Elysium – Rev. Henry Brinton (audio available)
A movie called Elysium has just come out, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. The title comes from ancient Greece, where people had a particular view of the afterlife. In Greece, the place called Elysium or the Elysian Fields was where the righteous and the heroic went after death.
So Elysium points us to heaven, and gets us thinking about what heaven is all about.
One common view of heaven is that it is a perfect place, free of disease and pain and suffering. The movie Elysium picks up on this. In the movie, the Earth is like a dangerous slum and Elysium is a luxurious space station. The people living in misery on Earth all want to move to this heavenly place.
The problem is, you have to be rich to live on Elysium. Residency is not based on being righteous or heroic. If you are wealthy enough, you can enjoy a luxurious life on a space station, with access to medical machines that offer instant cures. If you are poor, you remain stuck on an overpopulated, disease-ridden Earth.
The plot of the movie revolves around the character played by Matt Damon, a factory-worker who is given a cancer virus by an industrial accident. Unless he gets to Elysium in five days, he will die. He tries to force his way onto the space station, which puts him in conflict with Elysium’s tough Secretary of Defense, played by Jodie Foster.
For Matt Damon to be saved, he has to get to heaven.
For thousands of year, heaven has been seen as a place that is above us. This was true for the apostle Paul when he wrote the Colossians, and it is true for the makers of the movie Elysium. Earth is seen as a place of disease and death, while heaven is a place of health and everlasting life.
There is misery down here and happiness up there.
This understanding is supported by a number of recent reports about what life is like in heaven. A medical doctor named Eben Alexander had a near-death experience in which he says he visited heaven — a place filled with angels, clouds, and departed relatives, including a beautiful girl who Alexander discovers to be his dead sister. He reports this experience in his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.
Another book, called Heaven is for Real, tells a little boy’s story of histrip to heaven and back. The boy, named Colton Burpo, had an emergency appendectomy, and later told his parents that he left his body during the surgery and visited heaven. He met dead family members, and saw angels, Jesus, and what he describes as a loving and a “really, really big God.” In heaven, says little Colton, “Nobody is old and nobody wears glasses.”
I find that kind of funny. I have worn glasses for so long that I don’t think I look like myself without them.
So how do these visions match your own picture of heaven? Think of a word or a phrase that describes your impression of paradise. Disease-free, like Elysium? Angels, clouds, departed relatives? A really, really big God? Nobody in glasses?
I would like to come out into the congregation and hear from you. Give me just a piece of your picture of heaven.
What I find interesting about Paul’s letter to the Colossians is that he does not see heaven as a place to escape to, as Matt Damon escapes to Elysium. Instead, Paul sees heaven as a place to prepare for.
He begins today’s passage by saying, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
Older translations of the Bible (King James Version, for example) used to say that Jesus was sitting “on the right hand of God,” which led to jokes about God being left-handed. Why does he have to be left-handed, you ask? Because Jesus is sitting on his right hand!
Bad jokes aside, Paul tells us that each of us has been raised with Christ — raised with Christ not just after death, but right now! We each have a new life that comes from believing in Jesus, and in the forgiveness and new life that he offers. And as people who have been given new life, we are supposed to have a certain focus in our lives today.
So what do you think the apostle Paul meant when he challenged us to “seek the things that are above”?
Paul suggests compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, thankfulness (vv. 12-15). These are the qualities that we focus on when we “seek the things that are above,” in the place where Christ “is seated at the right hand of God.” When we put these qualities into action, we are preparing for life in heaven.
I know the importance of this kind of focus from my own attempts at running and cycling. The way I prepared to run marathons was to go out several times a week and run. I would prepare by doing longer runs each week: Six miles, then 8 miles, then 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 and 20. By the time I reached 20, I knew I could handle a full marathon of 26.2 miles.
Same for cycling. I can complete a 100-mile century ride only by cycling a number of hours each week, and then ramping up my mileage as I approach the event. I have become a runner by running, and a cyclist by cycling.
The same is true for the Christian life. We prepare for heaven by practicing the qualities of heaven. We get ready to live in a paradise of compassion by being compassionate. We train for kindness by being kind. And we get ready for humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and thankfulness by putting these words into action.
Paul goes on to say that you should “set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (vv. 2-3). He is saying that our real life is not found here on earth, but that it exists in heaven, hidden with Christ in God. As we set our minds more and more on heavenly things, then our daily lives become more and more like our true lives in heaven.
So, how are we changed by setting our minds on heavenly things instead of earthly things?
In a story called “The Happy Hypocrite,” an evil man falls in love with a saintly girl. In order to win her love, he covers his bloated face with the mask of a saint. The girl is deceived and becomes his bride, and they live together in love and happiness until a woman from the man’s past turns up to expose him. She challenges him to take off his mask. Sadly, he takes it off. But under the saint’s mask is now the face of a saint. He has been transformed by wearing — and acting out — the mask of love.
The moral of the story is that the more we act like Christ, the more we become like Christ. Setting our minds on heavenly things actually transforms us into more heavenly people. “In that renewal,” says Paul, “Christ is all and in all!” (v. 11).
Here at FPC, by focusing on Christian hospitality, we become a more welcoming congregation. By focusing on mission, we become better able to shelter and feed the homeless. By focusing on reconciliation, we find creative ways to build relationships with our Muslim neighbors.
When we set our minds on heavenly things, we become more heavenly people. Where have you seen this happening in our congregation?
Finally, what difference does this focus on heaven make in our lives today?
Unlike Matt Damon, I don’t think our goal is to escape the difficulties of live on Earth and move quickly to some heavenly Elysium. Instead, it is to work as hard as we can to make Earth a more heavenly place.
We are doing this right here at FPC, where our vision is to be an uncommon Christian community, one that embraces all people with God’s love and grace. This love and grace is a gift of God, one that we experience ourselves, and that we are privileged to share. We have found that our earthly existence is changed when we set our minds on the things that are above: love, grace, compassion, kindness. We feel more at peace with God and with one another when we believe in these qualities and act on them.
We live in an increasingly broken and contentious world, one that is marked by impurity, evil desire, and greed. And so our job is always to replace these characteristics with more Christlike qualities, and to believe that our efforts will make a real difference.
When we set our minds on the things that are above, we bring a little bit of heaven to earth. That was true for Paul and the Colossians, and it is true for us. Amen.