Tag Archives: heaven

19 August – Conquering the world

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Pentecost 13

1 John 5:1-12
Psalm 34
John 6:51-58

In a sentence:
Love conquers the world by
winning it over

We sometimes get the sense that theological specialists get a little het up from time to time on matters of precision and correctness in faith. I’m probably not immune to such a charge myself. Why bother with the language of the Creeds, with doctrinal precision, with correct liturgical structure?

As a way towards answering this, let’s consider the theological intensity in the middle of our reading this morning from 1 John: ‘[Jesus Christ] is the one who came by water and blood…not with the water only but with the water and the blood.’

If nothing else, this is dense theology. It is neither immediately clear what it means nor why it matters. At the same time, John insists on it, rabidly, foaming at the mouth: this really does matter. There was obviously some controversy in John’s community about ‘the blood’, and whether or not belief in ‘the blood’ had to be added to belief in the ‘the water’. Perhaps the most likely scenario is something like this: there was an argument about whether or not the redeemer – the Son of God – was present in the baptism of Jesus only (the water, or the waters of birth [cf. John 3]), or whether he has also present in the death of Jesus (the blood).[1] What seems to be at stake is the relationship between ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Son of God’.

That is, John defends here what we now call the doctrine of the Incarnation – the meeting of God and the world in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, if this makes sense of the statement, we must then wonder about the next thing: why does the Incarnation matter?

As far as John is concerned, the doctrine matters not for its own sake but for its crucial pastoral implication: it is those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God (that is, who believe Jesus came ‘in the water and the blood’) who ‘conquer the world’.

‘Conquering the world’ is perhaps not the best way of putting it for modern ears anxious about histories of colonisation and so on, but we get the point if we invert John’s way of putting it: it is those who believe in the meeting of Jesus and the Son – in the ‘water and the blood’ – who are not conquered by the world. ‘The world’ is here anything which might constitute a threat to us – the fears in our love, as we considered them last week. To believe that Jesus was the Son is to get a grip on the world, rather than be gripped by it.

This is so because the world ceases to be a place which comes between us and God – and so between us and our true selves; the world becomes the place where God is met and embraces us. In the person of Jesus God meets with the real world, as lived by a real person in time and space, with all its joys and sorrows.

We declare this each week in our recitation of the Creeds: Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’… residing in, coinciding with, ‘was born…suffered…was buried.’ This is not mere doctrine; it is a way of saying that true God and true world can meet. The Creed declares that such a meeting has happened, and it is the hope of all who say the Creed that this will happen again.

And so the Jesus of the gospel is not a solitary individual, a tool in the hand of God, a means to some divine end. He is a real person engaged with other persons. His death is not mere mortality or tragedy, and it is – again (see July 29 sermon!) – not something God demands. The cross is a failure of the world to bear God – a rejection of such a presence of God to the world.

A sad philosopher once observed that ‘hell is other people’. It would have to be said that this was the experience of the crucified Jesus, because it was only by other people that he found himself on the cross; the physical suffering of the cross represented the suffering of the conflict endured throughout his ministry.

But the point of his ministry, and the point of John’s preaching through this dense and circular little letter, was to declare just the opposite: that heaven, also, is other people. This is why – as we saw last week – the love of whatever in the world it is appropriate to love can be the love of God – our love of God and God’s love of us. Our presence to God and God’s presence to us ‘looks like’ loving one another.

We do not believe ‘in the Incarnation’ as a thing which happened. The thing which happened, we believe, is the defining instance of God’s en‑fleshing of himself in our very lives, and this matters for the continuing shape of our lives. To believe that Jesus was the divine Son is not so much to ‘conquer’ the world with right doctrine as it is to declare what the world truly is: a vessel – even ourselves – which God has created to fill with himself.

To believe that Jesus – even ‘in the blood’ of the cross – is ‘true God of true God’ in the world is to believe that there is nowhere in the world which is alien to God, nothing which cannot be raised from the dead.

This is why we are to love not only the lovely but also those who it seems even love would do little good. Such love always seems wasteful, always appears as a throwing of good after bad. But this is not to say that such love is then an expression of kindness or compassion. As a throwing of good after bad, in the manner of God’s own work, our love of the unlovely is an experiment in resurrection. Is there really a passion stronger than death, as Solomon puts it in the Song of Songs (Songs 8.6)? A ‘Yes’ to this question is what marks the Christian.

The world, then, in its constant turn towards deathly things, is not conquered for the sake of the conqueror – whether us or God. It is conquered for its own sake. For the weapon in this struggle is love, and love conquers as much for the beloved as for the lover. God, then, does not conquer the world so much as reach out to gather it to himself; for the closer the world is to God, the more it is what God intended it to be.

This is the promise of the gospel.

And we ‘prove’ the promise – in the double proving of testing and demonstrating – in the love we show to those in need of it.

Once again, then, let us love one another. For nothing else will help.

[1] This occurs elsewhere in John; cf. John 3, where a contrast is drawn between being born of ‘water and the (s)Spirit’. There is also the reference in John 19.34f: ‘one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)’ That is it necessary to emphasise the truth of this indicates that the matter was very important in the understanding (and debates) in Johannine community.

10 June – Outwardly in decay and day by day inwardly renewed

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Pentecost 3

Isaiah 61:1-3
2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
Psalm 139
John 14: 1-14

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben

Friday’s issue of the online journal The Conversation led with an essay entitled ‘What might heaven be like?’  It was a mild-mannered survey of the way the images of heaven and hell have softened, been brought down to earth, and the vision glorious relegated to history books or possible the Bible. The author didn’t seem to think that one could hold these views all at once – as we do in worship, especially with hymns, though they too are becoming more and more pedestrian. The article encourages me to think (since this sermon was largely composed before I saw it) that some consideration of our eternal reward might be helpful to ‘Christians who think’.

It was the set epistle which offered my theme, Paul’s reflection on the decay of the body and the promised glory. I’ve replaced the other readings with selections from the Funeral Service, which, I remind you, is not to be miserable and mournful, not for Christians anyway. In fact, part of my motivation was also a funeral, one I attended in the cemetery at Numurkah, surrounded by glorious gum trees, a graveside event only, for a cousin with no religion.

His hearse was preceded by a polished red firetruck, and the liturgy was the CFA farewell, which has borrowed something from Freemasonry and something from the RSL, but the impressive thing was that the civil celebrant, himself a member of the CFA, avoided the temptation to introduce any myths in the absence of any for a secular funeral. Few clergy, and fewer people at a wake, can avoid these sentimental and death-denying absurdities like the dead looking down on us from ‘up there’, or our loved one having just moved to the next room, or whatever. It is remarkable how little the Bible has to say in detail, indeed it largely encourages us to be agnostic. The Qu’ran’s heaven is much more explicit– and inviting, if you are an Alpha-male!

So, let me lead you through one of the New Testament’s brief and succinct discussions of the subject.

16 No wonder we do not lose heart!’ says Paul.[1] And both Isaiah and John agree. Losing heart is a temptation, a test for everyone with a heart who ponders the condition of the world we live in. I need not elaborate. This is not the world God wants; this is not even near the reign of God, and yet we daily pray for the coming of that kingdom – which was the burden of the sermon preached in St George’s Chapel a week or so ago. Bishop Michael Curry set forth exactly what our trust in the love of God promises in terms of a world in which human beings live together justly and therefore peacefully, a world in which there are no more tears, no reason for tears, no more suffering, and – and this is faithful to Paul – God means this world, not only something in heaven waiting for us. Curry laid before the powerful, the wealthy and the privileged the true Christian hope. No wonder they were disturbed. It’s not British to say such things in a church.

So, to continue with Paul:

17 Our troubles are slight and short-lived, and the outcome is an eternal glory which far outweighs them,18 provided our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen; for what is seen is transient, what is unseen is eternal.

We often take this as a diminution of our troubles, as if they didn’t matter. But this statement was made by a man who, a handful of verses earlier in this chapter wrote,

‘We are hard-pressed, but never cornered; bewildered, but never at our wit’s end; hunted, but never abandoned to our fate; struck down, but never killed. Wherever we go we carry with us in our body the death that Jesus died…’ (4:8-10a)

These are the troubles he regards as slight, and he did bear the wounds of an apostle in his very body, the wounds of the Crucified. He is not speaking of the creaks and groans of increasing old age! This is a gospel for every living human person!

When Paul speak of the inner person contrasted with the outer, or the transient with the eternal, he is not speaking of opposites. It is this burdened body which will be healed, not some outer husk encasing the heaven-bound part of us. The whole of who-we-are is caught up in this journey from death to life, and not death to ‘after-life’.  Paul is quite clear that the body that is all-of-us-now does decay and will die; but whatever we need for our shelter and our flourishing beyond what we know and understand is already promised, and in the hands of our God – outwardly in decay and inwardly renewed:

5:1 We know that if the earthly frame that houses us today is demolished, we possess a building which God has provided – a house not made by human hands, eternal and in heaven.

And he has said earlier,

 14 for we know that he who raised the Lord Jesus to life will with Jesus raise us too, and bring us to his presence, and you with us. 15 Indeed, all this is for your sake, so that, as the abounding grace of God is shared by more and more, the greater may be the chorus of thanksgiving that rises to the glory of God.

(I like the ‘and you with us’14 by which Paul includes his recalcitrant Corinthian congregation!) So, we are not raised alone, but with a great company, a company which, as it has grown, has known God’s grace more and more – so our eternal end is not individual but communal (and ‘ecumenical’?). There will be transformed congregations in heaven!

Let me point out a pun in Paul. I’ll give verse 15 in a more succinct translation:

Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (NRSV)

The fruit of grace is thanksgiving. In the Greek, charis is grace, eu-charis-tia is thanksgiving. At the Lord’s Table, Sunday by Sunday, in our bodies, we give thanks with the sign of his body; we ‘make eucharist’, for the grace by which we are enabled to live our fragile and fruitful lives.

I have pointed out here before that the words at the giving of communion are: ‘The Body/Blood of Christ keep you in eternal life’. We have been in eternal life since our baptism, and every day, by grace, we have reason to be thankful, come what may. What we know in this fellowship, at this table, under this grace, is all we need to know for life and eternity. Part of God’s grace is to invite us Christians fitting-ourselves-for-the-kingdom-of-God to be washed in living water, and to partake of the bread of heaven. We need to be here, in this company, for this. To share the Spirit who, in Isaiah, promises,

to give [us] a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  [Isa. 61]

For whom

even the darkness is not dark …;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.   [Ps 139:12]

And the Son who promised,

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places…’ [John 14:1]

No wonder we do not lose heart!


[1] The translation read this morning, and quoted throughout here is the Revised English Bible, which updated the New English Bible in 1989.