In his book The Difference Heaven Makes, Christopher Morse notes that, among other things, heaven in the Scripture is conceived of as Community. This is a community that includes angels, beings, and the Host of stars and suns. It is, in fact, a politeia.
But that is not all. Heaven also includes us. We are a part of what Morse calls the ‘commonwealth.’ Paul the apostle announced that our ‘citizenship is in heaven.’ Here’s what he writes:
Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:19-21, my emphasis)
Is Paul saying that we have already gone to heaven? Do we already live there? Well, yes and no. I do think there is more to come, but in the meantime we have tasted. Morse goes on to offer salient comments relevant to this passage of Scripture. His comments are pointed and get to the heart of what the church seems to have missed in her longing for better days in some mystical heavenly place where float on clouds and play harps.
“For example, the announcement that ‘our commonwealth is in heaven’ sounds as if God’s dwelling, or, so to speak, God’s whereabouts, is not in isolation but with a blessed company of creaturely wellbeing whom God chooses not to be without. This is similar to the communal note of the Old Testament texts that tell of a heavenly host. In this instance, moreover, what is added is that those addressed by Paul’s announcement are told that they themselves, at least in some respect, presently belong to this heavenly commonwealth. Furthermore, the announcement that ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ extends the metaphorical import of this reference to include news of where the current rights and responsibilities of the hearers in their earthly situations now come from. The hearers’ right to exist on earth, the legitimacy of their being who they are and where they are as God’s creation upon the earth, is said not to derive from any earthly authority but from an authority coming from heaven. A somewhat similar note also occurs in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where those faithful to the Gospel are told that their true freedom currently derives, not from any authority exercised, or status conferred, by the present, earthly Jerusalem, but from ‘the Jerusalem above.’ This community of a heavenly Jerusalem that, like Sarah, is said to engender and legitimate a faithful following of God’s promise now on earth is in this second instance referred to by Paul as ‘our mother’ (Gal. 4.26). One may conclude that any listeners, then or now, struggling for survival, whose legitimate right to exist is being denied or seriously questioned by the principalities and powers of the present age, might receive this announcement as good news. (18-19, my emphasis)
It’s a long quote, yes, but it is so important in helping us understand the why and how and what of our lives. Our citizenship is in heaven and that is good news. God himself has something to say about our lives and our safety and our purpose and our very right to live and breath and have our being. Our rights are guaranteed not by force of political action or by the might of military power or by the force of human rhetoric. Nor can they be taken away by such either. Our legitimate right to exist comes from a heaven–that one place in this created order that no man–no matter how powerful or wealthy–will ever corrupt or defile or consume.
And I do believe this is news that we should proclaim loudly–especially among those whose right to exist has been denied or questioned by the principalities and powers of this present age. I suspect there are many folks for whom such a life is a daily existence. It’s not wonder then that Jesus spend so much time on the periphery, the edges. I think Barbara Brown Taylor’s complaint is justified:
If I developed a complaint during my time in the wilderness, it was that Mother Church lavished so much more attention on those at the center than on those at the edge. (Leaving Church, 175)
The offer of the Gospel is the offer of a citizenship in a new kingdom–a kingdom of justice and love; a kingdom, again, uncorrupted by the principalities and powers of this world. And those on the edges are the very ones who are likely to be most receptive to the announcement of a citizenship whose legitimate rights cannot be co-opted, corrupted, or defiled.
The news, whether we may view it as credible or not, becomes that our help is in the name of the One who does make any situation we face on earth, however threatening or devastating, to be without the overarching forthcoming of an unimpeded dominion of love and freedom. (Morse, 17).
Citizenship indeed. Jesus has the power that enables him to bring everything under his control. And here is where I will let Morse have the last word because what his writes is not without power and beauty and should challenge every idea we have that heaven is simply a place we go at some point later in life or death. Heaven is too important to wait, its power too massive to control, its concern for justice too overwhelming to wait for us:
Running through all these varied references to heaven as a community is a recurring not heaven’s proximity to what is currently happening on earth. This should not go undetected. Contrary to more conventional projects of a ’sweet by and by’ reserved for later, it sounds as if a company of heaven is somehow involved, even indispensably involved, in what is actually taking place here and now. (Morse, 20)
Kind of gives new meaning to the prayer we are to pray: On earth as it is in heaven.