All Deals Are Off

Sunday 26th November 2006
Year B, Christ the King (The Sunday next before Advent)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Daniel 7:9-10; 7:13-14
John 18:33-37

New places never quite turn out the way we imagine. There are the obvious cases of the holiday brochure and the estate agent blurb which do their best to emphasise the advantages of a place without quite breaking the law; but we are wise to these devices and proceed with caution. As long as the holiday venue is halfway between the brochure's claims and our guarded assessment it will be worth the money; and when it comes to buying a house we take a great deal of care to check the agent's claims. To know a place fully, you have to be there.

But not everything is so cut and dried. No amount of praying, reading and imagining could have prepared me for the indescribably profound spiritual experience on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land of kneeling at Calvary nor, conversely, for the ramshackle Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the poor, girder defaced sepulchre itself. To know these things in all their richness and complexity, you have to be there.

If that is what happens to us in real life we can be sure that no amount of praying, reading or imagining will help us to anticipate how we will feel in the Heavenly Kingdom. Yet from Daniel, in today's Reading, to the Book of Revelation, to Dante, the picture is remarkably consistent: there is a palace of unlimited size and splendour, all gold and jewels; there are interminable ranks of the great and the good, Apostles saints and Martyrs (mostly men but with the Virgin Mary accorded varying degrees of honour, depending on your theology); and the kind of interminable ritual that would bring a smile to the face of the highest Catholic liturgist. Of course, everybody knows that there is a place there for the poor and the weak but they don't figure in the pageantry.

These word pictures were then given immense richness of outlook and ease of access through Renaissance painting; so that what we think of as Heaven is largely the result of our visits to art galleries. The picture after the Reformation was much more difficult to visualise, not least because many theologians spent much more time thinking about Hell than about Heaven and Protestant artists were much more comfortable painting city councillors or peasant women with jugs than angels and saints; but we do get a picture in Milton's great works about the celestial beyond and, again, it's a cross between the pagan Mount Olympus and an earthly royal court.

The Victorian sentimentalists added a new dimension, giving special prominence to suffering gentlefolk and prematurely deceased children but by then the idea had become so culturally degraded that Heaven and hell are now opposite poles of atheist and tabloid caricature.

Going back, then, to our imaginations, I suspect that what we have in mind when we think about Heaven is a place where we live in a serene, unending relationship with God; but I suspect, too, that we think of this as a quintessentially orderly experience. We forget that Peter was a somewhat chaotic fisherman, jumping out of boats and falling over his own feet, and instead we think of him as a cross between a prep school head teacher and a Maitre d', assisted by a choir master and an army of prefect angels, dispensing goodies, of course, but also subtly keeping order, something like a Catherine Jenkins summer evening picnic concert but with unending champagne and no rain.

But wait! Remember the Magnificat; how the mighty are put down from their seat and how the humble and meek are exalted; how the hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. Didn't Jesus say that the rich and the powerful, the well set up and the virtuous would find it difficult to get into the Kingdom of Heaven and that priority would be given to the poor and the weak, the people who need a physician, who pay their bills late, who get into terrible muddles, who despair of their lives and their families, who become addicts and criminals. Perhaps the Heaven experience will be dominated by the indecisive and the disorganised, with lots of improvisation, spontaneity, dancing and singing, a carnival not a procession, a happening not a liturgy, a tangible expression of love rather than an idealised, ethereal experience; not like the Savoy at all but real ale on tap and fish and chips without end!

Who knows; but to know we will have to be there. Still, we can say that in the Kingdom of Christ the King we can expect the experience to be Christ-like. Much more intense than anything we will ever experience or imagine in our spiritual lives here on earth but still recognisably Christ-like: struggle transformed into solace; suffering into joy; sacrifice into completeness; penitence into affirmation. This is the kingdom, anticipating our year of Luke, of the lost sheep not the static sheep, of the self confessed sinner not the Pharisee, of the Good Samaritan not the Levite, of the Prodigal Son not the stay-at-home brother, of Lazarus at the gate not the man dressed in purple, of the repentant thief not the sentencing magistrate. We are safe, comfortable, ordered, modestly virtuous people: cheque in the post, seat on the committee, pound in the box, nearly new in the charity shop sort of people. We sit in our splendid robes high above the hoodie and the hoodlum, far away from the addict and the arsonist, in a different world from the dealer and the hooker. But to understand fully, we have to be there.

And if we are not there, we will be ill prepared for the Heavenly Kingdom, even supposing we sneak in because we have not completely squandered the opulent hand which God has dealt us. The best way to prepare for the disorienting experience of the Heavenly Kingdom is to realise it imperfectly and in part here on earth: to see the horror, to feel the shaking, to smell the fear, to be totally taken up in the desperation of shortcoming, to beg for forgiveness without a bargaining chip in our hand, with no claim to special consideration, with no favours to call in.

All deals are off. There is no deal to be done. There are only, as long as we live, faltering but unconditional love and faltering but unconditional penitence and, behind them, the questions: when did we struggle; when did we suffer; when did we sacrifice?

There is still time. With Jesus there is always still time. There is time for the stiff to dance; there is time for the proud to kneel; there is time for the fence-sitter to stand. There is time but we have to hurry; nobody else can live this for us; we have to be there.