Canon Hugh Jones, Choral Evensong 14 May 2023
What’s your idea of heaven?
You might want to take a few moments to think about it. Maybe your first thought involved fluffy white clouds, under-dressed cherubs and people in white clothing playing harps. We’ve all seen images of that kind, but would that really be ‘heaven’? Not if you ask me! I can think of few things more boring than an eternity of harp-playing.
The final chapter of The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis paints a very different picture. In Narnian heaven, people run without tiring, swim up waterfalls, eat entirely perfect fruit and keep moving ‘further up and further in’, encountering a new and better reality in an experience memorably described as ‘peeling an onion from the inside out’. I, for one, would greatly prefer something of that kind to cherubs, clouds and harps.
The topic of heaven also features in any number of jokes and parables, often featuring a central character who is offered a vision of both heaven and hell. In one of my favourites, a person is taken to hell, where they see a gigantic banqueting table, laden with fabulous food and wonderful drink. ‘How can this be hell?’ they ask. ‘Ah, well there’s a rule’, replies their guide. ‘You can’t eat or drink anything except by using the spoons.’ The spoons are two metres long, and all the people at the table are condemned to an eternity of trying to feed themselves with spoons that are longer than their arms. Hell, indeed.
The person is then taken to heaven, where they are surprised by an identical scene. The same banqueting table, the same mouth-watering food and tantalising drink. How can heaven be exactly the same as hell? But perhaps the difference, thinks the visitor, is that here there is no rule about eating and drinking only from a very long spoon. They put this idea to their guide.
‘No’, comes the reply. ‘Here, too, the rule applies. But look more closely.’
The visitor looks again. And realises, finally, the truth. Whereas in hell the people at the table tried in vain to feed themselves with the ridiculous spoons, here in heaven, they were feeding each other.
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said that hell is other people. Actually, he said, ‘l’enfer c’est les autres’, and it is a better line in the original, but never mind because the key point of the saying, as of the parable of the spoons, is that no matter how wonderful the external circumstances, what makes the difference between heaven and hell is the people who are there.
All of which brings us, perhaps a little belatedly, to the picture of heaven that we heard in our second lesson this evening. Here there is a welter of surface detail, all of it illustrating one central idea – heaven is being in the presence of Almighty God. In this ‘new Jerusalem’ there is no need for a Temple because God’s presence is ubiquitous. There is no need for sun or moon because God’s presence is perfect light. There is no need for closed gates because God’s presence is perfect security. There is nothing unclean or shameful because these things cannot exist in the presence of God’s perfect holiness. Thus we enter a new Eden, in which the relationship between humanity and God is perfected, the curse of sin and death removed. Heaven is the place where God’s presence is fully known by God’s people, even as those people are fully known by God.
This picture of heaven confirms and extends the idea that the who matters more than the what. But the presence that matters above all else is the presence of God. To be in God’s presence, for St John, is heaven. And I wonder if that sounds like heaven to you.
The last time I was here for Choral Evensong, it fell to me to sing the office. I had slipped my glasses into the top of my surplice. As the end of the Creed approached, I tried to retrieve my glasses and found them trapped on a loose thread in the neckline. The harder I tried to extricate them, the more deeply entangled they seemed to get. In the end, I simply pulled as hard as I could, and heard a sickening tearing sound as the neckline of my surplice gave way. This experience put me in mind of a text in the book of the prophet Joel. “Rend your heart and not your garments.”
In the Old Testament world, tearing your clothes was a public display of grief and lament, of extreme emotional agitation. Through the prophet, God’s response is nonplussed. God is more interested in what is going on inside. And this is where our reflections on heaven can start to be cashed out, I think. For each of us, the word heaven conjurs a mixture of inherited imagery on the one hand, and deep longing on the other. It is the latter that matters more – to ask ‘what’s your idea of heaven’ is to ask what you desire above all else.
I don’t really have a favourite psalm, but one of the candidates is Psalm 42 which begins with the verse: ‘Like as the hart desireth the water brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.’ For the writer of these words, heaven is just as St John paints it in Revelation – to be in the presence of God. But how often can any of us say that and really mean it? There have been times, I trust, when my deepest desire has been for God. But there have been many more times when my deepest desires have been for lesser rewards – a better car, new furniture, a very long holiday.
And that’s where the prophet Joel comes in. ‘Rend your heart and not your garments.’ It turns out that our idea of heaven is much less important than our sense of where our deepest fulfilment is likely to be found. Our faith teaches us, to paraphrase St Augustine, that we are made for God and that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. Everything else for which we long is only good in as much as it draws us closer to God, bad in so far as it displaces God in our hearts.
For most of us, I suppose – certainly for me anyway – it requires a leap of imagination at the very least to think of our ultimate and eternal fulfilment lying entirely in God. Some of us may even think that the whole notion of God is hostile to our happiness and wellbeing. What I hope this reflection offers is a sense that we might examine our hearts (rend them, as Joel has it) and question our desires in the light of this idea, praying that as we do so God, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, will help us to understand ever more fully how our truest selves and our richest rewards are to be found in God’s presence, for all eternity.