I wonder how many of you did a “new thing” last Sunday morning, or were aware of others making a giant leap into the future, one which you also have made at some point in the past?
Personally, I think it’s really rather impressive that 142 of us here at St. Mary’s have used internet and mobile technology to comply with the church’s desire to make sure that “Everyone Counts”!
For many, the internet seems other worldly; a way of working in a different place. Some describe this other place as a “virtual reality”, something unreal, something perhaps a little dangerous. Granted, it can be, especially if misused or handled without care, but it can also be a force for good. In the case of the “Everyone Counts”church census, it makes the anonymous details of thousands and thousands of very real people across the country infinitely easier to analyse in detail, than might be possible with a paper questionnaire, and it helps the Church of England understand the character of the people of God it represents.
It shows in fact, that the internet is just as much a real place holding real information, as anything else that our God given, human ingenuity has created. It is no more unreal than the International Space Station orbiting, largely invisibly, above us. The internet is a real space that intersects with our own in a way that cannot be divided from our traditional earthly space, though some of us may, perhaps through fear of the unknown, try to keep that intersection to a minimum.
I wonder however, how much we also regard the Kingdom of Heaven as a virtual reality, an other worldly space; something perhaps more attractive than the world wide web, but still a space that we don’t really understand.
Perhaps most significantly, we don’t expect to inhabit this for ourselves until we die, when we hope we might become an addition to the heavenly statistics. The Kingdom of Heaven, it might seem, is a space that even
though we might try very hard to attain by being ‘good’, we’ve got even less chance of understanding and engaging with in this life than we have of understanding the internet.
The famous Beatitudes of our Gospel reading this morning, have been regarded as a list of ethical behaviours, and an encouragement and manual for discipleship. They are definitely not a series of truths about human behaviour, because we know for example that sometimes mourners do go uncomforted, and those who long for justice, often take that longing to the grave. Neither are they just a tick list of the attitudes that Christians should take to mark themselves out as suitable candidates for this other-worldly space we call the Kingdom of Heaven.
However, they are not so much good advice as good news, and they become easier to understand as good news if we can grasp that the promises they hold are not simply promises for some future heavenly experience we
live in desperate hope of, but are a declaration that in Jesus, God turned things upside down, and the Kingdom of heaven was inaugurated on earth, permanently.
We need to understand heaven as not a virtual, after death, reality, but God’s own space where a fuller reality exists, intersecting with our limited earthly reality in a way that can’t be broken. If the meek – those that humble
themselves before God because they realise their dependence on him and are therefore gentle with others – shall inherit the earth, they can’t do that if heaven is some disembodied after death experience. Do the pure in heart
– those amazing people we know who are pretty free form the tyranny of the divided self that is dependent on the influences and pressures of our own world – really only get to see God in the next life, when it seems they can
already see God in this one?
The clue is in the Lord’s Prayer, where we’re clearly taught, “thy Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.” God’s glorious presence, that we hear about in our passage from Revelation this morning, his merciful action in coming down from his throne in person to wipe away our tears, started in Christ, and continues in the worship and service that as Christians we offer him in this life, and will reach its highest fulfilment when what we now
describe as heaven and earth come fully and finally together, at Christ’s second coming.
So, the life of the realm where God is already King continues to be brought into this world through those people who have grasped the good news of this realm where God is already King, and made it a visible reality in
their day to day lives. The saints of Christian tradition, and of our contemporary society, are those who recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven is here: it is God’s space, the reality of his constant presence, offered freely for us all to inhabit, and in which we are able to respond by living
according to the example of Jesus.
Pick a saint, any saint. I have a particular affinity for the Celtic Saints, I think because of they lived close to, and attuned with, God’s creation. So, I’m going to pick, St. Cuthbert, a monk and bishop of humble parentage, described in the Northumbrian Litany of Saints as
a hermit and joyous worshipper;
man of prayer and spiritual warfare;
patient minister of reconciliation.
This identifies him as someone who recognised God’s Kingdom was present on earth, not simply through the vision he received in childhood, but throughout his life, and through whom God blessed others as he travelled
through the communities of Northumbria.
There are contemporary saints as well, though perhaps as yet unrecognised by that description. Canon Andrew White, better known as the Vicar of Baghdad, is one I offer as such. Living with the physical restrictions of MS,
he strives as one who mourns the suffering and misery of the world to seek its relief, whilst also hungering and thirsting after righteousness as he works globally for reconciliation between faith groups and seeks to see God’s peace triumph over the evil in the world.
As with the fruit of the spirit, the Beatitudes aren’t a pick and mix selection of behaviours, they are a natural response of those who ‘get’ that the Kingdom of Heaven has already intersected with this earthly space we inhabit. They are not something only attained by those we have identified as heroes of the faith and set up as saints, but are part of our spiral journey into towards the throne of God, as our endeavours to respond to him by exhibiting his character, lead us to receive more and more of those
promised blessings: “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy”.
Everyone Counts! We are all called by Christ to be saints; to recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven has been announced by him, and that it is not some virtual reality of the future, but a very real reality of God’s presence
intersecting with the world we live in. Whilst we continue to live in hope of the perfect future time when “people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, will stand before the throne of God”, we are called to do this ‘new thing’ in our own time, and live as saints in the current reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The background to this sermon is not simply our celebration of All Saints, but also the fact that were were selected to complete the Church of England’s ‘Everyone Counts’ survey in it’s electronic format, something that some of us at least felt we weren’t particularly well suited to. We were wrong on that. But it inspired this sermon.