Bible, ‘heaven’ isn't 'the place where people go when they die’. Rather it is God’s space, while the temporal, physical location of our current existence is our space. And the Bible tells us that the two overlap and interlock. They overlap and interlock – they cross, if you like, uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ.
And that is important because it gives us not only a reason, but a calling to social justice and action. We can see earthly life inextricably bound up with the eternal, rather than just as a prelude to a greater symphony of glory. For it is not the prospect of paradise but rather acts of love, generosity and sacrifice that bring God’s graceful, sacred, space into the tragic, brutish, often incomprehensible state of affairs in which we try to navigate our lives. Faith-driven acts of love bring something heavenly into play such that we are called to be agents of heaven on earth. Agents that is, of hope.
For the hope into which we are called, baptized, married, and indeed buried, is not so much the hope of heaven, but the hope of resurrection: Bodily resurrection. While we often blur the two, there is a difference.
For after death comes life. Just as there is life before death, there is life afterwards, to which death is the doorway. Living our life is the very purpose of life, but it is also what gets us hung up on the idea that life after death is in some way like what we have lived before.
It might be, and it might not be – I end as I began – we don’t actually know. But I think we can say with some confidence that whatever the afterlife is or involves, it fundamentally involves bodily resurrection. Christ – the risen Christ - shows us the physicality of resurrection, and the reality of the risen life. That is, fish-eating, meal-enjoying, fellowship-sharing, hospitality-accepting resurrection life. The kind of resurrection life that is anticipated in every Eucharist we celebrate, as we come together to enjoy fellowship with one another; the hospitality of God, and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
May we live in him and he is us, now and for ever. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/04/12