The Four Last Things

Just on the edge of Dartmoor, about a half hours drive outside of Exeter is the home of the Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon.  It’s a beautiful place, old thatched barns re-purposed to provide chapels, meeting rooms, accommodation and lovely places of welcome for those who go there to find the space to reflect and recover.  In the past two years I have been twice and on both occasions to lead retreats. So, in the last week before Advent, I was there to lead a retreat which I had called ‘The Advent of Eternity’.  It was based on what are known as ‘The Four Last Things’, a traditional Advent meditation on heaven, hell, death and judgement.  They are tough subjects, but rich ground for contemplation and discussion – and over the week we did both as we took each of these ‘things’ in turn, and in listening and in worship looked at what these meant to us as we also studied the awesome paintings by John Martin that can be found in Tate Britain.

The Last Judgement 1853 by John Martin 1789-1854

‘The Last Judgement’ by John Martin

 

Like most right-minded people I have been horrified by the reaction to the Revd David Coles’ death and the messages that his partner, the Revd Richard Coles, has received from so called Christians.  I am ashamed of those who could write to someone in grief to say that they hoped that their loved one was ‘burning in hell’. What such expressions of what can only be described as a warped understanding of Christianity reveal is the depths of homophobia that continue to exist in parts of the church, the inability that some have to ever accept the Good News that Jesus both is and brings and the lack of common humanity in the cold stony hearts of some of our sisters and brothers.  Richard, existing as he does for part of each week in the media and having a high profile on social media, is bound to attract attention, and not all of it positive, of course.  But this cruel reaction makes me think of those powerful words from the book of the prophet Zechariah

‘And if anyone asks them, ‘What are these wounds on your chest?’ the answer will be ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’’ (Zechariah 13.6)

But I know that the wicked people who do such cruel and sinful things are a very very small minority of Christians, but they have the capacity to destroy lives and to seriously hamper the work of the gospel. Our prayers at Southwark Cathedral have been for David and with Richard.

But having spent a week with others thinking about those ‘Four Last Things’ it makes me wonder what kind of view of heaven some people have.  The simple question is, how big or how small is heaven?  Is your heaven so big that all humanity can find their eternal home in it, or is your heaven so small that few will be admitted there.  And, if the latter is true, do I even want to be in such a heaven – though I know that according to the beliefs of some there is no place in heaven for me.  At one of the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations’ on sexuality a very nice person sitting next to me turned and said to me, in front of everyone else, ‘You know you cannot be saved.’  I thanked them for their courage and honesty and assured them that I had always and would always rely on the mercy of God; there is no firmer ground on which I can stand.  Yet those words remain with me though because, of course, that person may be right and I might simply be deluded by a liberal, inclusive reading of the Gospel.

So I was glad to read something written by the 19th century Danish Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.  He said,

‘If others go to hell, then I will too.  But I do not believe that; on the contrary I believe that all will be saved, myself with them – something which arouses my deepest amazement.’

As we stand at the advent of eternity that is something for me to hold on to.  Heaven, hell, death and judgement, there is real truth in all of them but there is even greater and more fundamental truth in what we will be preparing for over these last days that lead us up to Christmas.

In a stable in a small town in way off Palestine a young woman will give birth to a baby.  And she and her husband will name him Jesus, just as the angel had told them to, because he will save his people from their sins.

That is the truth come from above as we glimpse eternity in God’s gift of God’s self, heaven is open, hell is destroyed, death is defeated and judgement becomes the consuming fire of love.

God of our eternity, God of our now,
bring us to heaven
save us from hell
carry us through death
forgive us in judgement
and all for your love’s sake.
Amen.

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