November 1, 2020

Imagine There’s a Heaven

Rev. Stephen Hollaway

Revelation 7:9-17


John Lennon’s song Imagine is a song that seems to be everywhere. It’s at the Olympics; it’s at charity fundraiser concerts; it’s sung at 9/11 memorials. Not only was Imagine Lennon’s best-selling solo song, but Rolling Stone named it #3 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The BBC named it Britain’s #1 favorite song lyric.

That’s a bit startling to Christians if you pay attention to the lyrics. You probably remember how it starts: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today.” Lennon goes on to imagine a world where there are no countries, no religion, and no possessions. Therefore, it will be a world that is at peace, since wars are caused by nationalism, religion, and greed.

But it’s significant where he starts: “Imagine there’s no heaven.” As if the concept of a heaven is the root of human evil. It actually doesn’t take any imagination to think that there is no heaven. You just take at face value what your eyes and ears tell you. You can’t see any heaven. You don’t need to imagine it away, because you can’t see it to begin with. In fact, it requires imagination to see heaven at all. What Christianity calls us to do is to imagine that there is a heaven, to imagine that the world we see is not all there is, that there might actually be another realm or dimension where God’s will is actually done—as we say in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1) Paul says in Second Corinthians that “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (4:18). And Colossians urges us, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is.” The King James Version of the next line is “Set your affections on things above, not things on the earth” (3:1-2).

Part of the Christian calling is to exercise imagination and to live as though invisible things are real. Imagine that there is a heaven—which is not as easy as settling for the mundane view that this physical world is all there is. When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we are praying that this other realm, this other dimension or level of reality, where God is present in a more direct way than in our reality, would somehow drop down or invade this earth, that God’s will might become our everyday life on this planet. The Christian who has discarded the two-tiered view of the world in an attempt to demythologize finds herself unable to understand either the liturgy or much of what has been written by Christians through the centuries.

All Saints Day, perhaps more than any other day, calls us to reflect on the reality of the heavenly realm. It is a tradition to remember those who have recently died, whom we believe now continue to exist in heaven. But in a broader sense, All Saints is a celebration of all those who have gone before us and continually dwell in light in God’s presence. The word “saint” in this context, and in the New Testament, does not mean extra-special people of holiness and miraculous power. It simply means a believer, a Christian who has been “sanctified”—made holy—by what Christ did on the cross. If you are a believer, you are a saint. The saints that gather to worship in heaven are not some elite group of specially called ones, but rather the whole company of all who have been called to faith in Christ by the grace of God.

In Revelation 7 we have one of several visions of worship in heaven. That seems to be most of what is going on in that realm, according to John, an early Christian prophet. He has already seen 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel, but now he sees a much, much larger crowd that no one could number, and they are incredibly diverse. There are worshippers from every nation, every tribe, every ethnic group, every language group. They are all standing before the throne of God and beside it the Lamb who looks like he has been slaughtered—the crucified Christ. They are all wearing white robes, to show that they have all been made pure by Christ’s sacrifice. They are all waving palm branches as symbols of a great victory. They are crying out or singing, Salvation belongs to—or comes from—God and the Lamb. That word salvation means rescue and liberation and being made whole. Because God and Jesus have rescued us and set us free and healed us, we praise them.

Down in verse 15 one of the elders explains that these people in white robes are continually before the throne of God and worship God day and night. On All Saints we remind ourselves that there is this other congregation worshipping at the same time we are. In the Book of Common Prayer version of the Lord’s Supper, just before the Sanctus the celebrant says, “With angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy holy name, evermore praising thee and saying: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are full of thy glory.”

This idea that we are participating in the worship going on in heaven is the basis for the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, as an Orthodox priest explains in the paragraph in your bulletin as a meditation. If you look at the building of the Greek Orthodox church a few blocks north of us, you’ll see four Greek words carved into the stone over the entrance. They say “The House of God, the Gate of Heaven,” which is a reference to Jacob’s ladder, but more than that it means that God is present in that building, and when you come into worship you are entering heavenly worship.

We are never worshipping alone, but with all the saints—including those we loved who have gone on before us, but also with this great multicultural, multiethnic congregation above. They may have white robes, but they are not white people. The people we worship with who happen to be in another dimension come from every ethnic group and every nation and every century.

When you come into First and Franklin, or when you log into Zoom, do you have this sense that we are worshipping with all kinds of invisible people in another realm? Would it make a difference to you to know that it is not just us, this relatively small number even in the best of times, but we are sharing the experience of heaven and joining together with saints and angels as well as humans in the Church spread around the globe? I know why we revised the words to the version of the Doxology we use at First and Franklin. We want to be inclusive and not refer to God in a way that implies male gender, and besides, Holy Ghost is archaic. What I miss about the old version, though, is the explicit reference to the two layers of reality at worship. You remember how it went. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below, praise him above ye heavenly host.” That’s a theme you find in several of the Hebrew psalms—all you creatures on earth, praise God! and all you angels and other heavenly beings we know little about, praise God! Let it happen up there and down here simultaneously.

This awareness requires imagination. Do you think we modern people are up to it? Have we so flattened our world into two dimensions that we can’t imagine another world above? Have we been convinced by skeptics that what you see is what you get, and this is all there is? I hope not. Faith is the conviction of the reality of things unseen. We fix our eyes not on what we can see but what we cannot see. There is a realm of reality above the one visible to us. We just say “above” as a convention, but of course that other world is beyond, in another dimension, as science fiction says, or in a parallel universe.

There is a children’s story I love about humans who could not see that there is a world above. You probably know C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, but if you’re like most people you never got beyond the first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The story I’m thinking about comes in a later volume called The Silver Chair.

            Two human children and a tall, lanky creature called a Marsh-wiggle are on a mission to find the lost Prince of Narnia. Their journey takes them to a dark world which exists entirely underground—castles and passageways all build in the rock and inhabited by people who have never seen the sun, and in fact do not believe the sun exists. A Witch rules over this world and she has taken the Prince of Narnia captive. She tells the Prince that there is no Narnia, that he is delusional, and he has only imagined the sun. But every night at midnight, the Prince goes into a fit and has to be strapped into a silver chair. In this fit, the Prince suddenly remembers Narnia and becomes aware that he is really a Prince—and that’s why the Witch wants him strapped down so he will not escape. But when the fit passes and the Prince comes to, the Witch assures him that he was momentarily insane, but now he is sane, at home in the dark world. We know as readers that the period of insanity is the only time he is actually sane and oriented to reality.

“Narnia?” the Witch asks the Prince. “I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

The Marsh-wiggle says, “Yes, there is, Ma’am. I happen to have lived there all my life.”

“Tell me, I pray you, where that country is.”

“Up there,” says the Marsh-wiggle stoutly, pointing overhead. “I don’t

know exactly where.”

“Oh,” says the Witch, “you mean there is a country up among the stones and mortar of the roof?”

“No,” replies the Marsh-wiggle. “It’s in Overworld.”

“And what, or where, pray tell,” the Witch asks, “is this so-called Overworld?”

The boy Scrubb, trying to fight off the sweet smell of the spell she was casting, said, “Oh, don’t be silly. As if you didn’t know! It’s up above, where you can see the sky and the sun and the stars.”

But gradually with strumming music and a magic powder she threw on the fire, the children and the Prince begin to succumb to a spell. At first they debate, but then they say, “I suppose that other world must all be a dream.” Repeating after the Witch, they say, “There never was such a world.”

The Marsh-wiggle is still fighting hard. “You’ll never make me forget Narnia. I was there once. I’ve seen the sky full of stars. I’ve seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And I’ve seen him up in the midday when I couldn’t look at him for brightness.”

The children and the Prince awake from their spell and argue with the Witch. But after a while the spell takes hold again and all three of them are repeating after the Witch, “There is no sun. There never was a sun.” And they are drifting off to sleep.

To rouse himself, the Marsh-wiggle tries to stamp out the fire where the magic powder is burning, reducing the sweet smell, and hurting his foot enough to make him awake. The Prince and the two children awaken, too. Then the Marsh-wiggle gives this speech to the Witch:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. That’s a funny thing. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies making up a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.

“That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m going to live like a Narnian even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland.”

The question for us on All Saints Day is whether we will fall for the lie that there is no other world—even if it’s told as a way to have world peace. Will we believe that there is no sun and no God, that there is no kingdom to come, that there is no worship going on except by our feeble voices? Or will we be those who see the invisible, who find strength in the knowledge that there is another realm which will be our home, and that our very worship this hour is being accompanied by saints who have gone before and all the company of heaven?