Acts 7: 55-60 Ps 31:1-5, 17-18 1 Peter 2:11-25 John 14: 1-14
Every Monday morning I read the bible readings for the following Sunday so they can be percolating in my brain as the week goes on. Sometimes they trip me up, like those pesky disciples on that flippin’ road to Emmaus a couple of weeks ago. Other times they catch me unawares and unexpectedly, and occasionally they feel like something of a security blanket. The familiar words from John’s gospel, we heard just now, have fallen into that last category.
Yesterday I was in the Supreme Court Gardens in the city, in the rain, with Mareena Purslowe Funeral Directors, speaking at their memorial event for Mother’s Day. And I echoed these words for those that gathered there… In my father’s house – in heaven – Jesus says – there are many rooms…and I am going there to get them ready, and then I will come back and take you there so that where I am, there you may be also.
And because of this – I reassured them – even in our deepest sadness, we can have hope…because we can dare to believe that the place where they have gone is perfect – that our loved ones are free from pain and sadness and confusion. And one day we will be together again.
On Thursday I was at the funeral of a beloved friend and colleague, Belinda, who had died of cancer, aged just 51. Although she hadn’t chosen these particular words for her service we inevitably reflected on her sure and certain place in heaven. She knew, and we know, that Jesus had gone to prepare a place for her and that, from that hospital bed, in her final moments, he came and took her to himself so that where He was, so Belinda would be also.
I know these words so well. I use them over and over at funerals, every single time. They are one of the few bible passages I can quote off by heart; they are so firmly in my head and soul.
So it was interesting that, whilst sitting in the doctors waiting room on Wednesday afternoon, I was visited – via the sound system there – by the 20th century prophet, Belinda Carlisle; that American singer from the 1980s who taught us the very important lesson that, in fact, Heaven is a place on Earth.
They say in heaven, love comes first – she sang – we’ll make heaven a place on earth. Ooh, Heaven is a place on earth
And so it is that I’m looking at these familiar words from John’s gospel from both sides. Yes, we do believe that in our Father’s house there are many rooms – many dwelling places – and we believe that we will be taken there when we die and that we will be with our God, forever, and that the place we are going to is full of light and life and all good things. And, in heaven, love comes first.
But why should we wait? Why would we spend all this life, all these 9 or more decades, just marking time, taking up space, idly waiting for the day when everything will be better – waiting for the day we die – where we will be surrounded by perfection or holiness or extravagant beauty, or whatever other words we want to prescribe to it? Why would we wait when we could be living that life now?!
You know the way to the place where I am going – Jesus says. It is me, he says. I am the way. You know how to get there!
Friends, Jesus was speaking to his disciples before he died. Before he had defeated death and cleared the way to this new world where death no longer has the last word. But we are resurrection people! The time of waiting is over. The work has been done. We can live in the fullness of these promises right now.
And don’t we always pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’?
Do we believe that is possible?
What does God’s Kingdom look like on earth?
And what are we doing to become the answer to that prayer?
As well as food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless…
As well as clothing for the naked and company for the lonely…
Perhaps it is also a church, doing her bit to love this planet and to live lightly on it.
Perhaps it is a place that throws open its doors and says come and eat here – you are welcome – all are welcome.
Heaven on earth looks like freedom for the slave and safe refuge for those experiencing violence in their own homes, and then keeping on working until it becomes a place where slavery is abolished, and relationships are flourishing.
Heaven on earth has open borders and access to education for all.
And at this table, and in this collar, all are invited, and nobody is excluded, regardless of academic achievement or how they identify or who they love.
Yes, Jesus is going to prepare a place for us. But isn’t it always true that we should be emulating what Jesus teaches? Doesn’t it then follow that we should be preparing a place for others – for our children and grandchildren, for the outcast and the stranger and the asylum seeker and those who are in any kind of need. And that place should be here on earth, rather than a pie-in-the-sky promise for when they die.
Love comes first, Belinda Carlisle sang. We’ll make heaven a place on earth.
That 1980s hit was gimmicky, with an annoyingly catchy tune, terrible hair, and dreadful eye makeup. But she was onto something.
Jesus’ final challenge in this morning’s gospel passage was for his disciples to ask for anything in his name, and his heavenly parent would give it to them, with the corresponding promise that we would do even greater things than he had done. So are we prepared to ask for heaven to be built on earth? And then do the even greater thing of being the ones that help to build it. Amen.