I’m yet to see the movie or read the book, Heaven is For Real. The subject does interest me. A child has a near death experience, travels to heaven, encounters Jesus, and relatives he never knew. He returns to tell his story. Dad writes it into a bestseller. Many skeptics and even some Christians dismiss it as fairy tale. I like the title, though, and I imagine Jesus would, too. For the past weeks Matthew has fed us a diet of Jesus’ take on heaven’s reality.
The kingdom of heaven is like – what? What ideas about heaven do you carry from childhood, that is, if you grew up going to church? I learned heaven is a destination where you go when you die. You’d better obey the church, the pastor, and your parents to get there. If you fail, you could spend eternity in a place where people wail and gnash teeth – like at the Milwaukee Bucks’ games last season. Sin is central in this scheme, and we’d be toast had Jesus not suffered and died, thus paying our debt to God – and incurring divine wrath on our behalf. So, thank God Jesus rescues us. Believe and accept him, and act above average, so as to escape the other destination – hell.
Many who’ve grown up in the church tell me they outgrew these teachings long ago. And well they should. They’ve found the Gospel is much richer, deeper, more abundant and generous, than avoiding God’s wrath. I don’t recall Jesus ever says: “God so loved the world he’s sent me to deal with your sorry souls and keep you out of hell.”
If someone asks what the gospel means to you – or, “Tell me about the Kingdom of heaven,” what would you say? First, contrary to what we may have learned, the kingdom is a present reality – not a future destination, in terms of a place. It’s a state of being with God. It’s here, yet to arrive fully. Heaven comes upon us now as we reach for union with God. Jesus says it’s like a sower, weeds and wheat existing together, a seed, yeast, treasure, pearls, nets, and the like. Heaven appears in ordinary, earthy stuff – not somewhere from afar, even at wedding parties, and welcoming a wayward, sin-filled child home, scot-free, just because – well, he comes back. One image cannot convey its complexity and richness. It’s this, this, and even this. Jesus paints numerous word pictures. Call it kingdom of heaven, kingdom of God, God’s reign – all point to the same reality.
The kingdom grows from meager beginnings – like the tiniest seed – a seed God plants in you and me, and everyone. It grows and spreads. And one day that tiny seed is a huge tree, offering shelter and rest. Jesus says birds flock to it – an Old Testament symbol of God’s welcome to all people and nations, Jews and Gentiles, those with faith and with little or no faith. That tree is like the church in its better moments. Like yeast it will and grow rise within us – hidden, and often beyond our notice. It secretly transforms us, the earthy, sinful and ordinary – and through us rises into and leavens the world.
The kingdom other times draws so near we stumble over it, like treasure surprisingly found in a field. Doesn’t seem to bother Jesus to counsel us to hide the treasure before anyone finds out, cash in our stocks, and buy that field from the unsuspecting owner. In a way, the treasure owns us. When it finds us, by accident or grace, we act. Forget ethics – well, not really – but we give up all to get it. Other times, we know what we’re looking for – and when we find it – like a priceless pearl, we’ll sell the house, car, and our first born to get it. And the kingdom is like a net catching fish. We don’t know what’s really in it. Not to worry. Keep the cod, tilapia and salmon – throw out the puffers and skunk clownfish. We are not called to sort out – God will. We are people, not fish – and only God sees our True Selves – more than the self we manifest to others. God sees us as beloved and priceless, and wants us to see others that way – which would be from heaven’s vantage point, not the world’s. To never know God’s love or trust God’s love is hell. And then to find out what you’ve missed – hell squared. The job for us who experience this kingdom is to love others into this new state of being – experiencing God – through our love for God – and them. That’s heaven – on earth.
If all this sounds crazy, it is. The kingdom of heaven invites us to dare, to dream, to journey together for God’s sake. That’s why soon we will embark on a process to talk with each other – the result of the V.I.V.A. process: values, identity, vision and actions. We’re going to talk about: “Why’d we come to St. Paul’s? Why do we continue coming? What can we yet be – for ourselves so that we can better serve others?”
An old friend and mentor died in 2002. The Rev. Bev Cosby started a church in Virginia in the early 50’s. Many big, successful pastors wouldn’t give him the time of day. His church stayed small because it took Jesus seriously, more than some Christians are ready to do. You see, Bev had this crazy notion the church of Jesus Christ exists not for itself but for the sake of service in and to the world. His church would side with the last, the least and the lost, as did Jesus. When a homeless person couldn’t find shelter one winter night, Bev remembered the holy family couldn’t either. That seed sprouted into residences throughout the city for homeless men, women, and children. That seed also got planted in the heart of a bank president. Vince quit his job to run a shelter and a job training program for addicts. He leaves a good pension, security, and health insurance – to serve those God’s closest to. He told me one evening, you find the treasure that’s already found you, and let go of what you think matters, to live for what you now see matters eternally to God.
Heaven is for real. I’ve seen it, and so have you. We will lose sight of the kingdom sometimes. We get down and discouraged, but we’ve glimpsed it. In the abyss, that glimpse is our grace and hope. That yearning that won’t go away – the kingdom of heaven is like – finding union with a divine love, that’s been with you all along.