Sunday Week 4 of Easter Year C

This week I experienced a deep personal trauma—I turned forty. Now for half of you this evening that’s all in the past and no big deal and for the other half it’s still far enough away to forget. But forty crept up on me unawares and bit. I hadn’t been expecting it—hey, what’s another birthday … I’ve got to the age where I’ve stopped counting. But I should have seen the attack coming when I started to get calls from well-wishers hoping the shock of ageing wouldn’t be too great. “No big deal,” I said.
But then the day came and I had promised myself a day off from writing my dissertation so I lounged about and tried to enjoy the sun and the breeze and the time to myself. But as the morning wore on I found myself getting more and more morose—sadness like a comfortable blanket wrapped me and with it self-doubt and loneliness. Forty! Remember how old forty once looked to the teenager with eyes only for the endless possibilities of life? Forty! With life half over and the possibilities all petered out. Forty! And still in school! Forty! And still struggling to write papers!
“I, John, saw before me a huge crowd …” Tradition has it that the same John wrote the book of revelation as wrote the gospel of that name. John the subtle, the sensitive. John, for whom community and companionship meant so much. John, of all the gospel writers the one at home in the city. John the beloved. John the preacher of love.
Now, the tradition has it that for punishment this John was exiled, cut off from his community and those he loves, and sent to Patmos, no more than a bleak and nondescript lump of rock in the Mediterranean with only sheep and their herders for company. But it is here that John is granted visions of heaven. Alone, he sees a huge crowd in heaven. From his monotonous exile, he sees people of every nation and race, people and tongue. Defeated by inglorious exile, he sees the throng of martyrs who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. Hungry and thirsty and beaten by the burnished sun, he sees a place of fullness, and cool with springs of life-giving water where God will wipe away every tear.
This is John’s vision. An answer to his longing, a gift in his distress. It is indeed revelation, a lifting of the veil. Because, of course, the heaven that John sees in visions isn’t just the reward awaiting him after death, it is, in faith, the life he is living if he could but see it, if the veil that clouds his vision could just be lifted. Just so the John of the gospel writes about eternal life but in his own Greek tongue those aren’t the words at all. The words he writes are “the life of the next age.” When John’s Jesus says, “I give them eternal life,” he is not talking about a promise of what will be but promising a transformation of what is. Right now, by Jesus’ gift, we can have eternal life, the life of the next age, the life of heaven.
So exiled from civilisation, John still lives by the vision of the heavenly city. In desolate silence, John still worships in the heavenly liturgy of praise. Never again to see those he loves, John still feels their presence around the throne of God.
So what is your vision of heaven? And what does it speak to in your own life? What are you longing for that Christ longs to grant?
Hitting forty—having been hit by forty—I see that heaven must be a place where all the lost time is somehow made good, the missed opportunities somehow ripened to fruition, and the aborted possibilities somehow brought to term.
Where all of that—the essence of forty—is somehow in God’s hands and healed and made whole. And if the life of the next age holds that promise then maybe so does my own when I lift the veil. Maybe school will end. Maybe a dissertation will be written. Maybe it’ll even make a difference in the balance of things. Maybe … if I lift the veil.