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Posts Tagged ‘kingdom of God’

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”     Matthew 13:31-32

Jesus’ initial instruction to us is to repent, or to change the direction of our life. The purpose of repentance is to enter the kingdom of heaven. The next logical question is, “What is the kingdom of heaven like?” The image I received from my childhood was that heaven was somewhere up in the sky where there were many long-dead relatives, along with angels playing harps while floating on clouds. It made me think of family reunions as a child, minus the angels, and it was hardly a compelling image for me at the time. The thought of spending an eternity there made me wonder about my other options.

Jesus paints a completely different picture of heaven, however. In Matthew 13, he tells a number of parables about the kingdom. In 13:18-23 he compares a planter sowing seeds in different types of soil to different people hearing the word of the kingdom. Some will receive the message as a seed sown in fertile soil and enter the kingdom. In the parable quoted above, Jesus compares the kingdom to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree. In 13:33, he compares the kingdom to yeast added to flour. In 13:44, he compares heaven to “treasure hidden in a field”; in 13:45, the kingdom is like a “pearl of great value.” In 13:47, he compares it to a “net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” An obvious question is this: “What do these analogies tell us about the kingdom of God?”

My first observation is that the kingdom of God is not a static point or place in time. In the parables of the sower, the mustard seed, and the leaven, the example used is something that is grown into over time. Like a plant growing to maturity, the kingdom dweller is dynamic, forever changing, and evolving into new versions of itself. Patience is necessary.

A second observation is that the kingdom is a life-multiplier. Particularly in the yeast parable, but also in the seed parables, the analogy indicates that accessing the kingdom enhances whatever is happening in life in positive ways. Without yeast, bread may still be bread, but it will not rise or be nearly as tasty as it would otherwise be. Without yeast, bread is also left sterile, meaning it cannot generate additional loaves of bread from itself. This is further illustrated in the parable of the sower when the seed is sown on fertile soil and the seed multiplies. Likewise, in the story of the net, this kingdom net catches many fish of every kind and size. The kingdom of heaven, like yeast, soil, and a good fishing net, improves the state of, bounty from, and diversity in our lives.

A third observation is that the kingdom, once experienced, becomes the most valuable part of our lives. In the parables of the pearl of great value and the hidden treasure, the possessors of the pearl and treasure give up everything else in order to attain this one treasure. Their sole focus becomes the kingdom.

Finally, the kingdom of God is about the here and now. It is not some faraway place up in the clouds. Jesus uses everyday examples and explains the impact of the kingdom on regular, daily activities. It under girds and supports our lives, just as the mustard seed transforms into a tree and provides shelter for birds.

Entering the kingdom means experiencing our world in a new way. It does not necessarily change our profession, our health, our finances, or any of the material particulars of our lives. What it changes is our perspective, assuring us of a larger, beneficent life surrounding us, and that can lead to astronomical changes in the life we experience going forward. Far from being a family-reunion-in-the-sky, the kingdom is about our lives today! It takes the life we have and makes it joyful, richer, more productive, more loving, and more fulfilling. The kingdom of God is not a place we go, but a unity we become as we learn to see others through and to be seen by the unfathomably loving gaze of God.

This is the 4th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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The Kingdom is Near

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Matthew 4:17

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ first instruction to his followers was to “Repent.” He follows this directive with a brief justification. In my paraphrase, Jesus says: “You need to change the focus of your life because the kingdom is very near and available to you here and now, but you will never experience it from the path you are on.” The kingdom of heaven Jesus refers to may or may not be a place we go when we die, but it most certainly is a state of being here and now.

It is difficult to overemphasize the central position the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God (I believe the terms are used interchangeably), has in the teachings of Jesus. This kingdom is the nexus from which his teachings emanate. Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven/God 85 times in the four Gospels. He refers to the kingdom another 34 times. Clearly, there is something significant about this kingdom that Jesus invites us to know and experience.

Most of us were taught to think of heaven as a faraway place where the good and faithful go after they die. The alternative, hell, is where those not qualifying for heaven go. Our stay in either place is rumored to be eternal. While I do not wish to speculate about possible states of being after our physical death, I have certainly experienced both heaven and hell on earth. It is to these present states of the human condition that I believe Jesus is referring when he tells us the kingdom is near.

What Jesus says about the kingdom is instructive. Aside from the many comparisons he draws, i.e., the kingdom of heaven is like…, Jesus refers to the kingdom as a place that is very close. In Matthew 4:17, Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (emphasis added). Elsewhere in Matthew (12:28) he says, “the kingdom of God has come to you.” In Mark 12:34: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” From Luke 17:21: “the kingdom of God is among you.” The unmistakable common theme is that this kingdom is not somewhere far away, but this kingdom is here. As if this is not convincing, in Luke 9:27, Jesus says: “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Point number one is that the kingdom is near. Point number two is that the presence, knowledge, or experience of Jesus is integral to our ability to enter the kingdom. Third, while many Christians believe Jesus is the entry point to heaven (Jesus, in fact, claims as much in John 14:6), I do not believe the Christian experience of Jesus is the only entry point. Rather, all points likely require a knowledge or experience of God in the flesh, which is exactly what Christians believe of Jesus. In other words, entry into heaven on earth requires a Jesus-like encounter with the divine, which is available to all, including those who have never heard of or experienced the Son of God manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, in referring to the kingdom, is talking about a state of being that is present now, while we are alive on earth, and we enter it through Christ, the Son of God. We are not separate from God; only our lack of faith makes it seem so. In a recent Daily Meditation1, Richard Rohr wrote, “The belief that God is ‘out there’ is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Jesus came to put it all together for and in us. He was saying, ‘This physical world is the hiding place of God.’” Although the body of Jesus left this planet 2000 years ago, he is still present through the reality of the Spirit, offering us entry into the kingdom whenever we are ready – right here, right now, next week, or when we die (death likely changes our focus for us). The ticket to the kingdom is repentance – rearranging our priorities. Once our heart is set on the right path, Jesus will lead us to the kingdom, as will become apparent as we continue to explore his teachings.

This is the 3rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 1  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. January 5, 2018. http://www.cac.org, Sourced January 15, 2018.

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 12: The Kingdom of Heaven is Near

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”

Mark 1:14-15

I do not know how I missed it, but somewhere in my childhood, and reinforced throughout my life, was the concept that heaven and hell were faraway places where we would go after we die. Heaven was somewhere above, and hell was somewhere below. Heaven was a paradise where we would be reunited with long-lost relatives, and hell was a place of eternal punishment where we would go if we did not live a life on earth worthy of heaven.

I believe the church I grew up in perpetuated these images and many churches today do the same. In spite of insisting we are saved by grace, as the apostle Paul proclaimed, there is still an element of needing to earn our salvation present in too many religious discussions. The threat of hell is ever near for those who do not give enough money to the right causes, live an acceptable lifestyle, vote for certain candidates, or regularly attend the right kind of church. Thankfully, many churches recognize an inclusive God. If God is the God of any of us, God is the God of all and is not limited by our imperfect, individual perceptions. But I digress…

The first recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and repeated throughout the Gospels, are that the kingdom of God – heaven – is near. We consistently overlook that reality. For all the speculation about possible states of being after we die, we completely ignore that heaven and hell are present realities in our world right now, today, this moment, and in this place! Speculation about the future comes at the expense of the blessings of the now. Eternity stretches out in all directions from wherever we are at a point in time, and from that point we can experience heaven, or we can experience hell. The choice is ours because we are co-creators with God of the world we experience.

Finding heaven on earth is challenging because there are so many attractive distractions that entice us to look in other directions, like possessions, positions, and power. The earth is a beautiful place with many lovely entertainments. But none of them are eternal. Finding hell on earth, however, is much easier. There are many opportunities to succumb to illness, financial straits, disabilities, loneliness, and broken hearts. When we focus on our suffering – and everyone suffers – we lose another moment in which we could experience heaven. Jesus invites us to repent (turn around) and live the good news.

The kingdom of heaven is near. The kingdom of heaven is here. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

The Eternity of a Moment

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Luke 1:14-15

Living in the moment is a constant challenge for me. I find reliving memories of the past or dreaming about the future much more compelling. Unfortunately, neither of these activities is productive. In fact, it is downright unhealthy when the past and/or future consume us. The only place where we can act is in the now; this time is where we meet reality. I realize this may sound uncomfortably abstract, but it is actually extremely practical.

If I stand in an open field, tangents emanate on a two-dimensional plane from that point in every direction – north, south, east, west, and everywhere in between. In a truly open field, I can move in any direction I chose and, at least in theory, alter the course of each moment based on my choice of direction. That is not all, however, because we do not live in a two-dimensional world. The tangents emanating from that moment also extend out spherically above and below me. Although I may not be able to travel physically along those paths, I can send a degree of consciousness along them, again altering my momentary experiences. The key to living a moment is in exploring its many secrets.

Every moment presents us with infinite possibilities, the combination of which shape our future realities in both small and large ways. When we choose to focus on the past or future – ignoring the moment – we give up more than we can imagine. In fact, our world becomes imaginary because we cannot actually live in the past or the future. We separate ourselves from those around us. Living in the moment is a conscious choice we must make repeatedly and requires focus and attention. It is much easier for me to allow my focus and attention to wander and, when it does, it wanders back or forward in time. The now, however, is an infinitely richer, safer, and more interesting state in which to exist.

The kingdom of God is always near and available to us from any point in space and at any point in time. It is a matter of whether we choose to enter fully into the moments we are given. Only by being fully present can we experience the nearness of that kingdom. If we are lost in past regrets or day-dreaming of future possibilities, we miss the opportunity. Jesus told us many times that the kingdom of God is near. We will never experience the kingdom until we learn to be fully present to our moments. Only then, will we know and experience the good news of the kingdom.

To be (present) or not to be (present), that is (indeed) the question!

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Life Notes

 

Getting Here

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. Luke 17:20-21

Several decades ago, I read something that recurs to me regularly. I do not remember who wrote it, but my paraphrase of this memorable line is: “If you cannot find happiness where you are standing, where do you expect to wander in search of it?” The point is that happiness originates from within. People can wander the earth in search of happiness and never find it, because they carry their discontent with them. Abraham Lincoln said, “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” If we are unhappy where we are at, we always have all the power required to change our level of contentment without ever leaving. There are obvious exceptions – abusive relationships, for one – but the key to success is in figuring out how to get there without having to leave here.

Jesus taught frequently about the kingdom of God, which he also referred to as the kingdom of heaven. A subtle, but important point contained in Jesus’ words about the kingdom is that he speaks of it in the present tense, not as a future state. There is a lot of confusion about the kingdom of God, and understandably so. I want to propose, however, that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, that he was referring to a state of being available to us right now, right here. It may or may not be a place we go to after we die. It is, however, a state of existence available to us at any time.

In the passage from Luke, above, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed.” There are several interesting parables about the kingdom of God/heaven in Matthew 13:10-50. In Luke 9:27, he says, “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” He issues a warning in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Finally, in Mark 4:11, he says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” These are not descriptions of the traditional “heaven” we were taught as children. These tell of a kingdom that is very near, as well as a kingdom accessible to all who follow Jesus – not someday, but today.

In the coming weeks, I encourage you to contemplate the kingdom of God in the present tense – as a present state of being that is always near and available to us. The challenge then becomes how to get from where we are to here?

Come home to church this Sunday. Where are you?

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