My sermon on heaven hinges on three texts. First, from the third chapter of St. John’s first epistle:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3).
Secondly, from 1 Corinthians 15, one of the most majestic passages in all Scripture:
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ ” (1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
And, finally, from Philippians 3:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)
Our Advent preachers have done a wonderful job so far, haven’t they? Most people probably would not consider the doctrines of Death, Judgment, and Hell to be “encouraging” topics, but that’s exactly what their sermons have been: wonderfully encouraging and genuinely comforting — in the true sense of comfort, which means to strengthen.
Paradoxical as it may sound, this is exactly as it should be. If reflecting on the Four Last Things does not leave you better encouraged to live for Christ today, you’re doing it wrong! That is because the Church is an eschatological community: though we daily live in this present evil age, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This heavenly citizenship — which is ours through membership in Christ’s Body, the Church — makes us a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9, KJV). Every rival loyalty must be submitted to the surpassing reality of our incorporation into Christ (Gal. 3:28-29; 1 Cor. 12:13). But this relativizing of other loyalties does not mean their diminishment — quite the opposite!
We love Jesus not by loving others less but precisely through loving them rightly. Saints Paul and Peter make it abundantly and repeatedly clear that loving your spouse, your children, and your parents, so far from being in conflict with heavenly citizenship, are in the fact the very ways in which we love Jesus. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 3 affirm that part of being a good Christian is being a good earthly citizen. These other loyalties are relativized not by being diminished but by being brought into right relation with our ultimate identity as members of the Church.
Problems arise not when our love for family or country becomes too great but when our love is disordered. And in this fallen world, these other entities — family, country — can and inevitably will at times demand that they be your primary loyalty, that all things be made subject to them rather than to the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is why Jesus can say, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). This is a much-abused and frequently misinterpreted passage. How does a Christian “hate” his own life? Precisely by giving it over to Jesus Christ — by dying with him in baptism, and by that very death being raised to new life! So too we “hate” our family, in this sense, by entrusting them to Jesus, by bringing our love for them into right relation with our love for Jesus.
Yet true Christian love may not satisfy others’ false expectations of love. St. Paul writes that “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Life that smells of death. Love that is received and experienced as hate. This is what it means to be a citizen of heaven in a hostile world.
Today I want to explore the biblical and Catholic doctrine of the Beatific, and to do so in conversation with two others: the resurrection of the body and the marriage of heaven and earth at the end of all things. I hope you will see that these are not only future promises; each of them is also a challenge to live now in a certain way as citizens of a heavenly kingdom.
Or, as Father Glenn put, my job today is to provide (and I quote) “an all-encompassing, yet specifically attentive and responsibly executed sermon on the four last things while also gently pulling back the veil and exhibiting before our yearning eyes all that the Ancient of Days has prepared for those who love him!” (So no pressure.)
Traditionally, Catholic theology describes heaven as the Beatific Vision — beholding God’s face. To be honest, the first time someone described this to me, I was… underwhelmed. “You mean to say that in heaven we’re just going to… stare at God?” My problem was that I did not have eyes to see or ears to hear (Matt. 13:15-16).
As Romans 1 and Psalm 19 and a host of other passages tell us, all creation unceasingly testifies to the Creator — if only we had eyes to see. Perhaps you have heard the saying, “All truth is God’s truth.” That is absolutely right, and if only we had eyes, we would also see that all beauty is God’s beauty, and all goodness is his goodness (Jam. 1:17).
Which means that to enjoy what is beautiful is in some sense to enjoy God. To love a person is to love God. Every truly enjoyable moment, every experience of peace, contentment, joy, pleasure — these are all faint hints and shadows of the fullness of God. This is the promise of heaven, the Beatific Vision: every good thing, drawn back to its source, which is God himself.
This vision is thoroughly rooted in biblical passages about seeing the face of God. In Exodus 33, we find both that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (33:11), but also the Lord telling Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (33:20). Similarly, Jacob declares after his divine wrestling match that “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Gen. 32:30). The most beautiful of Old Testament benedictions invoke the blessedness of God’s face — think of Aaron’s priestly blessing, “The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num. 6:25, KJV) or the Psalmist’s prayer, “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and show us the light of his countenance” (Ps. 67:1, BCP 28).
The most radical of these Old Testament passages, perhaps, is Job’s marvelous moment of prophetic inspiration that pierces through the veil of his suffering: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).
The New Testament both clarifies and maintains an ambiguity about seeing the face of God. When St. Philip asks Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This is so because, as St. Paul later explains, in Christ Jesus “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). The advent of Jesus allows us to see God’s face.
That we continue to behold God’s face now, after Christ’s bodily Ascension into heaven, is possible only through the power of the Holy Spirit — which is why I asked Ken if we could sing the Veni Creator as the sermon hymn. Outside of Pentecost, this 9th-century Latin hymn is traditionally also sung as we call on the Holy Spirit to be present at ordinations and confirmations and on the seasonal Ember Days (such as this past week). But it is certainly appropriate at any Eucharistic service too, since we will soon ask God to “bless and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit, these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine.”
And it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that, as the hymn says, “we the Father learn, / And know the Son, and thee discern, / Who art of both; and thus adore / In perfect faith forevermore.” Although those who are of the world cannot see it, St. Paul tells us that, by the power of the Spirit, Christians perceive “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6).
And a still greater glory awaits!
St. Paul tells us that even now we behold “the glory of the Lord” “with unveiled face,” and “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). But he also says that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Consider also the first passage I read today, from St. John, and note the shifting between future and present tense:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
“We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” — but also, right now, “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
Every single one of these many references — Old Testament and New — indicates a profound truth of Christian formation. Transformation occurs through beholding God’s face. Throughout the Gospels, we find people sitting at the feet of Jesus. Think of Martha’s sister Mary, who chooses the better portion and the one needful thing (Luke 10:38-42), or the woman with alabaster ointment, who “wet [Jesus’] feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet” (Luke 7:37-38). These are hints and shadows of the Beatific Vision, and if we wish to experience heaven here and now, we must learn to sit at the feet of Jesus.
As you abide in Jesus and feed on him in Holy Communion, as you pray and read Scripture, as you learn to love his creatures and his creation well, you will begin to experience a foretaste of heaven right now. You will see your desires become transformed, so that you can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 38:4).
As creatures beholding the face of our infinite Creator, this transformation will continue forever, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). That’s why, in just a few minutes, we will pray for the “continual growth” of the faithful departed. This prayer indicates the current status of the faithful who have gone before us: they are with Christ. Yet they have not achieved their final destination. Why not? If they behold God’s face even now, as Scripture indicates (Luke 23:43, Rev. 14:1-4), what could they possibly lack?
The body! To be present with Christ now means absence from the body (Php. 1:21-24). It is hazardous to theorize too much about this so-called “intermediate state” — after death, but before the resurrection of the body. But we can be sure that it will end. St. Paul indicates that those in heaven, though “unclothed” of their bodies now, will eventually be “further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4)
“For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality”
We are not, in other words, souls trapped in bodies. We simply are bodies, and we are souls too: dust of the ground and breath of God united. These bodies of ours are not superfluous fleshy containers of what really matters. Our bodies are, rather, the creation of God Himself, incorporated as the very members of Christ’s mystical Body here and now, ultimately to be resurrected and glorified in the life of the world to come.
And so it is not just our thoughts and beliefs and feelings that matter. Our physical actions matter — not just the healthy choices we make for our own bodies, but the choices we make with our bodies. You and I — each of us who have been baptized are now members of a sacramental organism, the Body of Christ. We are truly knit together. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). By our actions, we either contribute to the flourishing of the Body, or we defile it (1 Cor. 6:15-20).
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
Soon we will pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In praying this prayer, we look forward to the eschatological marriage of heaven and earth described in Revelation 21. But we also dedicate ourselves to doing God’s will and serving the kingdom of heaven here and now. At the end of the service, we will be sent out proclaiming the kingdom in the final verse of our recessional hymn: “Yea Amen! Let all adore thee, / High on thine eternal throne; / Saviour, take the power and glory; / Claim the kingdom for thine own: / Alleluia! / Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.”
For unlike those whose “minds” are “set on earthly things,
“our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”