One of the appealing characteristics of Father Benson, but also surely one of the more baffling for many, perhaps also for you, was his grasp of a heavenly reality, in the midst of a worldly existence. We know the famous story of the old woman, when asked is she could understand his preaching responded, that gentleman just opens heaven to me, and I can look right in.
Over and again, Father Benson calls us to an awareness of this heavenly reality. He writes, [do] I realize to myself that as I pray, I am truly in heaven, and that I ought to be experiencing the joys of heaven? If we would but look to heaven with more consciousness of present joy therein, we should find its power to set us free from earthly difficulty.
It is this consciousness of the present joy of heaven that was a motivating factor in much of his life. Reading Philippians, as we do today, he would have been perfectly comfortable with the notion that our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
In this Gospel passage and elsewhere, Jesus speaks about our resurrection from the dead as a promise. Jesus speaks like a Pharisee. Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in bodily resurrection in the “age to come.” That’s about hope for the future, what the church calls “the hope of heaven.” I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, there’s something unique about Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Our resurrection is not just a future event; resurrection is for now. Resurrection informs or reforms how we live today. Saint Paul called it “resurrection power,” in the here and now.[i] Resurrection power. Resurrection is about hope for the future and about power for the present.
In the last 50 years or so, three novelists have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and beyond: C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels. All these stories have one theme in common. Power. The exercise of power, the need for power, the source of power. Why the “power” theme has so captured the attention of young and old alike is not because people are powerless. It’s not because these tales give us an imaginary respite from being overwhelmed by the powers that be. It’s much more the opposite of that. Power is of our essence, though many people do not recognize or accept this: their own power. We have been given power.
One day, a little boy was walking home from Sunday school, lost in thought. As he walked, he kept thinking about something the teacher had said, something that didn’t seem to make any sense. When the little boy got back to his house, he decided to visit his grandfather, whom the boy considered very wise. He found his grandfather working in the yard, pulling weeds from the garden, and, without any preamble, the little boy asked, “Grandpa, what’s hell like?”
The boy’s grandfather looked up from his work, wiping his brow with a gloved hand. “Why do you want to know,” he asked.
“Well, the teacher was talking about heaven and hell in school today, where good people and bad people go, and…. I was just wondering what hell is really like.”
His grandfather paused, and turning to face the boy, closed his eyes for a moment. “OK,” he said, opening his eyes, “it’s like this.”
“In hell, there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in hell are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”
Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through ages of ages. Amen.
You will know the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We have before us an icon depicting God, the Holy Trinity, whose description is beyond words. This icon was actually painted (or “written”) by our own departed brother Eldridge Pendleton.[i]The icon is in the school of Andrei Rublev, whom we commemorate today. Andrei Rublev, born around 1365 near Moscow, became a monk at a young age, and is generally recognized as Russia’s greatest iconographer.[ii]
Some of you may come from a tradition where icons – these windows to God – were very much a part of your own religious formation. For some of us, icons offer new and inviting ways to gaze on God and God’s company. For others of us, icons may seem to skirt the Old Testament prohibition against creating “graven images.” We read in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath…”[iii]However if we read the Scriptures backwards, that is, to take our experience of Jesus Christ, and then look backwards in the Scriptures, we have a new reading of the old. The New Testament Letter to the Colossiansbegins with a description of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God.”[iv]The actual Greek is, “He is the icon [eikon] of the invisible God.” Jesus puts a face, a body, a name, a heart, and hands to the otherwise “invisible God.” Jesus is the icon of the invisible God.
We don’t pray to the icons. We pray in their presence. Rather than always closing our eyes and folding our hands in prayer, we lift up the eyes of our hearts in the presence of an icon. Icons feed the imagination in a very good way. The word “icon” has, of course, been added to our online vocabulary and use. So be it. The ubiquitous use of “icons” in marketing only shows how powerful a “capturing image” can be. There’s no reason for the word “icon” to be completely coopted. We can share. Keep the traditional use of this word, icon, as an important word in the vocabulary of your soul.
What’s heaven going to be like? Do you ever wonder? Have you ever had any glimpses of heaven? For me, one of the times I’ve glimpsed heaven has been those wonderful meals you share with really good friends, where you eat and drink and chat and laugh for hours and hours, and it seems just a few minutes. And you never want the meal to end.
And in Scripture, heaven is very often described in terms of a great meal – a feast – a banquet. And so in our readings today. “On this mountain,” writes Isaiah, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine.” And then in our Psalm today, Psalm 23, we read those lovely words, “You spread a table before me…You have anointed my head with oil and my cup is running over.” And in today’s Gospel we have this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”