19 August 2018

The Politics of Jesus

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.” The same goes for discussing politics and religion in polite company. We’re taught to avoid it like the plague, including in the church.  But sometimes it can’t be avoided, shouldn’t be avoided—not now, not today. 

At the risk of being “impolite” in your polite company, this week we turn to the emotionally charged world of religion and politics. In this politically divisive time in American society, I lift up one question: What is our responsibility as Christians in the public square? I left this question to tackle at the end of this summer series, thinking I’ll just preach this sermon and then get out of town.

What is our responsibility as Christians in the public square?  This, too, is not an easy question to address.  It’s complex.  It requires care and thoughtfulness.   It requires nuance, which is why it’s so often avoided and misunderstood.  Presbyterians are good at nuance.  We are a nuanced people.  We thrive on it.  This is why we’re often misunderstood.  So, here we go.

Because of the separation of church and state, many argue that religion should (and must) be kept out of politics.  And politics should (and must) stay out of religion.  The separation of church and state, when it’s truly practiced, is an invaluable part of our nation’s constitution.  Therefore, we should be very wary—red flags should go up—whenever religious institutions and their leaders endorse political candidates.  And we should be wary of politicians endorsing a particular religion over others, or privileging one religion over another.  And we should be concerned by every attempt to create a theocracy or establish a “Christian nation” in the United States.  It is true that most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Christian, some were Deists, most were philosophical liberals shaped by the Enlightenment’s worship of reason, such as Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), but they never intended to create a “Christian nation.”  That is a myth.  Jefferson said, “I(t) does me no injury for my neighbor to believe in twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[1]  In fact, the early founders, heavily influenced by Presbyterians (who had enormous power in the Colonies), pressed for the separation of church and state, so that the state would stay out of the affairs of the church, but also so the church would be free to speak out, even critique, the state, the church would be free to hold the state accountable for caring for the welfare of the common good. 

As a result, Presbyterians, from the start, have never been afraid to engage in political affairs.  This stance flows out of our reading of the Bible and our theology.  For example, the core theological idea in the Reformed tradition is not predestination, but the sovereignty of God.  God is sovereign and governs human affairs because this world belongs to God—all of it, not just portions of it.  “The earth is the LORD’s” says the psalmist, “The earth is Yahweh’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).  We don’t divide up the world between the sacred and the profane, between the religious and the secular.  The secular, from the Latin saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age,” is holy because it belongs to God and God is concerned for human welfare. This is why Reformed Christians, Presbyterians, have always been engaged in the transformation of society, concerned about justice, the wellbeing of all God’s people, making sure that those who are in authority over us, whom John Calvin (1509-1564) called “magistrates”—we call them politicians or public servants or law-makers—are caring for the needs of all God’s children, whether they are Christian or not.  At the end of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that significantly shaped Christians in Europe and, later North America, those who have civil authority are God’s servants and are to be obeyed, only because they are called to care for the needs of the people.  

Vocation, our calling as Christians, also features prominently in Calvin’s theology and in our tradition.  Everyone is called to serve.  And no call is higher or better than the other, including the call of the minister.  However, if we were to rank them, the call to be a magistrate (a public servant) is perhaps the highest calling, Calvin said, because the public servant, whether king or queen or president or members of Parliament or Congress, has a responsibility to care for the welfare of all people.  

One of the marks of a “good Christian” in the Reformed tradition is responsible participation in the life of civil society and obedience to its proper edicts and laws.  However, Calvin, citing Paul, makes clear that those in authority are charged by God to use their authority for the ordering of human life, ensuring, Calvin said, that “men breathe, eat, drink and are kept warm.”[2] If those in authority are not caring for the common good, then we have the right (and responsibility), as a last resort, to remove them from their place of authority.  Do you hear echoes of the Declaration of Independence here?  This is critical in understanding our history as Presbyterians in dealing with those in authority, especially when civil authority is not being used for the common good.

It’s important to remember that John Calvin wrote his Institutes as an exile, having fled for his life because of his earlier writings about people in authority. He dedicated the Institutes to King Francis I (1484-1547) of France from whose realm he had fled. John Knox (c.1513-1572) went to Geneva from Scotland as a fugitive, having escaped from a ship where he had been consigned as a galley slave for rebellion against the Crown. Presbyterians throughout the Colonies were so prominent in the American Revolution that King George III (1738-1820) and the Houses of Parliament often referred to it as “that Presbyterian rebellion.”

I share this to remind us that engaging in civil society, engaging political powers and those in authority over us are in our DNA as Reformed Christians, as Presbyterians.  It’s embedded in our theology.  We are engaged in society, we are concerned about what is happening politically.  We are free to be political, without being partisan—political without advocating for a particular party.  Again, nuance. We have a responsibility to be involved in the world, without being of the world.  The church can’t hide from its responsibility in the world behind the walls of a monastery or convent, nor are we free to hide from the world behind the walls of the church, safe from all harm.  This is not an option for us.  We are not escapist. 

Still, we hear some say that the church should only be concerned with “spiritual” concerns and avoid controversial issues, including politics.  We should just save souls.  The problem with this approach is that it’s very difficult to read the prophets—Isaiah and Jeremiah, and all the so-called Minor Prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (which the Thursday Morning Bible Study read this past year)—and say that God is only concerned with “spiritual” matters.  The Bible has a lot to say about kings who don’t care for the welfare of God’s children, about corruption in high places; God has strong views about poverty and economics and the treatment of women and children and orphans and refugees and war. God has a particular understanding of what justice looks like—and it’s not about getting even.  It’s about wholeness, it’s about healing, it’s about evening the imbalances in society, it’s about equality, it’s about forming a society that cares for “the least” (Matthew 25:40), a society where the “last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16).  There is, obviously, a political dimension to all of this.  God is concerned with how people live within the polis, within the city, within communities.  And God is concerned with the right use of power within the polis, ensuring that those who have power use it responsibly for the common good; God wants us to empower those who have been disempowered by the powers that be.
This vision of the prophets is embedded in Jesus’ preaching on the kingdom of God, or, as we find in Matthew’s Gospel, the kingdom of heaven.  The preaching of the kingdom stands at the center of Jesus’ life and ministry.  That’s why Jesus commands us to seek the kingdom, first (Matthew 6:33). Everything Jesus said and did rotates around that center, around the kingdom of God—the basileia in Greek, meaning the “realm”, or better, the “empire” of God.  Saying the empire of God retains the political dimension of Jesus’ ministry and message, but the church has been reluctant to see it.  My friend, W. Travis McMaken, a Presbyterian theologian recently said, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was to make you think there is a part of your life that isn’t political.”

In fact, there is absolutely no way one can say with any intellectual or biblical integrity that Jesus’ ministry had nothing to do with politics.  It’s there in the Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes.  It’s there when Jesus calls us to be engaged in the world, calling us to be salt and light in the world.  And when he teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come,” O God.  Bring your kingdom, bring your empire, bring your ways, bring your justice, and hope, and healing. Bring your love and let it be anchored here in this world, in our lives, in our communities, in places of power, that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).  This is the politics of Jesus. It’s his political agenda.
Jesus proclaims the kingdom to show us how to wield power. This is what God’s empire looks like. This is how God uses power. N. T. Wright says, “When God wants to change the world,” as the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount make clear, “God doesn’t send in the tanks. God sends in the meek, the broken, those hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemaker, the pure in heart.”[3] God’s empire has an entirely different ethic that unsettles our sensibilities and thwarts our evil intentions. This way, God’s way, God’s Empire, God’s politics is always at odds with the powers that be.  Remember, Jesus died on the cross of the Roman Empire, in a death reserved exclusively for enemies of the state, enemies of Rome, enemies of the Emperor.  The Roman Empire crucified the empire of God on the cross, which means that the cross is always a political symbol, making a political statement. The cross is both a religious and political symbol.  And, so, how can anyone say that Jesus and the gospel doesn’t have a political dimension?  The cross is screaming politics.

God’s empire must not be confused with any other empire, although many empires have claimed they were extensions of God’s kingdom, whether it was the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, the French Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, or the American Empire.  God does not privilege one empire over the other.  God is not on “our side,” whatever side we happen to be on.  God is not partisan.  God is neither Republican nor Democrat nor Libertarian.  God neither favors capitalism or socialism. God is not exclusively conservative or liberal.  God stands in judgment of all nations that resist the vision and values of the kingdom. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) got it right when he said, “My concern is not whether God is on my side, my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”  Lincoln wrestled with this in his Second Inaugural Address, both sides read the same Bible, but which side sought to be on God’s side? 

Are we on God’s side?  Are we doing what heaven wants?  And what does God want?  Listen to the prophets.  Listen to Jesus.  Listen to the Sermon on the Mount.  Listen to Paul.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” he said, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). And what is good? “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient n suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality” (Romans 12: 9-13).  Live in harmony.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (Romans 12:14-21).

This is how we bring faith into the public square.  Not by making everyone Christian, or becoming a “Christian nation,” but by seeking to embody Christ’s still more excellent way in the choices we make.  Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community says, “We bring faith into the public square when our moral convictions demand it.  But to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you advocate are better for the common good.  That’s the democratic discipline religion has to be under when it brings its faith to the public square.”[4]  What is best for the common good?  

Because of our experience of grace, Christians, of all people, should be among the best advocates for the common good, we should be known for fighting for the freedom and rights of all God’s children, on the side of the weak and the outcast and the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the broken, the wounded.  Because God has made space for us, we should be free to make space for the other, to be an advocate for the other, whoever the other happens to be—including the person of no faith or a different faith altogether, whether or not you agree with their politics or morality or choices.  If you’re a Christian baker and you’ve been asked to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, you should be free to offer something that will bring joy to their lives, whether or not you agree with same-sex marriage.  A mature Christian is free to make sure that our Muslim brothers and sisters are safe in our communities, even if don’t share the same creed.
So what is the Christian’s responsibility in the public square?  It’s obvious, isn’t it? The more important pertinent question is, what is your responsibility in the public square? What are you being asked to say or do at this season in our national life? How involved does one get?  How vocal should one be?  I guess it depends on what’s at stake.  Theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “A person who does not become engaged publicly for the kingdom of God has no need to go underground into the catacombs.”[5] 

When I see what’s happening all around us, I feel that the soul of America is at stake.  And while there is a separation of church and state, as it should be, I feel that both the soul of the church and the integrity of the Christian witness are also at stake.  When we look around and see the increasing disdain, the intentional lack of respect, even hate toward the refugee and immigrant, the racial minority, the marginalized, when we witness the hardening of American society, the lack of compassion, the demonic celebration of the strong and powerful, the total disregard for truth and honesty, for justice and mercy, failing to treat people with kindness and compassion, when we fail to extend the same compassion and care toward the environment, which is in crisis, almost at the point beyond repair—when we see all that is happening around us, the Christian is compelled, obligated to act, to forcefully engage the powers that be. Then it’s time, yes, it’s time to question the civil authorities and magistrates and hold them accountable and remind them of their promises, because they are failing in caring for the welfare of God’s people.  

And, so, sorry, Jeff Sessions, you miserably misread Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.Mr. Sessions, you abused the text.  For if the authorities” are not willing to do their job, which is their sacred duty, then they should be voted out of office.  The Emperor serves God and the law of God is love.  As Paul also said in Romans 13—Sessions should have kept on reading the chapter, instead of proof-texting the Bible to serve his own ends—“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8, 10).  

It all comes down to love.  

In the end, love is the politics of Jesus.

[1] Mark Edwards, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” CNN Online, July 4, 2015. See also Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2016) and John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[2] Cited in Vernon S. Broyles III, “Church and State: When faith and patriotism collide,” Presbyterian Church (USA). 
[3] N. T. Wright, “The Great Story,” from a sermon preached at the service to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland, 26th June 2011. See also Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (HarperOne, 2018), 216.
[4] Cited in Ryan Lizza’s New York Times review of Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Harper San Francisco, 2006).
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Ellen T. Charry, edited by Miroslav Volf, A Passion for God’s Reigns: Theology, Christian Learning, and the Christian Self (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Press, 1998), 53.

12 August 2018

Heaven Can't Wait

Job 19:19-28 and John 14:1-14

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

“There is no heaven or afterlife...that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”  That’s what Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) thought, the brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist who died earlier this year.  “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop when its components fail.  There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers that fail, that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Heaven.  For some, it doesn’t exist.  This world, this life is all we have for a brief time, and then the lights go out forever.  For some, heaven is merely wishful thinking.  A fantasy. The remnants of a primitive mythology.  Something we tell ourselves to cushion the hard blow of our mortality.  For those whose lives are filled with unimaginable pain and suffering the prospect of a better place, a better world, a true Land of Promise, is what gets them through another day.  Consider the lives of enslaved African-Americans. 

After the American Civil War, in 1868, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) wrote a religious novel called The Gates Ajar.[1] It was the second best-selling religious novel of the nineteenth century.  The novel imagines heaven as being similar to the Earth, only better.  The dead have “spiritual bodies,” they see and live with loved ones, dwell in houses, raise families, engage in all kind of activities, and live in perfect bliss.  Phelps started writing The Gates Ajar in the last year of the Civil War, after the deaths of her stepmother and her fiancé, who was killed at the Battle of Antietam.  It was written for the women who lost husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons in the Civil War.  It also spoke to the spiritual crisis many were facing with the advance of science and the erosion of the Christian faith.  The novel offered comfort that after death there was another reality.

The erosion of Christian belief and tradition continues in our day.  The materialist perspective of Stephen Hawking, and others like him, reject the notion that there’s a spirit or soul or some kind of consciousness that continues or is renewed or resurrected along with our bodies after we die.  I was surprised to learn this week that while belief in God is on the decline in Europe and North America, belief in heaven or some kind of afterlife is on the rise—even among atheists.[2]  The prolific English biographer A. N. Wilson, who has written biographies of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Darwin, Hitler, and C. S. Lewis (among others), claims “Belief in the afterlife stems from the fact that that ‘Selfishness is at the core of ‘modern’ culture.’” Maybe we think so much of ourselves and our lives and our loves that we can’t imagine the universe carrying on without us.

On the other hand, there’s the remarkable account of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Several years ago, his brain was attacked by a rare illness.  The part of the brain that controls thought and emotion—and in essence makes us human—shut down completely.  For seven days he lay in a coma.  Just as his doctors considered stopping treatment, his eyes popped open.  He came back—back from an extraordinary journey into another world, another dimension where he experienced the beauty and sheer goodness of the universe, a universe held in the love of God. He tells his story in his book, The Proof of Heaven.  Prior to this experience, Dr. Alexander didn’t believe in God.  He does now.

I was asked to talk about heaven.  Another simple subject to tackle in a sermon!  I’m no authority here. What do I believe?  I am definitely not a materialist.  I don’t believe the brain is a computer, nor is the body a machine.  With all my heart, I affirm the resurrection of the body, which includes spirit and body, like Paul’s notion of a “spiritual body.”  One of the most profound experiences of being a minister is the privilege to stand at the graveside in a cemetery surrounded by pain and grief and proclaim the gospel of love’s triumph over death. 

Many years ago, now, driving one evening from Mountain View, California north to San Francisco along Highway 101, as the fog from the Pacific Ocean slowly cascaded down over the hills heading toward the bay, struck by the beauty of it all, I found myself saying, “There is this world and there is a world beyond all worlds.  There is joy and there is a joy beyond all joys.  There is love and there is a love beyond all loves.”  And, there are times when that world, that joy, that love comes toward us, like the fog pouring over the hills, and breaks into our lives and touches us and our hearts break from the sheer beauty of it all, “things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imaginings” (1 Cor. 2:9).  And so, agreeing with poet George Herbert (1593-1633) I shout with all my heart, and say:
O mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.

Abbey Church, Isle of Iona
There are “thin places” in the world, where, as the Scottish minister, prophet, and mystic George MacLeod (1895-1991) used to say, a “veil, thin as gossamer,” is the only thing separating this world from another world.  You know you’re close to something else.  I have felt this several times in Scotland, especially in the Isle of Iona, which Macleod called “a thin place.” 

I believe there are also “thin moments,” when you know you are near to that other world, or that world is impinging upon your world.  It’s a presence felt.  I felt it several times after my mother died.  And there are countless experiences in ministry when I have witnessed the holy moment of death and felt I was situated, standing between two worlds. This is some of what I believe, although it might sound like I’ve gone “away with the fairies,” as the Irish like to say. That’s me. 

From Stephen Hawking's perspective, there's no “fairy story” like the Bible. Depending upon which English version you use, and its translation of the Hebrew samayim and the Greek ouranos, there are about six hundred and seventy-five appearances of the words "heaven" or "the heavens" in the Old and New Testaments.[3]  It’s central to the Bible, yet it’s not easy define. 

What is heaven?  Where is heaven? Is it here in this life or in the world to come? In John’s Gospel, we find Jesus promising a future life with God, dwelling with Jesus and God. “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). Jesus provides the way there.

Who gets to go to heaven? Does everyone go to heaven? 

When do we go to heaven?  At the moment of death?  On the cross, Jesus said to one of the thieves crucified beside him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  Or, if we listen to Paul, the dead asleep, waiting for the last trumpet “when the dead shall be raised incorruptible” in a moment, in the twinkling of the eye (1 Cor. 15:52). Which is it?  Today or tomorrow?  

In Revelation, we have John’s glorious vision: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;” he tells us, “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God…” (Rev. 21:1-3a). Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray for the coming of this kingdom, that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10)?  But what does this really mean?  What is life like “in heaven?” How do we know?  Throughout Jesus’ ministry we hear a lot about “the kingdom of heaven,” but how does this relate to the “kingdom of God?”

I can’t address all these questions this morning, but I want to stay with this last question regarding the relationship between the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God,” because they’re, in fact, the same. I want to linger here because this is the starting point for a theological understanding of what we mean by heaven.  The kingdom of God is the kingdom of heaven.

If you place the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke side-by-side, you’ll see that most of the times Mark and Luke refer to the kingdom of God, Matthew replaces the word “God” with the word “heaven.”  For the most part, Matthew, writing to a Jewish community, steered away from referring directly to God.  This means, “heaven” doesn’t refer to a place, it’s a metaphor for God.  This misunderstanding led far too many Christians to think that the promised kingdom was in heaven, in some idealized perfect world. Some Christians need to get their heads out of the clouds and come back down to earth.  We need to remember that Jesus’ entire ministry focused on preaching the basileia of God—meaning the kingdom, or realm, even empire of God.  Jesus announced the liberating invasion of God’s basileia, which breaks into the earthly kingdoms of this world with holy justice for the poor and the marginalized, bringing release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18), healing the sick and wounded, making space for the outcast, raising the dead, and bringing resurrection life to all the dead places in ourselves and our lives.  That’s the kingdom of God—and that’s what heaven is. All this is what God is bringing to us, this is what Jesus is bringing to us, for he is the kingdom.  And that’s why Jesus gave us so many parables of the kingdom, so that we would wake up and realize what God is doing all around us.  When Jesus summons us to seek first the kingdom (Mt. 6:33) he calls us to seek after what heaven wants, because heaven is on its way toward us.  The kingdom of God, the basileia, the realm of heaven is all around us.  Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote:
This World is not Conclusion
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound.

That’s what the kingdom is like, “Invisible, as Music—/ But positive, as Sound.”

In Mark’s Gospel, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we have this significant text: “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” (Mk. 1:14).  Did you hear that?  The kingdom of God has come near.  Not, “Repent because the kingdom of God is at hand,” but “The kingdom of God has come near,” therefore, change—change your life, change your ways, change your thinking. “Repent.”  And where is the kingdom?  In Jesus.  He brings the kingdom with him.  Jesus is “heaven,” he brings heaven with him to the world, in the flesh. Heaven is not “out there;” instead, Jesus brings the kingdom with him, to us.  We don’t earn it.  We don’t create it.  We strive after it only because it’s on the way. It’s always on the way toward us.  Heaven is the place from which God moves toward us, bringing Godself to us. We don’t move toward heaven, heaven comes toward us. In Jesus, the kingdom is always coming toward us; he brings heaven with him, so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.”

But never underestimate the forces at work within us and in the world that resist the coming of the kingdom, forces of hate and violence and fear and evil that wage war against all that heaven wants for us and for our families and communities and churches, for the world.  The crucifixion of Jesus was a powerful expression of our resistance against the coming kingdom of God.  We nailed the kingdom of God to a cross.  And God’s children are still being crucified by forces in this world that want to hamper and hinder what heaven wants. 

Still—we must say, Nevertheless!  Nevertheless, Jesus continues to offer us the kingdom, that’s the promise.  We never “possess” this kingdom, but it’s on the way, which is why we don’t give into despair.  Jesus tells us that we need not be afraid, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). That’s the promise.  Did not Jesus say in John’s Gospel, “Where I am, there you may be also” (Jn. 14:3)? This, too, is the promise. To be near Jesus is to be near the kingdom; to be near him is heaven. In fact, in John’s Gospel there are only two references to the “kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3, 5); he prefers to talk about “eternal life.” But even his use of “eternal life” should not be heard only not as a description of life after we die, but a quality of life here and now, a life touched by eternity, life touched by God. This suggests that we are already participating in heaven.  With grace-filled eyes, we begin to see what is going on all around us and through us.  Therefore, “we are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, an unprecedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine.”[4]  That’s why the Catholic mystic Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) could say, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’” 

We are being loved into the kingdom, here and now. From a biblical perspective from a Christian perspective, this way of thinking about heaven in our midst is no fairy story, and it’s not “fake news,” it’s the real world.

Karl Barth
In 1916, as the so-called “Christian” nations of Europe were tearing themselves apart in war, Karl Barth (1886-1968), one of the greatest theologians the church has ever produced, was a young pastor in a small Swiss village and preached on the nature of heaven.  He discovered that the Bible doesn’t talk about heaven as an ideal or imaginary place, where what is hoped for will one day become the “real world.”  It’s the other way around. Heaven is always on the way toward us and here, if we have eyes to see.  And the “real world” is a world that is already being shaped by the inbreaking of God’s reign.  What we find in the Bible when we dare to look, Karl Barth said, is not primarily history, though some history is there, and not morality, though some morality is there, and not religions, though some religion is there.  What we find in the Bible, as Barth discovered, is “a strange new world,” as he loved to say. “It is a new heaven and a new earth,” Barth wrote, of a God who is heavenly, but heavenly “upon earth” and will not allow life to be split into a ‘here’ and ‘beyond.’”  It is “therefore, a new humanity,” he said, “new families, new relationships, new politics.  It has no respect for old traditions simply because they are traditions, for old solemnities simply because they are solemn, for old powers simply because they are powerful…The Holy Spirit established the righteousness of heaven in the midst of the unrighteousness of earth and will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being.”[5]

All the way to heaven is heaven.

And we get to be a part of it all.

This is the “real world.” 

And this is no fairy story. 

Image: Heavenly Worship, a rendering of Revelation 4:6-11.  Medieval Retable, Hamburg, 1380. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

[1] My thanks to Dr. Cheryl Thurber, Ruling Elder at Catonsville Presbyterian Church, for this reference.  The full text of The Gates Ajar may be found here.
[2] See the Pew Forum’s latest statistics on religious belief in the United States. 
[3] Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (New York: T & T Clark, 2010), 2.
[4] Morse, 122.
[5] From Karl Barth’s address “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” delivered in the autumn of 1916, included in Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie (1924).  The English title, first published in 1928, is The Word of God and the Word of Man (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 49-50.