Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, but generally speaking, the Church preaches not the Kingdom, but Jesus.
To my way of thinking, one of the most profound things that St. Paul ever wrote is ensconced down at the bottom of perhaps his most well known passage, where the wider world is concerned. Here I refer to 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen. If I have ever conducted or been to a wedding service that did not include those famous words, I don’t remember it.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…
I bet it sounds familiar, be you a Christian or not. But there is a little section down toward the bottom of that passage, that seems strangely out of context to most, to wit:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
I have always loved this passage, because it speaks to me of the fundamental mystery that lies at the very heart of Christianity. It’s a mystery because we can as yet, only “know in part,” which to my way of thinking implies that just generally speaking, we don’t know near as much as we think we do! At the same time, it insists that as grown men and women, we must give up our childish ways, we must grow up and leave childhood behind.
In recent years, I have taken this passage to heart more than ever before. And I’ve come to believe that it is most applicable to the Christian Church, now, still in the young years of this new millennium. And what it suggests, quite frankly, is that we need to grow up! What it suggests is that it is time to “give up childish ways,” and embrace a mature faith; a faith that includes subtlety, and nuance, and metaphor, and the certain knowledge that mostly, we still see “in a mirror dimly.”
There are a lot of examples of what I mean here, using the Bible as a weapon to judge and condemn God’s children of whom we do not approve or with whom we disagree is a pretty basic example of holding on to a childish faith, as is our determination to depict Jesus of Nazareth in portrait or in film as a rock star from California, rather than as the swarthy, Semitic individual that he most certainly was. But I really don’t think there’s any area in which our childish faith is more apparent, then when it comes to our understanding of Heaven.
It is a fascinating thing to contemplate the fact that Jesus came among us preaching not primarily salvation as it is generally understood, but rather the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, it has been observed, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that while Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, just generally speaking the Church preaches not the Kingdom, but Jesus!
But Jesus preached the Kingdom…
Boy did he preach the Kingdom!
Indeed almost two hundred times in the four Gospels does he use the word “kingdom,” or the phrases “kingdom of God,” or “kingdom of Heaven.” And what is most fascinating is that while Jesus does occasionally use “heaven” in the conventional sense—i.e. where we go when we die—he also quite frequently uses it in a most unconventional sense.
He says things like:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is near,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is coming.”
He says things like,
“Their’s is the Kingdom,” and “Seek ye first the Kingdom.”
And most mysteriously of all, in Luke 17:21, He says,
“The Kingdom of God is in you.”
As such, it is not enough for us to understand that Heaven is not a place like Poughkeepsie or Haughton. And it’s not enough for us to understand that Heaven is not on the other side of the ceiling, or in the clouds, or on Mars! Moreover, it’s not even enough for us to understand that “golden streets” and “pearly gates” are but metaphors and not to be taken literally.
If we’re to have a mature faith, we must understand that at the very heart of Jesus’ teaching, lies a heavenly kingdom which is accessible to us now.
Understood in this way, Heaven is not so much a “place,” as it is a new way of seeing and perceiving. It is the consequence of a whole new way of understanding, a whole new way of being. It is precisely an alternate reality, a new reality, a reality that becomes our own as we become His own. It is, in short, a product of our being transformed into the image and likeness of God, (Gen. 1:26) of our taking on the “mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16) Moreover, though it is God who does the transforming, we must participate in that process, we must allow ourselves to be transformed, and in order for that to happen we must surrender to God over, and over, and over again. That, and only that is the ticket to Heaven in this world and the next. One way or the other, sooner or later, we must be surrendered.
In the final analysis, It’s not enough to walk down the aisle and accept Jesus as your personal savior, though that may be a good start. You’ve got to be surrendered. And it’s not enough to be baptized, though baptism is an important symbol. You’ve got to be surrendered. And it’s not enough to belong to a church, to be a church leader, or even a pastor. Surrender is the key.
Ultimately, of course, we’re all in God’s hands. Ultimately, His grace is sufficient for us all, through the Cross of Christ. But if we’re to have a mature faith, then we must take Jesus at his word. And for him, the Kingdom is the key: it is accessible on this earth, (“at hand,” “in you”) and it takes no small amount of effort on our part to “arrive” there (“narrow gate,” “eye of the needle”).
For too long we have embraced a kind of cheap grace which left us with nothing to do but “accept Jesus” and then bide our time. For too long we have made a mockery of the cross, wearing it as a talisman, without grafting it into our lives. For too long we have blasphemed God’s Spirit, by confessing Him with our lips, but not giving evidence of Him in our lives. There really is a Heaven, and God really means for us to be there. At the same time, we really do have a part to play.