A homily for 3 before Advent on Luke 20.27-38
The notion of heaven as a place where we are reunited with our loved ones is a powerfully hopeful one. And this may well be an aspect of the life of heaven. I hope so. But it’s not all that heaven is.
The religious experts of Jesus’s day had a habit of making everything too small, too exact, too limiting. Here, they want to undermine the abundant love of heaven and limit it merely to what human beings are able to give and receive in this life. Now, earthly love is a wonderful thing: it can change the world, it can transform individuals, it can make the impossible feel possible. In fact, the human experience of love is one of the most persuasive arguments for the reality of heaven: our hearts tell us that real love transcends death so logically there must be somewhere for that love to go.
And that’s only earthly love. But the love that exists in heaven, free from the polluting effects of jealousy, self-centredness, laziness, and more? That love is beyond my imagining. It certainly can’t be reduced to an argument about the extent to which marriage is still valid after we die. The very fact that the life of heaven will be free of conflict and division, hurt and regret, means that it must be a very different kind of life from that we experience now.
It’s always going to be tempting to define heaven in terms of earth because earth is pretty much all we have to go on – it is our only real frame of reference. But heaven is so much more. As my young son put it when he was five: “Heaven isn’t up in space, it’s all around us but differently real… God is outside time and space, so he could even look at everything backwards if he wanted to.”
So while my heart tells me that I can look forward to a heaven in which I am reunited with those of my loved ones who have died, my head tells me that this cannot be all it’s about. If it were only about me and my loved ones, then heaven would have been reduced to a sort of private preservation and perpetuation of my earthly existence, but without all the bad bits, and my looking forward to it would in fact be looking backwards. Can this really be all it is?
The fact that this reading falls on Remembrance Sunday brings the biggest challenge to this ‘reduced’ and ‘private’ heaven. For today our hearts tell us that heaven must be about reconciliation, genuine peace, the healing of old conflicts. It cannot be a merely private matter. And because heaven is communal and not private, it follows that we will be reunited not only with our loved ones but also with those we found it extraordinarily hard to love in this life. Those against whom we fought in battles real or metaphorical. Those against whom we competed, those who characterised some of the hardest times in our lives. Because we don’t get to choose which of our enemies makes it into heaven, we have to have a vision of heaven that allows for a much deeper unity than the reuniting of those who managed to love each other even on earth.
But that again is good evidence for the inextricable link between heaven and love. Heaven must be that place where love is perfected, or else the unlikely unity of past enemies could never be part of it.
This time of year in the church, what we call the ‘Kingdom season’, we reflect on the relationship between heaven and earth. And on this very day we remember those whose entry into the life hereafter came through a complex mix of duty and conflict, cruelty and desperation, peacemaking and destruction. We remember the circumstances in which their lives ended. And we try and hold together the hope for a heaven in which there simply is no place for conflict, with the reality of an earth that has been at war, somewhere or other, pretty much continuously for centuries.
So by all means let us look forward to being reunited with our loved ones. But let us even more look forward to being united with those for whom earthly unity proved elusive or downright impossible. For with the Love of God, all things are possible.