A teacher was trying to find out what his Sunday School class of five and six year olds knew about going to heaven. He asked them a series of questions.
“If I sold my house and my car, sold everything I owned on eBay, and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into heaven?”
“NO!” the children all answered.
“If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the grass, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into heaven?”
Once again, the answer was: “NO!”
“So, what if I was very kind to animals, gave sweets to the children, loved my wife with all my heart, would that get me into heaven?”
“NO!” was the resounding response.
“Well then, how can I get into heaven?”
A five year old boy shouted out, “You’ve got to be DEAD!”
That’s one idea about heaven.
Another is that heaven is somewhere ‘up there’. Medieval sculptures showing Jesus’ Ascension usually portray a group of people with upturned faces pointing and looking at a pair of feet which are about to disappear.
Heaven causes confusion. Talk of the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t necessarily make things any easier. It’s obviously an important idea as in Matthew’s Gospel it’s referred to immediately Jesus began his teaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” If Jesus said it was nearby, it could hardly mean it was only for those who are dead, as the little boy in Sunday School thought. Nor can it mean it’s something far off ‘up there’ which we can’t reach. Near has to mean near.
In Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel he has gathered various parables which Jesus used to try to clarify what the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Reign of God, is. Last week the focus was on just one image, that of the wheat and the weeds. In today’s section, we are given several pictures.
The Kingdom is something organic that can grow. Like a mustard seed, it begins very small, but then grows and grows until it is a place of shelter for many.
The Kingdom of Heaven is small but can have a huge effect which spreads. Just as a little yeast ferments until it has affected all the dough for a batch of bread, so the Kingdom can affect everything that it comes into contact with.
The Kingdom is of great value, so much so that it’s worth giving up everything to gain it. The one who found treasure in a field sold everything in order to own the field. The one who collected pearls found the best pearl of all and sold everything so that he might own it.
Like the story of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus also demonstrates that the Kingdom has a future reality as well as a present impact. All sorts of people will be scooped up in the net of the Kingdom but not all will belong forever.
Unlike the little boy’s idea, the Kingdom does not need us to be dead to experience it. The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s reign now here on earth, not up in the sky somewhere. It is growing from tiny beginnings, one soul at a time, as each person chooses to become a citizen and live under God’s rule. Wherever a citizen of the Kingdom is, there is influence to potentially transform that place or situation. Those who have chosen to be citizens have given up a lot in order to do so but have gained immeasurably more.
What exactly is this treasure, this wonderful pearl that we now own? What does it mean in everyday terms?
St Paul is certainly someone who witnessed the growth of the Kingdom from very early. Initially, he did his best to stamp out its influence as it spread. Later, he knew the cost of giving up all his righteousness which he thought he gained by following the Law, and instead allowing grace into his life. In his letter to the Romans he explains something of what it means for a person to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.
For those in the Kingdom, God is on our side. With God being for us, there is no chance for anyone who might wish to be against us. No one can condemn us for anything we do as God has justified us. If we need further reassurance, we are told that Jesus not only died for us, but now intercedes for us. Nothing can separate us from the great love Jesus has for us. Paul lists some examples of what we might fear could come between us and Jesus’ love: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword. Remember, these are not the words of some famous rabbi who spent his days teaching in the comfort of Solomon’s Portico in the Temple. That could have been Paul’s life but instead he was probably exposed to all the problems he listed. This is not pious theory, this is lived reality Paul is telling us about. Then he goes on to list all manner of other things that might have the potential to separate us from the love of God in Jesus and comes to the conclusion that nothing, absolutely nothing has that power. We can conquer everything through the love of God in Christ.
Knowing that Paul faced all manner of problems and eventually died a martyr’s death, how could he write so confidently? How did he cope when he faced persecution, imprisonment, beatings and so on?
I think it is the Psalmist who can help us out here. We know that the people of Israel faced many challenges. We also know that the Psalms were their hymn book. These hymns were sung or recited daily, much as we still do in our times of daily prayer. The reading for today is just a small portion of Psalm 105. It goes on to list all that God did for his people, how he protected them, provided Joseph to rescue them from famine, gave them Moses to lead them from oppression in Egypt as a result of the plagues, provided guidance in their wanderings and food and drink in the wilderness. Finally God gave them the Promised Land. As we read the beginning of the Psalm we can see what the Psalmist had in mind in writing it. He exhorts the people to give thanks to God, to praise him, to recall God’s deeds and tell others about them, to seek his face continually. The list of God’s deeds is a means to achieve this.
There is no doubt that the challenges of life can seem to fill the whole of our vision, blotting out anything positive. What is happening to us now can seem to be the only reality, with nothing beyond it. We may not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change our response to them by remembering the marvels the Lord has done and remembering that we are citizens of his kingdom. Nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor