It is sometimes said of Christians that they are so heavenly-minded that they are of no earthly use. And perhaps there is something in that.
And it has to be said that the clergy don’t always help to challenge that stereotype. You know the type, the absent-minded vicar, other-worldly, going about in a fog of incense and esoteric hymns, forgetting meetings and rarely replying to emails. If you want anything done, don’t get me to organise it. If you want me to preach a sermon at it, no problem. Swing incense at it, sprinkle holy water on it, pray for it, that’s all fine. But the practical side, organising things, making things happen, I need help with that. So heavenly-minded that we are no earthly use.
And the reading we’ve just heard from the Book of Revelation might seem to play into that stereotype. Here we have an extraordinary account of a vision of heaven. “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” That’s all well and good, you might think, but it’s not going to help me pay my gas bill.
Those Christians, daydreaming about heaven, but little practical use in this life. But there is of course another side to the story.
We can all think of examples of Christians who have made a practical difference to people’s lives – people’s earthly lives, leaving questions about heaven to one side for a moment. We might think of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa, people who have stood up and challenged injustice, people who have cared for the poor, people who were prepared to pay even with their own lives to make life better for others.
And there are numerous less well-known, less dramatic examples of ordinary Christians going about making their own corner of the world better. Think of how many food banks there are being run out of churches up and down this land. We have one right here in Henley. And also in Henley we now have the Henley Churches Debt Centre, dedicated to helping people weighed down with the burden of debt; and there are many other such centres run by churches in towns right across this country.
And then of course at this time we think especially of our late Queen. She was not, it is true, one of the radical Christians of the twentieth century. Her vocation was a very different one from that of Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was not her calling to challenge or to shake things up. And yet in her own way she showed how a life sustained by Christian faith could make a profound difference to others.
She modelled virtues of duty and service, of care and attention to both big and small things. She embodied continuity and stability at a time when many felt that the world was moving too fast for them. And she worked jolly hard, right up until the end. Quiet virtues, perhaps, but vitally important to our nation.
So how do we connect the supposed Christian preoccupation with heaven with the lives of those Christians who in so many different ways make a difference in the world around them? How do we connect the vision heard about this afternoon from the Book of Revelation, how do we connect this vision with the desire to make a practical difference to the communities in which we live?
Our late Queen was always very clear, and I think the more so as she got older, our late Queen was always very clear that it was her Christian faith which sustained her in her life of service to this nation, and that it was that same faith which was both the bedrock of her values and her support through difficult times. To believe that we are in the hands of a loving God, to believe that at the last we may by God’s grace approach the heavenly city where every tear shall be wiped away, where all things are made new, to believe in these things is profoundly liberating. Or at least it can be, or should be. If we believe that we are in the hands of a loving God, if we believe that our lives are bound up with the life of the Risen Lord Jesus, then we should be able to sit more lightly to the worries and anxieties of this world. And that should free us to think more of others, to give of our time and our energy and our gifts for others, to pass on to others that love which we have received.
But there is something more that we can say.
Those of you who were in church this morning will have heard a passage from John’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks of those who believe in Him having passed from death to life. In John’s gospel and throughout the Christian tradition there is an important sense in which eternal life is not only for tomorrow but also for now. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is among us, it is very near us, it is even within us.
And so for Christians, the beautiful heavenly city is not only something we long for in the future. It is our inspiration and our joy in the here and now. This great vision of love and justice, of beauty and healing, is something we are realistic enough to know cannot be perfectly achieved in the imperfect conditions of this flawed world that we know and love. And yet we hope to catch glimpses of the kingdom of God in the here and now, and we are called to work to help to bring that about.
For most of us, it will be in modest ways, trying to work for good with the little group of people that God has given to us, trying to be a help to our families and friends and neighbours and communities. For others, it will be a much bigger endeavour, as it was for our late Queen.
William Blake put it very well in his famous poem when he spoke of building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. We are not heavenly-minded in order to distract ourselves from the troubles of the world around us. Rather, we should seek to be more heavenly-minded in order that we may be of more earthly use. We should seek to trust more deeply in the promises of God so that we can give ourselves more freely in the service of others, inspired by the vision of the new Jerusalem.
This afternoon we commend Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth to the care of the God in whom she believed and trusted, praying that her dwelling place may be in that holy city of which the book of Revelation tells us. And we commit ourselves anew, as our tribute to her, to give ourselves for our families, our friends, our neighbours, our communities, and our nation, praying that by God’s grace we may catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God in the love and the beauty we see growing around us.
In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Preached: Sunday 18th September 2022