Heaven is not the point

Sermon for 9 November 2008

 

1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
Matthew 25.1-13  

 

 

Another Sunday, another confusing parable. But just for today, I’m not going to get hung up on confusing bits.

Instead, I want to focus on just one detail. The parable tells us that

at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”… And…the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet.

The normal practice in the ancient world was that when a special or powerful visitor came to a town, the people of that place would come out beyond the boundary of that town to meet their guest. They would then turn back, and escort the VIP to their place.

So in their wedding customs, the bridegroom would come from his own place, and the bridesmaids—some coy, some giggling, some envious—would come out to meet him, and bring him inside. The presence of the bridegroom transforms the gathering, and the feasting could begin!

At weddings today, this kinda happens, but it’s the bride’s presence that transforms the gathering. When the time has come, and once the groom is settled at the front of the church, I go out to greet the bride. She is the important person who must be met.

Once she is greeted, with her entourage, I turn around. She, of course, keeps going in the same direction, and her presence transforms the entire gathering. It’s very strange for us to think of the groom’s presence being in any way transforming; he is merely the entree to the feast.

It’s wonderful that our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian Christians has a similar picture. Here, it’s Jesus who is coming, pictured as descending from heaven. As a VIP, he has to be met.

Well, everyone wants to greet him. His coming is so exciting, so all-transforming, that even the dead can’t keep still! They are caught up into the air to meet him as he comes down, just as the living are!

What happens next? Well, if a VIP comes to town, everyone turns around and brings the VIP in.

So when everyone greets Jesus at his coming, what happens?—we turn around, and he keeps going in the direction he was heading. He comes to earth. His presence transforms the whole earth.

Usually, we think of this picturing our going to heaven with Jesus. It’s as though Jesus comes to a stop in mid air—maybe he uses his air brakes?—and turns around. But that’s not what these early Christians would have understood at all. They understood that Jesus would be coming to earth, not taking them to heaven. They understood that the presence of Jesus would gladden their hearts, indeed it would transform the whole creation, just as the coming of the bridegroom made the feast possible in Jesus’ parable. They understood that their expectation of Jesus’ coming meant the transformation of the world, not our rescue from the world.

What does that mean? It means that our focus as Christians is firmly on this world. It means that when the Church works for the betterment of the world, we are doing exactly what Jesus Christ wants us to do. It means that when Christian believers act for the betterment of the world in our places of work, our families, in our relationships, we are doing exactly what Jesus Christ wants us to do.  It means that the body of Christ, the Church, is a kind of pilot project modelling the coming reign of God. In the words of the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union, it means that we are

a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself…

And that’s what we are right now. You and I. Us all together.

When I was young, we used to sing

This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up
somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me
from heaven’s open door,
and I can’t feel at home
in this world any more.

(I must have been young, because I still liked country music when we sang that.)

But listen: we have eternal life, yes we do, but it starts now. Heaven is a given for the people of God, but it’s not the point. Jesus wants to transform the world with us right now. He’s not coming to take us out of the world, so that we won’t be ‘Left Behind’. If we can’t feel at home in this world anymore, it’s because it’s a world of injustice, lies and broken promises. But it’s still God’s world!

It’s been hard for many Christians to get hold of this. Yesterday, Ben and I went to see the Nigerian imam and pastor who are working together to bring peace and reconciliation to their people in Nigeria. All some people wanted to know was Who is going to heaven? In part, the response was that people are now living in safety in their part of Nigeria, rather than living in fear. That may not be the whole of the Good News, but isn’t it good news?

With all that as background, what did the Synod do?

 

Synod Report 

When I was young, I was part of a Plymouth Brethren congregation, and there questions would be asked why a church was involving itself with the following issues. It was as though we were in a Christian escape pod, waiting for release, wearing T-shirts that said ‘Beam me up, Jesus! There’s no intelligent life down here.’ But note: All of these are central to the life of the Church, if it is true that Jesus comes to transform the earth.

The issues the Synod dealt with included the following, which are spiritual issues, every one; we’ll hear more detail in the weeks to come.

 

  • Homelessness
  • Climate Change
  • Renewing the Covenant between Indigenous and late-comer in the Uniting Church
  • Trinity Theological College & Australian Catholic University
  • Finances—the Moderator’s pastoral letter was read
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