June 16, 2015 by Worship, Community, Formation
I don’t know what heaven would be like, any more than anyone else does. But I do understand that it will have a pretty close relationship to this present earth. There are moments that Jesus makes it sound as if the Kingdom of Heaven might simply grow on this earth, like a great oak from an acorn; or even that this has in some sense already happened, through his advent in Galilee and Jerusalem (an idea known as ‘realised eschatology’).
How can we possibly look at the mess of this world and imagine it as heaven? Surely this world is in such a state as to need an apocalyptic climax, a sweeping away of earth and a complete replacement? Surely nothing less than a fresh start could redeem it?
Well that’s God’s judgment, of course, but we need to be confident that either possibility could be within reach of a God who can do anything. Jesus does speak of apocalypse in the synoptic gospels, but he was much more likely to turn to parables of growth and wonder when it came to getting the message out. Christians who limit themselves to believing in an apocalyptic end also limit their imagination of what God might be able to do, and by doing so they risk limiting their own response to God’s call. It’s no accident that many of the parables, and the actions, of Jesus are extremely imaginative and ask for an imaginative response from their hearers. As his followers, we can’t allow our own lack of imagination to limit what is possible for God.
So, ‘what if?’ is a great question for a Christian to ask, because it helps us imagine how we can seek heaven before an end time. ‘What if’ the Kingdom of God is indeed close at hand, as Jesus says in Mark 1.15 – that foundational scripture: close at hand in time and space – just a step away. What would that step be? How could we imagine that?
Some would imagine the same world, in which everyone was Christian. Some might imagine a world in which every government was Christian.
Here’s a third way: to imagine the same world, changed in just this single fact: every community in it has become eucharistic. Not just every church, but every shop, school, factory and office; every family and every friendship group.
In such an imagination of heaven, the world rattles on along its same temporal path, but in this ‘new heaven and new earth’, any group of people that meets with a purpose also knows how to take part in the Eucharist.
Such a vision starts of course with the church, which has celebrated the Eucharist to a greater or lesser extent for all of its existence. Although for long periods it has seemed not to understand what it was carrying, it’s rarely stopped actually carrying it. To the church falls the business of remembering (some like to say ‘re-membering’) Jesus week after week. How good it is at doing that is another question, and varies from community to community; but in its semi-faithfulness, the church still today holds open the possibility of Eucharist for every other place in which people congregate around a mission.
At the moment, pretty much the only type of Eucharistic communities that exist are local churches. That’s true to such an extent and for so much of our history that we can’t readily imagine anything else. But why not? From the church, we can dream outwards: what if other communities longed to re-member Jesus in their mission?
We could easily imagine that some communities – hospital wards, schools, perhaps – already have a mission readily compatible with the Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God, but perhaps in our imagination we can go a step futher and even believe that God longs for these communities to be blessed by divine love and attention in a form that is largely Eucharistic. Jesus, on hearing a stranger healing in his name, says simply ‘Do not stop him, for those who are not against us, are for us.’ Christians in recent decades have had to learn repeatedly and painfully from liberalism that they had lost their radical and compassionate edge. We must be grateful and humble for that, but the response is not to become liberal, but to go back to our own radical resources, of faith, hope and love, of unwillingness to judge or to harm or to leave others out; and in doing so we shall rediscover rich resources of our own to offer back to society once again. Resources that are locked up in the practice of Eucharist.
A new earth might simply be a transformation of the old earth, in which every school and shop, every GP surgery and hospital ward, every office and every depot, every taxi rank and every plane flight – every assembly of people for a purpose – could celebrate the Eucharist. To imagine this recognises that already when people meet, they do so in the age old ordo that is also the underlying pattern of the church’s worship:
- sending out (in mission)
as I illustrated in a recent post on conferences. This pattern is latent to some extent in much human gathering, from team meetings, through airplane flights to shopping trips. Eucharist does not change the pattern, but enriches and frees it, makes it sacred as well as secular. (More on that in a future post, I think).
Maybe this is a bit far-fetched for you. You won’t be alone. For many, even those who read this blog, this imagining will be beyond the pale. They will see too easily the many obstacles on the journey. They will, justifiably, ask ‘what-about’ questions instead of ‘what-if’ questions. ‘What-if’ questions make things imaginable. ‘What-about’ questions make things practical. But only if we know where we’re going. Sometimes you have to imagine, first.