Heaven has been much on my mind lately. Last week we celebrated All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days – both of which invite the mind to consider heaven. Yesterday we laid to rest a dear and holy member of this parish, whose death put me in mind of heaven. So, thoughts of heaven have been very present to me this past week or so.
You might think that today’s Gospel reading is about heaven. Today we hear Jesus responding to a question from a religious leader – which is the greatest commandment. And Jesus gives an entirely uncontroversial answer. He gives, in fact, the correct answer – for this was a question not of opinion, but of commitment to established biblical teaching. The Jewish tradition already knew where in Torah the answer to this question was to be found – which is the greatest commandment. It’s not even a hard question, it’s a little like asking what are the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer; even if you don’t know how it continues, you could probably come up with “Our Father.”
An interesting thing happens in this little discussion between Jesus and the un-named scribe. Since the scribe asked the question, you’d think it would be him who evaluated Jesus’ answer. But in the matter of just a few sentences, St. Mark makes it clear that in fact, Jesus is now judging the reaction of the scribe, and judging it quite positively, since the scribe agrees with Jesus. And Jesus says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
In the Gospels we often hear the terms “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” used interchangeably. Because of this mix of terminology, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that Jesus is talking about that misty place beyond the clouds where we tell children people go after they die. But this is not quite right. When Jesus said to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” he was not telling him that death was imminent. It’s more like he was telling him, “You’re getting warmer…”
You remember how we did this when we were kids and our brother or sister was looking for something that we’d hidden. “You’re getting colder,” we’d say as they moved away from the concealed object. “You’re getting warmer,” we’d tell them as they moved toward the closet where it was hidden, or under the sofa, or wherever.
Jesus’ ministry was always about the kingdom of God. So many times in his encounters with religious leaders, he’d had to say to them, “You’re getting colder.” But here, rehearsing the greatest commandment to love God and love your neighbor, and remembering its preeminence among all the other rules of Jewish law, it delights Jesus to say to the scribe, “You’re getting warmer, warmer, warmer… you’re boiling hot now!”
These days we have forgotten so much about the kingdom of God, we confuse it with heaven – and often think of it as nothing more than a great retirement community in the sky, where the food is better than average, and the weather is better than Florida. But when we think this way, we are only getting colder. Jesus is not teaching about what happens to us in the life to come, he is teaching about life in this world. He is not talking about a reward that awaits us after death, he is talking about a way of living on this side of the grave. And when we begin to suspect that this talk about the kingdom of God has something to do with how we live our lives in the here and now, then we are getting much warmer. Remember that John the Baptist came proclaiming the kingdom of God, and Jesus did the same. This was the message they both began with: the kingdom of God has come near. But what does this mean? What are we supposed to do about it?
These days the church cannot escape the temptation to speak of our work in terms of commerce. We talk about church shopping, marketing, and we often say that we have to be clear about what kind of religion we are selling. I don’t much like the analogies from which that language springs, but if we must borrow our language and thinking from commerce, then I think we’d do much better to think in terms of construction than selling. (Oh, I know they are related, but work with me here.) For we have been called to build up the kingdom of God in this world. This is our mission and our daily concern in the church. How can we build up the kingdom of God?
Please note that this is not a call to establish a theocratic state, nor an insistence that America is a Christian nation, nor an assertion of so-called biblical ethics, nor a demand that the Ten Commandments be hung on the walls of our courthouses. In all these endeavors, I fear, we’d be getting colder.
There are two phases in building up the kingdom of God, but it’s OK if they happen out of sequence. Phase One is to worship the one, true, and living God, that is, to love him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Phase Two is to love your neighbor as yourself, which is to say, follow the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do for you. When we do this, we are getting warmer.
You would not think these two phases would be hard to manage – especially since the order of them doesn’t much matter – begin with Phase Two and then move on to Phase One: it’s OK! But the story of faith - for both Jews and Christians – has been a story of struggle to be attentive to these two phases of building up the kingdom of God.
I’m sometimes asked these days, about the state of health of the Episcopal Church – which has been rife with conflict, lawsuits, discord, and decline over the past few decades. Will we survive? Will the Anglican Communion, of which we are a part, also survive, since it, too, faces many struggles?
How can we answer these questions? Who knows what will become of our institutions? Not me. These are tricky questions, that, I guess require tricky answers, which I sometimes feel able to take a stab at. But there is a less tricky answer to be given in response to whether or not our church structures will survive and grow: that depends on how much we want to work to build up the kingdom of God. Because the kingdom of God is very near you right now, and building it up is all about what we do in this life, not about what happens to us in the life to come.
It sometimes feels to us as though we ourselves or the church at large is getting colder about all this – moving further and further away from building up the kingdom of God. And I think you know it when you feel it. I tend to feel this way – as if we are getting colder – at committees, and meetings and councils of the church where talk is cheap and plentiful. And I feel we are getting warmer whenever we are doing things that seem to echo with the great commandment to love God and love his neighbor.
Many of you know by know my recitation of the things we do that get us warmer: when we are at prayer or worship, or our voices are raised in song; when we are caring for the homeless and the hungry; when we are taking old things and making them new, giving them new life; when we are feeding one another at our tables; when we are attentive to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the dying.
This Parish was built to be a place that knew the kingdom of God was very near, not beckoning us beyond the grave. It was built to be a place where people could get warmer, warmer, warmer, even boiling hot in their search for God. And I pray that it will always be so.
Next week, I can promise you, when I stand in the pulpit, I will be talking about money – I have been reading ahead and I happen to know that the Gospel invites me to do so. And besides, next Sunday is Commitment Sunday when we make our pledges of financial support to the Parish. I am regularly encouraged – and there are times when I am sure that this encouragement is right – to follow the examples of professional fund raisers, since there is an entire industry of people out there who are trying to get you to give your money to various causes. And there are times, when I think it is a good idea to take this advice, to follow the best practices of fund raising, so that we can be accountable and successful in what we do.
But more urgently, I am called to remind you of the kingdom of God, which we are asked to build up in the here and now. This is holy work that you and I have been called to do, and we can only do it together. It delights me to know that year after year we seem to be getting warmer and warmer as we work for the kingdom of God in this place, as we remember that it is not some distant cloudy land that we will wander through in robes of white when the last trumpet has sounded. But the kingdom of God is near you – it is here, it is now.
Everything we do, we do for this kingdom, out of love for its king, who gave us every gift, and who lived and died for us and rose from the dead, that our lives might be shaped not by the forces of this world, but by the commandments of a greater kingdom, where we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and with all souls, all our strength, and all our mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, and on their foundations we are building the kingdom of God, by his grace!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
4 November 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia