Preached this morning at our very quiet Morning Prayer service. I find it difficult to understand the passage from Philippians well enough to preach from it, and grappling with it, has got me wondering about what heaven is. How would you describe heaven?
It’s all very well St Paul extolling us to strain ahead towards some goal or prize, but if we don’t know what we’re running for, it all becomes a bit pointless. In the previous part of Philippians 2, Paul has been talking about the resurrection – the chance to share in God’s gloriously risen life that we celebrate at Easter. That is the goal Paul sees before us – something that in our Bible’s is described as “being called heavenward”.
Now it’s tempting to think that those of us sporting a fairly high count of grey hairs, earthly wisdom and years, might be a bit further forward in this great striving towards a resurrection life with God. Those of us with fewer grey hairs, might well be thinking that we’ve got a lot more of the journey to run, and all those years of effort ahead of us probably seem a bit daunting.
But I don’t think that the image is quite right, not if we look carefully at what St Paul is saying.
Because of what Jesus did on the cross we are already living in the context of God’s grace. Paul says it in the very first verse that we read in this passage, “Christ Jesus took hold of me.” God made us right with him, drew us into a personal relationship with him, through Jesus death on the cross. It was a ‘once and for all’ job that God isn’t going to repeat.
I grew up with a miscellaneous collection of working terriers. Some of them we had as puppies, and we even bred puppies of our own sometimes. From a tiny age, we would pick them up by the scruff of the neck, place a reassuring hand under them, and get them used to being handled and loved in a way that didn’t make them feel threatened or pampered. It also made sure they knew who was boss, and got used to being told what they’d done wrong and what not to do again!
In Christ’s life and death, God sort of reached down, and grabbed us by the scruff of the neck, holding us gently but very insistently in a way that showed how much he loved us. Even though we’re free to go about the world seemingly alone, once we’ve accepted his role in our lives, we’re permanently God’s, looking to him for the direction and correction of our lives.
Christ’s resurrection though, gave us a new, continuous future, as well as all that. An additional hope. We believe Jesus was raised to glory with God, and that we are awaiting his return from that place of glory, so that we might find ourselves transformed into a similar glory in God’s presence.
So, we’re not just waiting faithfully until we die and go to be with God. Jesus is coming back for us, for that final glorious relationship where we shall know God face to face. That is the goal which St Paul saw as being set for us all, that final glorious resurrection relationship with God, at a point where there is “a new heaven, and a new earth.”
Being with God in glory, is our future, for which we are called by God, to live in the present. Our goal is ‘heaven’, which is not some ethereal place ‘up there’ but that final completing of our relationship with God. For me, that’s what I understand heaven to be; a complete relationship with God.
But God’s love and grace is so immense that we have it in part now, through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are living as many have put it, in the ‘now and not yet’; we already have citizenship of heaven through our existing relationship with God.
I wonder how greedy we are?
Now if you’re like me, you might be existing in the rather sinful hope that since the supply of rather exclusive, rich Christmas present chocolate is beginning to run low, that the Easter chocolates will be of the same quality and preferably quantity. But I wonder if we ever crave God like we crave good chocolate, or coffee, or whatever other food passion we might have?
Are we that greedy for God? Do we crave a perfect and complete relationship with God? Are we striving, and reaching forward for a better glimpse of heaven?
That I believe, is the goal that St Paul is talking about in this passage. He is asking us to be greedy for a better relationship with God. The Message version of the Bible puts it this way: Do we “want everything that God has for us”? (Phil3:15 MSG)
We have to make time to be greedy for God. Being here this morning is hopefully part of fulfilling today’s craving for his presence. As I know only too well, it’s easy to have our need for God crowded out by the busy-ness of life, but I think that’s why St Paul tells us to forget what is behind. You see he knew that we can always do better, there’s no point dwelling on our weaknesses, and how little time we make for God, because we can only get better at it. That’s why we need to place ourselves constantly facing forward, striving to do better, to be more greedy for heaven.
So, getting to heaven isn’t about our maturity in years, or the number of grey hairs on our head, how good we have been up to now at spending time God, or even the hope that God will take us out of the troubles of this life to be with him. Reaching for heaven is about how much we desire to have a complete relationship with God. In this earthly life as it is now we won’t attain it fully, but we do know what it’s like, and we can strive for that perfect relationship with God that is heaven, by seeking God’s presence more and more and more.