Tolpuddle and Puddletown
Sunday 5th November 2017
Revelation 7.9-17; Matthew 5.1-12
What do you think heaven will be like?
Are you expecting to have a place there?
Do you ever stop and think about where you are heading?
Someone in one of the benefice churches, who shall be nameless, recently expressed an opinion that heaven might be boring. But I think that’s only true if we limit our vision of it and of God.
Yes, we have pictures in our mind of angels sitting on clouds playing harps – which most of us can’t do – or some of the biblical pictures like the one in today’s reading from Revelation where countless multitudes spend their days and nights worshipping God continually.
These images may not seem that appealing from our earthly perspective where our love for God is limited and our minds are on many different things.
And our perspective of time is also different from that of God’s kingdom where past, present and future are held together as one.
I don’t know how many of you have experienced loving someone else in such a way that nothing matters except being with them. There is no need to do anything particular, and time seems to stop, all that matters is being together.
I think heaven will be like that: everyone, when they see God in God’s fullest glory, will not be able to resist joining in with the worship and praise because of their love.
I don’t think anyone will be in heaven who doesn’t want to be there.
Those who are worshipping God in Revelation’s picture have been through suffering and have come out the other side, having been washed by the blood of the Lamb, and are praising God because that is what they are moved to do.
The Festival of All Saints’, which is what we are celebrating today, reminds us of various things. Yes, we can think about the specific people named as saints – Peter, Paul, John, Mary and so on – but we also remember the countless unnamed saints – Christian people who have lived and died and entered heaven. And we draw strength and boldness from the fact that we are united with them.
Our vision is not eternal or omnipresent; we are limited by our sight to the things of this world, but that is our limitation not God’s. We are one with the saints and angels even though we cannot see them. They are with us all the time.
Michael Perham, a former Bishop of Gloucester, who came to live in this diocese before he died on Good Friday this year, was adamant that when we pray we are never alone because we are always united with the saints and angels.
I find that really helpful particularly when saying Morning Prayers in our churches as I do each day, on the days when I am disappointed because no one has joined me to pray.
Of course, I’d like it if other people felt called to come and pray with me in their church for our benefice and its people as some do, but the knowledge that when they don’t I am joined with the saints and angels at prayers has really helped transform those times when I am sitting in an often cold church on my own.
We are part of that whole, and that is one of the things that All Saints’ calls us to remember.
We are all also called to sainthood.
There are far more un-named saints in heaven than those whose names we know, but their work is no less precious to God. The named saints can motivate us and urge us on to greater holiness but so too can the unnamed ones.
Sainthood doesn’t mean perfection in this world – none of the true saints would ever claim to be perfect. Like many of God’s people, true saints are those who are fully aware of their unworthiness; it’s why they recognise their need for Jesus.
What saints do know is the love of God, and they open themselves to God’s transformation within them.
What makes a saint is Love.
It starts with the love of God for us. God whose very being is love. God who shows us what that means in the person of Jesus.
There is nothing we can do to make God loves us more or less than God does. But we can choose to embrace that love or to reject it.
The saints are those who know the love of God. And that is why the multitude gathering around God don’t get bored because being in God’s loving presence is enough for them. It is what they have looked towards during their earthly lives.
How do you react when I say the words “God loves you”?
What do they trigger in your heart and mind? Thankfulness? Fear? Awe? Humility? Amazement? A sense of inferiority? Doubt? Unbelief? Relief? Do the barriers in our souls go up or come down?
Just think for a moment how you respond when you hear those words: God loves you.
That is the starting-point for our spiritual lives. We will never be able to love God or others properly until we can receive the love that God is.
And, when we begin to receive God’s love, we learn the truth of the three things that encompass everything God calls us to: to love God, to love each other, and to love ourselves.
Loving God is hard which is why it needs to start with allowing God to love us.
Loving God demands sacrifices of us. It demands putting God first in everything and ordering our lives around that, not letting God have the space left when we’ve fitted everything in.
It demands being in tune with God when we order our diaries and our financial affairs. It demands following the path of Jesus every minute of our days.
It means allowing God into our hearts, and letting go of all that troubles us.
It means trusting that the God who loves us will never let us go whatever faces us and remembering that ultimately in God’s time and in God’s kingdom all will be well.
And that’s where it’s helpful to remember that this world is not all there is, that God’s vision covers all time and all places not just the boundaries of this world and our time scale, that there will be a time and place for us when the Shepherd leads us to the water of life and God wipes away every tear from our eyes.
Loving God leads us to loving others, for we cannot be truly loving of God if we destroy and hurt his people.
Loving others means working for their well-being, for justice and peace and welfare.
It means learning to be generous with what we have been given, it means showing the fruits of the spirit to others love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.
It means going to their aid when needed.
But remember it doesn’t mean infantilising them, doing everything for them and not allowing them to also grow and transform.
Sometimes loving others can be hard because we have to let go and let them be themselves. Just as God does with us and weeps when we make mistakes or refuse to receive what he gives. It means carrying those who are truly broken while helping them to step forward and become the people God made them to be.
What enables us to do that is keeping one eye on what is to come. C. S. Lewis, in his classis Mere Christianity, wrote this: “Hope is one of the theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.
“It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.
“The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
It also means loving ourselves – something many Christians find hard because we have been taught how we must put God and others first from the time we were very young.
If we cannot love ourselves, we are saying to God that what God has created us to be is unloveable. Until we accept that we are loveable, we cannot receive the love of God for we shut it out, believing that we are unworthy.
We become a door-mat on whom others trample.
How we live out these three loves in practice is a skilful balancing act. In order for us to stay in tune with God and to receive God’s love, we need time and space for God alone, but God is with us wherever we are and whatever we are doing.
Part of receiving God’s love is to allow ourselves to become more aware of God’s presence at all times and in all places. As C. S. Lewis wrote in another book: “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with him.”
Serving others is important, whether we are called to serve God through our families, through voluntary or charitable work, through our parishioners, through our time and money. It is about helping them to flourish and we so often find that we flourish too when we are enabling others to blossom.
But if we are to serve others well, we need to love ourselves too, to make time for being creative, for receiving from God and others, for our tanks need filling too. God longs for us to flourish too.
 Mere Christianity (Harper Collins, 2001) p. 133
 Letters to Malcolm Letter 14