A few years ago the comedian Ronnie Barker died, and had a humanist funeral. However, because he had made such a mark on comedy, he was also granted a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. This included a recording of his own sermon in Cockney rhyming slang. And when the processional cross entered, it was accompanied not by the usual two, but, inevitably, by four candles.
I find it interesting he had both a humanist ceremony and a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. I don’t know what Ronnie Barker himself believed but the combination of events seems to sum up something about our times – a culture where many people are not sure if they sign up to Christianity but still want to hold on to parts of it. Perhaps especially what we celebrate today – the Christian hope of life beyond death.
Apparently in 2012 just a third of funerals were Church of England. It’s probably less now. Where have the others gone? Interestingly people aren’t seeking as an alternative the challenging rigour of a fully humanist funeral – humanists believe this life is all there is and don’t have prayers or anything about God. Instead what we see is more and more civil celebrants – people who let you have what you want – including prayers and Bible readings.
In other words, many people in our society may have lost touch with organised religion, they may not want what they see (perhaps wrongly?) as the formality and doctrine of a traditional funeral, but they do still want religious sentiments and hope.
The belief that there is something after this life runs very deep. It almost seems instinctive – even 100,000 years ago Neanderthals were burying the dead with goods they hoped would be handy in the afterlife.
Maybe they shared that human experience of foretastes of heaven. Where you or I might suddenly receive glimpses of glory. Times when the curtain is drawn back, and we sense God near, and feel, yes, heaven’s like this.
It may be walking with the children through ripples on a sandy beach, feeling completely at peace and free from care. Being taken out of yourself in worship, knowing God close in prayer. In the midst of grief, the sudden certainty that Granddad is with Christ whom he served, and Christ holds me too. Finding immense camaraderie and acceptance at the disability roadshow – no one stares and everyone is accepted for who they are.
You may have had your own times, or thin places. A fleeting glimpse of glory, when the moment is so brilliant and full of life that you wouldn’t mind if it lasted forever. In our own experiences, there are many pointers to the Christian hope. Yet it is also quite easy to wander away from the Biblical truths and into all kinds of modern myths. For the popular beliefs about heaven and what happens when we die are often very far from Christian belief. When we turn to the passage we had today from Revelation, there are four big surprises.
In Revelation chapter 21, v1: ‘then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.’ If you’re reading the Bible, and you see the word ‘then’ it’s a good clue that what has come before will help you understand. And what has just come before has been the destruction of evil.
My computer got a virus once. It infected virtually everything. I didn’t know if or when it infected the back-ups either, so I couldn’t work from them. I had a difficult decision to make. I could give up on the computer, and start afresh. But if I did that, I would have lost my files. Years and years of work, all my contact details, everything.
Or I could go through the whole lot. Manually remove the source of infection. Search for copies and delete them. Go through everything with a virus checker, quarantine anything suspect and check it. It would be a huge undertaking, but if I wanted to save my data, I had to do it.
Remembering that helps me in small way to understand why God’s love and judgement go together. God loves each one of us immensely. He loves the creation he has made and he wants to heal it from all that has gone wrong. He could make a completely new start, wash his world clean, but love doesn’t want the wholesale destruction and loss that would involve.
Yet if God lets just the tiniest bit of sin into in his new creation, like a virus it will spread and spoil everything. So before there can be a new creation, there must be a judgement, where evil is destroyed. That’s what judgement is: a holding to account, a purifying, a necessary prelude to a wonderful transformed world. If we cling to sin and refuse to be separated from it, we shall be washed away with it. If we trust in Christ, and allow him to take our sin to the cross, we find it has no lasting power over us. This belief in the hereafter urges us to place in our hope in Christ now.
The second surprise is in that little phrase ‘I saw’. What’s so remarkable about that you might ask? Simply this – that it is John who sees this. He remains himself. He’s not absorbed into some great of chain of being. John’s life does not become a droplet in the ocean. He’s not extinguished, snuffed out like a candle. Nor is he reincarnated, coming back as a demi-god or, if he’s been bad and the karma isn’t good, as a slug.
No, the Bible shows that we shall be recognisably ourselves, recognising one another. Yes, as St Paul teaches in Corinthians, we shall have new bodies. But they will be our bodies, where the physical still matters. When Nana dies there is not a new star in the sky. Nana has not got her angel wings, she has not been turned into something else. In Christ, she will be herself. Truly herself. Free from pain, healed, yes. But herself.
Because the physical matters. The Christian hope is not about escaping this world. It’s not about becoming spiritual and leaving the physical behind. The Christian hope is about a world transformed, God bringing healing to his creation. A new heaven and a new earth.
Which is also why we have our third surprise. In v.2 ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. What might we have imagined? The Bible starts with a garden, in Eden – might we have expected to end up back in Paradise? With all the works of the fall undone and life restored to what it would have been? The Old Testament speaks of every man under his own fig tree and next to his own vine – a rural Utopia.
But Revelation shows us that there is a city. A human community made perfect. It’s not going back to Eden, but making something good out of what has happened. We can see something similar in Revelation where the saints are given white robes to wear. Genesis speaks of the first people being naked, it says clothing covered up their shame after the Fall. So if clothes were originally a result of sin, and there is no sin in heaven, wouldn’t people in the new creation be naked? No.
God does not ignore human history. God does not undo everything that has happened. He redeems it. Be comforted that God heals our mistakes. Rejoice that he gives our history a new meaning and makes it whole. As the hymn puts it ‘those wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified’
Final surprise? Revelation doesn’t describe people ‘going to heaven’. God comes to us. The fleeting experiences we have of the divine become permanent. God is the source of our life, and in closeness to him we have life eternal. So be challenged by this reading, be comforted, be inspired, be unashamed.
Verses 3 to 5 are just so utterly brilliant I can’t resist quoting them in their entirety to end: ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying ‘See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more; for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said ‘See I am making all things new.’