CTC’s Faith in Public Life Officer David Barclay preached today (9 February 2014) at St Peter’s Bethnal Green, as part of its “Just Church” sermon series on mercy, justice and evangelism.
His sermon took as its text Revelation 21.1-5
Carter, Alex and Clear leave the café, thinking they’re finally safe. But as they cross the road Alex is about to be hit by a bus. Clear leaps over and saves him, but the bus hits a telephone pole which hits an electric cable which causes the café sign to come crashing down on Carter. Thus ends one of the most improbable scenes in what is probably one of the worst films of all time – Final Destination. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, the premise of the film is that because a group of people cheat Death by surviving an accident, fate starts to conspire against them to kill them one by one in unlikely and gruesome ways. The drama of course is the way the characters’ actions start to change as they come to understand and believe that things are moving in a particular direction. As they see their Final Destination of Death, their behaviour changes – they become cautious, fearful, looking out for number one.
Now you might legitimately wonder how I started thinking about horror films when writing my sermon on Revelation 21. Or maybe not, because Revelation has some pretty freaky stuff itself, but let me explain. In our own lives we don’t know exactly what our future is going to hold – we don’t necessarily know what job we’ll be doing, where we’ll be living, who we’ll be with. And so we have to make decisions as best we can each step of the way. But as Christians we are not left totally in the dark on the really big question of where Everything – the Universe, the world – is going. 2 weeks ago Caitlin was talking about the importance of stories, and how God uses our small and seemingly insignificant stories as part of his huge story. But if the Bible gives us this big extraordinary story of what God is doing in His Creation – then the End is not a total secret. So just like in the film, you would expect Christians to live slightly differently from everybody else because of this knowledge about the world’s Final Destination. You would expect that to affect our behaviour right?
But here’s where things get tricky – because I think there’s a lot of confusion out there about what Christians really believe this Final Destination is. Alongside the awful film that kept popping into my head this last week has been an awful pop song – does anybody remember ‘Spirit in the Sky’? You’ll be pleased I’m not going to sing it for you – but here are some of the lyrics:
“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best, when I lay me down to die, Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky”
There you have it right? The Christian belief in the Final Destination – the Spirit in the Sky. Now you might think Spirit in the Sky is perhaps a bit crass, we don’t need the clouds and harps and stuff anymore. But the underlying pattern of Spirit in the Sky can be a bit more subtle and is actually quite a common understanding of what Christians believe. That pattern is this:
Heaven and earth are distinct and separate places – the earth is temporary and the Final Destination for Christians at least is to get away from earth and to Heaven.
I would bet that this is what the majority of non-Christians think we believe, and if you look out for it you can even see this kind of idea in some Christian songs – ‘one fine morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away’.
Now if this really is our Final Destination – getting away from the earth and to heaven, then it’s relatively obvious how that might shape our actions here now right? It’s all about making sure first of all that we are indeed going to get into Heaven when we die, and then telling as many other people as possible how they might get to heaven too. I’m sure you’ve seen people on the street with signs saying ‘repent – the end is nigh’ or something similar – well maybe they’re not so crazy after all if this escape plan is really all there is to it?!
I actually think this is part of the reason why some people find it hard to understand why the Church is ever involved in anything that looks like social action or politics. It was fascinating to me to watch the response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on Wonga last year. Whilst lots of people were really supportive of the Church taking a public stand on this, others seemed to think this was somehow the wrong kind of thing for the Church to be interested in. The Independent newspaper ran an editorial with the title ‘Payday lenders? The Church should keep to matters spiritual’. It seems that at least some of those looking at Christianity from the outside have got the impression that what the Church does and believes is more concerned with the next life than this one, that we’re so heavenly minded we can be no earthly good.
Well they’ve obviously never considered today’s passage! Because these beautiful words which come near the end of the last book of the Bible are the Christian picture of our Final Destination. And yet they are not at all about escaping the world and getting to heaven, they’re about heaven and earth coming together at last. It says “I saw the HolyCity, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” This is not about leaving the world to get to Heaven, this is Heaven coming down to the earth. It goes on to say “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be His people and God himself will be with them and be their God.” The picture is not escape – its embrace. And what follows is literally Heaven on earth – “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
So the Christian hope as laid out in the Bible is not after all that we will all go up to the Spirit in the Sky, it’s that we will be resurrected to eternal life in what Jesus calls ‘the renewal of all things’ – the new heavens and the new earth – irrevocably joined together forever. Whereas in the Film the Final Destination is death, for Christians we can see that the Final Destination is life – and not some spiritualised disembodied life but real, tangible life.
For me, when I started to see that this is indeed the Biblical vision of our Final Destination – so many other parts of the Bible started making more sense. Because this idea of bringing heaven to earth, and joining the two together, is not one that’s just kept to Revelation – it runs through the whole of Scripture. Consider this – Jesus starts his ministry by saying ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’. He then starts to work the most amazing and miraculous things that bear all the hallmarks of heavenly life but here on earth – the sick are made well, the outcasts are welcomed in, the oppressors are challenged, food and drink are multiplied to satisfy all. The world as it should be, breaking into the world as it is. He teaches his disciples to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. And then he conquers death by physically rising from the grave and declares that ‘all authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me’ – the King of heaven has become the King of earth. Now of course there is more to say about Jesus’ life and death, other ways to look at what He did and said, but this story of Jesus bringing heaven to earth and inaugurating his reign and Kingdom of both is a crucial and often overlooked part. N.T Wright talks about it like a stereo system where you’ve got different parts of the sound whose volume you can adjust. He argues that the Church has all but tuned out this aspect of the Gospels of the inauguration of the Kingdom, and as a result we’ve lost the vitality of the full sound in our engagement with the world. And I think he’s got a point.
So what does this mean for us here and now? If we were to re-examine what our Final Destination is, how might that change our behaviour and actions?
Well I think the answer lies in jet lag. How many people here have ever experienced jetlag? My family have lived in New Zealand a few times over the last 15 years, so I’ve had the joy of flying there and back several times, with the result that I’ve had plenty of experience myself. There’s a really bizarre sensation you get when it’s the middle of the night and yet your body clock is telling you it’s the middle of the day. And no matter how much you try to sleep, it’s just no use – you have to behave as if it is in fact the day time. Now jet lag is not a popular Biblical metaphor, but I think Paul would’ve used it if he’d been writing today. Because in several places in the New Testament he uses exactly this idea of living in the night as if it was the day to describe the Christian life. In 1 Thessalonians he says “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that the day of the lord should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” In other places he talks about darkness and light, old and new creations. The point is always the same. With the Final Destination in sight, we should live in a world of brokenness and sin as signs of the new creation, the fully integrated Kingdom of God which one day will arrive.
That’s why actually social action and social justice are absolutely areas that the Church should be involved in because the Church is fundamentally in the business of hope. Our offer to a broken and hopeless world is this hope that the Final Destination of humankind and the world is not going to hell in a handcart but being united with Heaven. So when we engage with poverty and we engage with politics we’re saying one day the world will not be full of injustice and pain and oppression, and let us show you what that might look like. We’re drawing our neighbours and our neighbourhoods into the extraordinary story of God’s renewal of His creation.
And of course if we’re doing it faithfully we will be introducing people to the King of the Kingdom too. Because we are not Belinda Carlisle – my final bad pop reference I promise you. Her song Heaven is a place on Earth says ‘we’ll make heaven a place on earth’. That’s not the Christian message. If you look in the passage today the move is not from earth to heaven but from heaven from earth. And of course such a move is only made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. His sacrifice is what secure our future, his blood the price for bridging the gap between heaven and earth.
So the question for us is how will we respond to His call to be signs of His Kingdom. And the exciting thing about this offer is that it’s particular to each one of us. Because for every Christian – whether old or young, rich or poor, new believer or seasoned veteran of the faith – God has particular opportunities to be part of His Kingdom breaking through here and now. It could be as simple as how we treat our family and friends, or as complicated as becoming Prime Minister, but we are invited by God to be signs of our Final Destination of heaven and earth together at last.
So as I close up and the band come back, just take a moment and ask God what that might look like for you. Maybe this is all new information, and actually you just want to let the beautiful promise of God’s Final Destination sink in and give thanks to Jesus for making it possible. Maybe you want to pledge allegiance to this King of the Kingdom for the first or the one thousand and first time and say ‘God I want my life to be a sign of your Kingdom’. Maybe you want to ask him where he is calling you to live in the day in your work or your spare time, your hobbies or your passions.