The Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of 'God' is not a place to which we will go one day - it is the Way in which we live today and every day. It is the transformational Jesus Way in the here and now.
The Kingdom has come so why do so many people in pulpit and pew look for it as something that will be ours after we die? How sad it is that for so long a time the promise of a Heaven beyond this life has kept the poor poor, and has offered a false sense of 'somewhere beyond this life' where the roles will be reversed; where the rich will find themselves shut out of Heaven and the poor, the oppressed and the exploited will be guests of honour in the great banquet halls of the mansion with many rooms.
To misinterpret the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of 'God' as a place rather than as the Presentness of living Kingdom values has been a constant abuse and misleading of millions of people down the centuries. In his Participant Reader to "First Light: Jesus and the Kingdom of 'God'", John Dominic Crossan makes the very clear argument that the teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of 'God' was about the impending end of all imperialism and that Heaven is here and the Kingdom of 'God' will be fully present when imperialism is defeated.
"Israel's faith was in a God of distributive justice who created and therefore owned the earth. But Israel's experience was of an earth blatantly unjust, be it from kings at home and / or emperors abroad. For Israel, therefore, God would have to conduct a Great Divine Cleanup of the World, an eschaton or end, not of the world itself but of its evil and injustice, war and violence, and especially the 'beastly' imperial brutality - here below on a transformed earth. Think of eschaton as 'end of empire'. Eschatology was never about global destruction, but about global transfiguration - here below on a recreated earth."
Crossan's understanding of eschatology, of the end times, is not about some cosmic arrival of Jesus back to earth and a day of trial and judgement, but the Eschaton is the end of imperial rule and its inevitable accompanying exploitation and oppression of conquered people.
Jesus was speaking initially to those Jews who were oppressed and exploited by Roman Imperialism, imposed upon them mainly through the vassal religious leadership of the Temple cult of the Sadducees, along with the political leadership of the Herodians. These vassal leaders represented delegated power and privilege, given to them by the Roman oppressors in return for controlling the populace, keeping the peace and collecting the taxes.
But the Pharisees were different and they came under particularly hard critical rebuke from Jesus. Although they did a great deal of good for the poor in terms of social and community welfare, they slavishly held to the law of Moses, to the Torah: to what they claimed to be the Word of Yahweh God. Jesus also loved Torah but not as the final word of God!
In the process the Pharisees hindered the very people they were seeking to help from actually experiencing the ever Presentness of God's Kingdom within them and amongst them. All the religious practices of the Pharisees, according to Jesus, were done for show and to impress the impressionable. And as I constantly remind people, the underlying teaching offered by the Pharisees was that of holiness by separation: "If you keep yourselves separate from the Roman occupying army and all that it stands for; if you honour and keep the law of Moses as we teach it to you, then 'God' will be faithful to us once again because we have turned back to God."
As they understood it, holiness by separation had worked in the past in Egypt, in Babylon and in other exiles and military defeats. The Pharisees claimed: "We are oppressed now because we and our fathers turned our backs on the Law of Moses. Now if we keep the Law, God will again bless us with self-determination and freedom from Rome."
However, Jesus told his listeners that the Law, the Torah in itself was not the problem. The problem was that the Pharisees "do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. " The word 'hypocrite' comes readily to mind!
This anti-imperial Jesus message continued to be given throughout the latter half of the first century CE by the Gospel writers, to those Jew and gentile Jesus followers who continued to be oppressed by religious and political imperialism.
One of the reasons why I think that Jesus may have started out as a Pharisee is that his message about the Eschaton, the ending of imperial power, was similar to the message of the Pharisees. Where Jesus increasingly differed as his vision and ministry developed was not the ends but the means of defeating imperialism. For Jesus, imperial power would not be defeated by social separation or by merely keeping all the rules and the Law of Moses.
True freedom, both within and beyond the brutality of imperialism, would come when people truly and uncompromisingly lived the spirit of the Law rather than slavishly kept all 613 Laws. Jesus subsumed the whole Law into the action of loving 'God' and of loving one's neighbour. In the experience and teaching of Jesus, true freedom would come when the people lived the Spirit of the Kingdom of God / the Kingdom of Heaven in their daily lives.
And the same applies to today. At the macro level millions today suffer as a result of the imperialism of money and financial market places; or from the military imperialism of some governments or terrorist groups.
But how might this apply to us at our micro level today? What are, may be, some of the Ways of the Kingdom of God / the Kingdom of Heaven for us to live today? I offer some thoughts, by no means original to myself!
Part of the answer is in this passage from Matthew: "the greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
But there is more! To live the Kingdom is to live more fully and, to quote Jack Spong, to love more wastefully. It is to live the spirit of unprompted servant hood, forgiveness, generosity and mercy even when we know that such a way of life may not be reciprocated to us.
It is to be concerned about the welfare of the less fortunate. It is to live in peaceful harmony with self, with others and with all Creation. It is about being concerned with carbon justice, and with stepping gently on the earth.
It is to realise that we are temples of the Sacred Spirit and that this is a 24/7 way of life, not just for those special or regular visits to official places of worship. And as temples of the Sacred we will encourage others to worship in their own way without our condemnation because we think that our chosen way is superior.
It is to overcome our ego, self-centredness and vanity by putting ourselves into the shoes of others and thus sharing in their pain and anguish as well as in their joys and celebrations. It is about giving as a way of life that is better than constantly expecting to take or to receive from others.
It is in the simple ways of smiling often, encouraging always and to greeting others with warmth and appreciation. It is to constantly see the divine, the Namaste Spirit within all whom we meet, regardless of their goodness or otherwise.
But we should also remind ourselves constantly that seeking the Kingdom does not mean looking for something beyond the horizon. Nor does it mean waiting until we enter the mystery that awaits beyond our death. But it does mean living Heaven on earth here and now.
Encountering the mystery of that which we call 'God', is not just a past experience. Nor is encountering the mystery of that which we call 'God' primarily a future experience. The only place we can truly encounter the mystery of that which we call 'God' is at this moment, in this place, with the people here with us today. It is always now, so let us live the Kingdom of 'God' / the Kingdom of Heaven here and now.
To follow Jesus has little to do with being religious but it is everything to do with finding and serving the 'God' that comes to us moment by moment in both the beauty and the nastiness of what it means to be human. Religion is not a way or even the way to that which we call 'God'. For an increasing number of people today religion is getting in their way of developing and deepening their experiences of 'God'.
In his book 'The End of Religion', the Toronto-based evangelical minister, Bruxy Cavey, makes a very strong case that the primary purpose of Jesus was to do away with religion altogether. Therefore, my final thought today is this: "Does that which we call 'God' need religion?" Now that's the topic for your discussion groups.....
Matthew 23:1-12 (NRSVA)
Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.