What makes you feel that heaven isn’t so far away? A beautiful piece of music or art? Looking out at the ocean, or a spectacular sunset? Spending time in prayer? Holy Places, such as churches or pilgrimage sites, are often described as ‘thin places’ – where earth and heaven seem to be closer, and whatever it is that separates this world from heaven is worn thin, perhaps by centuries of prayer. Some people seem to find glimpses of heaven everywhere. Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, wrote of his sense of overwhelming awe when he went out of his front drive two days after the pavement had been re-surfaced and saw that already a tiny plant had started to germinate and grow in the tarmac – this testimony to the miracle of life had him wanting to get down on his knees, right there and then.
Perhaps you have had such moments yourself – moments of profound awareness of the sacred in ordinary things, or of the miracles that we walk past every day without blinking, or of the way that the extraordinary things of this earth point beyond themselves to a heaven which is beyond our imagining, yet suddenly feels near enough to reach out and touch.
In John’s gospel heaven is never far away. Jesus’ divinity shines through in all his words and actions, and here, in this central part of the gospel, we find John putting into words the mystery of how Jesus not only demonstrates the proximity of heaven, but also how in his own person he enables complete continuity between earth and heaven. As Jesus goes on painstakingly and loving to explain (again!) that God is his Father and our Father, this becomes clear to us, if not to his disciples at that point. ‘The Father and I are one,’ he says, and this means that heaven is not only near (in place or time), it is right there, right then, in their very midst.
No wonder these words are so often chosen as the bible reading for funerals. They are full of the hope in the promise that ‘where I am there you may also be.’ If we have enjoyed the companionship of Jesus in our earthly life, then we will continue to do so after our death.
Jesus speaks all these words as one who is cherishing this last bit of quality time, before his death, with the friends who have shared his earthly ministry. They have witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching, been challenged in their understanding of who he is and who God is, seen things they would never have dared to dream of. They have been closer to him than family, sharing his joys and sorrows, challenges and times of reflection, humour and anger.
The Jesus in these chapters of John’s gospel speaks of one who knows that this is the last night that he’ll be with them in quite this way. He knows that he’s going to die, and soon. He knows that his friend Judas has already set in motion the chain of events that will lead to the cross. He speaks as one who has only a limited time left to try to give his friends everything they will need to make sense of what’s about to happen. Thus, this whole section of John’s gospel is a heady combination of theological depth and pastoral concern: almost everything in these chapters is both profound and absolutely practical. It is exactly what the disciples need to hear, and yet by definition they could only realise that with the hindsight of the cross and the resurrection.
So he comforts them with hope, and in the promise of the ‘many dwelling places’ set aside for them he once again shows the abundant generosity of God that had already been revealed at the wedding of Cana and at the feeding of the five thousand (both earlier in St John’s gospel, and both foretastes of the life of heaven).
The really striking thing about this part of John’s gospel is that Jesus is both promising heaven, and at the same time, coaching his friends on how to survive and flourish in the mean time, and how to grow a church after his death that will one day fill the world. He shows them the nearness of heaven, and then prepares them for another 2000 years of this world – and counting! He prepares them for his departure, while reassuring them that he will, in every way that matters, always be with them. And somehow we must hold these things together.
I am reminded of the axiom that states: care for the world as if you’re going to be judged for it today, and as if you have to make it last another billion years. We hold together the ‘now and not yet’ all the time. We live with the temporary nature of earthly life – the blessings of this life and the promise of eternal life is a tension that we live with constantly. And it’s a good job that we do.
Christian Aid Week has just ended, and its strapline used to be, ‘we believe in life before death’ – in other words, it is not good enough to lament at the suffering of our fellow human beings, but console ourselves that they are beloved of God and will get their reward in heaven. To rely on the hope that God will sort it all out at the end of time or when we each die is to miss the point (and I always have this same argument when my persistent Mormon visitors come to the door) – our hope for the renewal of the earth and the coming of the kingdom are not unrelated to our calling to be stewards of the earth here and now.
When we pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ this is not just some future hope about what God may do, it is our own pledge about what we ourselves are going to do. Readying ourselves for the life of the kingdom of heaven means working for the establishment that kingdom on earth. We cannot wait for God to do those things for which he has given us the means ourselves – God is already at work, in the ordinary stuff of this world, and longs for us to join him, here and now.
And this is what makes sense of that tension in John’s gospel. Jesus has to show his friends that he is going ahead of them to prepare their place in heaven, while at the same time giving them the tools they will need to start building the kingdom on earth. He begins, of course, in the next chapter, by the commission to share the love with one another that they have already known in their relationship with him. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’
This is the defining characteristic of the kingdom of heaven, but it is also the defining characteristic of an earthly life that is working towards the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. In continuing the work of Christ we continue his ministry of creating continuity between earth and heaven, and we will find that those moments when heaven and earth feel very close are not limited to ‘holy’ places but happen everywhere where we practice the Love that is God’s greatest command and greatest gift.