Sunday 27 July 2014

The Kingdom of heaven

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on Sunday 27th July 2014, the Sixth after Trinity

Today’s reading from Matthew (13:31-33, 44-52) is about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now that’s a pretty heavy topic, so let me begin with a joke. It made me laugh – and perhaps it will you too.

A diocesan reader dies and is standing in the queue to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In front of him is a rough looking guy with a leather jacket, jeans and tattoos, effing and blinding away. St Peter addresses this guy, "Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?" The guy replies, "I'm Jack, a flippin taxi driver from flippin Moyross." Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says to the taxi-driver, "Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Now it's the diocesan reader's turn. He stands erect and booms out, "I am Joc, a diocesan reader who has faithfully preached God’s word for many years." Saint Peter consults his list. He says to Joc, "Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven." "Just a minute," says Joc. "That foul-mouthed taxi-driver got a silken robe and golden staff and I get cotton and wood. What’s going on?" "In the Kingdom of Heaven we work by results," says St Peter. "While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed."

But the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t just a laughing matter. In Matthew’s Gospel it is a central part of Jesus’s teaching. At the very start of his ministry Jesus proclaimed, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 4:17). And when Jesus sent out the Twelve he instructed them, ‘As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matt 10:7). In Mark and Luke Jesus uses ‘the Kingdom of God’ to mean the same thing. As Christians we must take it seriously.

So, just what is this Kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God? As a skillful teacher, Jesus uses parables based on everyday experience to teach those who follow him. I think he wants his disciples to work out the truth for themselves, not just learn it parrot fashion without properly understanding it. So he gives us clues in parables about the kingdom of heaven. We are meant to think about them deeply, and surely to share what we find between us.

So let me reflect a bit on what I find in these parables.
The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast tell us how the Kingdom of Heaven grows.
o   God does not bring the Kingdom of Heaven into existence suddenly, fully formed, in a kind of spiritual ‘big bang’. Rather it grows organically, bit by bit, just as the tiny mustard seed grows almost imperceptibly into a tree, or a tiny quantity of yeast works to leaven a loaf.
o   Sometimes it may seem as if nothing is happening at all. Then suddenly we notice a new shoot bursting, or the dough expanding. And when we come back later we see whole new branches, or the dough rising above its container.
o   The Kingdom of Heaven really has come near, it grows all around us, and if we search we will find it.

The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value tell us what it feels like to find the Kingdom of Heaven.
o   It is like a farmer finding treasure in a field, or a merchant the most perfect pearl. When they find it they joyfully trade everything else they value to obtain it.
o   We are so used to calculating what a thing is worth that it is hard to imagine something that is beyond price. Yet there are some things that are worth infinitely more than money or possessions. The Kingdom of Heaven is literally priceless. To live as part of it, by its values, as it grows, will bring us more real joy than anything else possibly could.

The parable of the net tells us what happens if we don’t live by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
o   We live in a world full of people of every kind, good and bad, just as the sea holds fish that are good to eat and not so good. But it is not for us to decide which is which. Just as in the parable of the tares we heard last Sunday, it is for God and his angels at the end of the age to separate the evil from the righteous.
o   God’s generosity is stupendous, isn’t it? In God’s creation we have been given enough and more than enough for all to flourish, both the good and the bad, the wheat and the tares. If you pull out the tares, you damage the wheat too. If we exclude those we don’t like from our community, we impoverish it and ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely certain whether I am wheat or tare – or most likely a bit of both.
o   Our task is to seek out the Kingdom of Heaven, to help it grow, and to live by its values. But part of these values is to be inclusive and leave judgement to God.

So far, so good. But these parables don’t by themselves answer one crucial question, I think.
It is this: How are we to recognise the Kingdom of Heaven when we find it?

I think the Lord’s Prayer fills the gap. Jesus teaches us to pray to our heavenly Father, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.

We can recognise the Kingdom of Heaven because God’s will is done there. And Jesus shows us how to discern God’s will. To find the Kingdom of Heaven is to align our will with God’s will. The Kingdom of Heaven works like this:
o   When any one of us does God’s will, in no matter how small a way – when we do what is right, or don’t do what is wrong - the Kingdom of Heaven grows accordingly. It is a bit like Pinocchio’s nose in reverse – in the children’s story, remember, his nose grew longer every time he told a lie.
o   When we experience the life and growth of the Kingdom of Heaven we feel a joy which encourages us to change our way of life for the better. That is what it means to repent.
o   We live more as part of the Kingdom of Heaven, we do more of God’s will, and we become better people. Our example may inspire others to do so too, and the Kingdom of Heaven grows some more.
o   Finally, at the end of the age, God’s angels will have less work to do to separate the evil from the righteous, there will be less weeping and less gnashing of teeth.

That is how God saves us through Jesus.

To finish, let me return to the joke I started with.

It is fanciful and childish to imagine St Peter at the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven when we die, checking in a ledger whether we are good enough to get in. But the joke does get one thing right - the Kingdom of Heaven is about results – the results of doing God’s will. We enter the Kingdom of Heaven when we do God’s will.

So, let us pray to our heavenly Father that through the teaching of our Saviour Jesus Christ, we may discern God’s will and follow it, so that the Kingdom of Heaven may grow, and we may know its joy. Amen.