The idea of perfection still seduces me and abuses me from time to time.
If I were perfect, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not other people were going to put up with me. Supposedly wise, self-confident people tell us not to worry about what other people think of us. But I have to tell you that I think that’s hogwash.
Let me just speak for myself here. I want deep, abiding, nurturing relationships. I want to be accepted, to be encouraged to grow, and to be appreciated. Now, if I were perfect, this would be a breeze. Only envious jerks would dislike me, so I could dismiss their negative opinions of me as so much meaningless noise.
|Paul Gauguin’s “Perfect Days”|
But here’s the truth of the matter. I screw up. I forget important things, say things I regret, underestimate people, overestimate myself, and sometimes blame the world for my irritability. And that’s just what people can see. I can’t say some of the things I think because, as Anne Lamott once said somewhere, “It would make Jesus want to drink gin straight from the cat dish.”
In other words, I’m not perfect. And I’m not likely to get there in my lifetime. So any relationship I’m going to have puts me at somebody else’s mercy. If anybody is ever going to love me, they will have to be patient, tolerant, and forgiving.
Now let me be clear about this. I’m not actually talking about someone being patient, tolerant, and forgiving as temporary measures until I’m finally perfect and don’t need that sort of graciousness anymore.
Here’s what I mean. If I’m ever going to have honest, rich relationships—and in fact I do have such relationships—they will emerge only as a result of an imperfect person embracing me as an imperfect person, and my doing the same in turn. And there can be no clause in our contract that says that we can give up on our love for each other if perfection is not achieved by a certain date.
I tell you all of this as a way of getting you to think about the Kingdom of Heaven from a perspective you may not have considered. Many people think of heaven as the completely perfect place we go after we die.
Jesus, by contrast, seems to mean something else when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s happening now. It’s not perfect. You could say it’s a holy mess. But that will take some explaining. So let’s start by explaining how the popular idea of heaven gets in the way of understanding Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Story Jesus is not Telling
The popular idea of heaven figures centrally in the story that many assume to be the Gospel. That story bears little resemblance to what Jesus actually preached, but it has quite a hold on us and prevents us from hearing Jesus clearly.
Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of Heaven as part of his mission to inaugurate that very Kingdom by showing up in our midst. To put it simply, the Kingdom of Heaven begins happening wherever Jesus shows up.
By contrast, many people think about heaven only when they want to know what happens to us after we die. As a result, whenever Jesus says something about the Kingdom, their mind associates his words with the idea of a place where the departed reside. Or at least, a place that they would like to reside when they die.
Since they misinterpret what Jesus means by the Kingdom of Heaven, they assume that Jesus came to tell us how to act in this life so that we can get into that place that we call heaven.
For them, Jesus’ teaching becomes a list of requirements that we have to meet in order to gain admission to the place called heaven. The Kingdom becomes for us the reward we get for meeting all of Jesus’ requirements.
|Hong Yu’s “Ladder to Heaven”|
And what are these requirements? They fall into two general categories: beliefs and behaviors.
Once they assume that heaven is a place we want to get into and that Jesus has come to give us the requirements for entrance, they begin to see the core of the Christian life as asserting the truth of a specific list of idea and following a set of moral rules.
If we think right and we act right, so the story goes, we get into the place we call heaven. The Gospel has become the instruction manual for how we have to think and what we have to do in order to enter paradise.
Before we turn to what Jesus actually means by the Kingdom of Heaven, let’s look at what a contradictory mess this idea of the Gospel actually is.
The electrifying core of the Good News is grace. God grants us something that we can neither earn nor deserve. And yet, here we’ve turned the Christian life into a program of intellectual conformity and moral achievement. How is that any different from the religious system of the Temple that Jesus so roundly criticized? Has Jesus come only to require an even more rigorous adherence to rules and theological formulas?
Well, I’m obviously saying that this is not what Jesus had in mind. So let’s turn to the story that Jesus actually tells.
It’s about Grace, Stupid!
You may or may not care for former President Bill Clinton, but his first campaign set an example for clarity of message. They had posters all over campaign headquarters that said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Everything that came out of that campaign was supposed to point back to economic development.
Let’s keep the Christian message clear in a similar way. Everything that Jesus says and does circles back to one thing: “It’s about Grace, Stupid!”
Grace is the key to understanding Jesus. The key to following Jesus. Whenever you wonder who God really is and how to be faithful, just remind yourself that it’s about grace.
As I said, Jesus talks about the Kingdom. A lot. That’s because his coming inaugurates the Kingdom. His coming does not tell us how to get into a place after we die. His coming transforms the place we are already living. God is doing something in Jesus. Something in which we can participate.
|Wolf Kahn’s “Half Hidden”|
Grace is God’s freely given initiative toward us. Grace is God’s love making God’s will a reality. The Kingdom of Heaven is where God reigns. To put that a slightly different way, the Kingdom is wherever God’s love puts its spin on whatever mess we find ourselves entangled in.
If you really want to get your head around what Jesus means by the Kingdom, quit thinking about it as a place that we will go someday. Instead, it’s the life that Jesus brings with him wherever he goes.
That life is everlasting, but since Jesus shows up right here and right now, quit looking over the horizon of this life to spot the Kingdom. You can find it right in front of your nose. Our problem is that we’ve been taught to look for something perfect. We assume that the holy would never be be caught dead in the mess that is this life. Not until it we tidied it up sufficiently. In other words, we’re more than a little bit like the Pharisees.
A Holy Mess
Jesus said to the crowd, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
If you’re under the impression that Jesus came to give us the admission requirements for a perfect place called heaven, his words will sound like a call be be holier than thou, a call to perfect moral rectitude and unflinching doctrinal conformity.
We have to one-up even the notoriously moral Pharisees. Our behavior must be spotless, our motives pure. No hint of hypocrisy is allowed. Then, after we die, we will gain admission to God’s Perfect Gated Community because, well, we had finally gotten perfect.
But given what Jesus actually means by the Kingdom of Heaven, I hear something more like this. The Kingdom of Heaven is happening right in front of us. God is at work in this messy world, and we can jump in anytime you want.
You can enter the Kingdom of Heaven right now, but you have to be willing to be part of a holy mess.
If you’re waiting for other people to shape up or you’re waiting for a reward for being good or you think you’re spiritually set because you believe certain things, then the Kingdom is passing you by every day. You’re missing the boat.
The Kingdom happens when we feed that hungry guy who just never learns how to handle his finances. When we give the hundredth do-over to that kid who keeps making the same boneheaded mistake. When we refuse to keep a distance from people whose difference from us makes us uncomfortable.
We enter the Kingdom of Heaven by loving imperfectly in an imperfect world. Our love isn’t what creates the Kingdom. God’s love does that. The Kingdom of Heaven is where God’s love is already shaping things and changing things and making all things new. We participate in that Kingdom by putting our heart into it.
We forgive and get swept up in God’s great work of reconciliation. We feed the hungry and demand fair wages for all and catch the wave of God’s justice. We participate in medical missions and find ourselves caught up in God’s healing of the entire creation.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a holy mess. It happens in this imperfect life because this is where the holy God shows up. We don’t enter that Kingdom by being perfect. That Kingdom begins to make us holy because we’ve jumped into it with our frail hands and our imperfect hearts.
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Bastrop, Louisiana.
I think you are correct in this interpretation of Jesus' message. Wherever we can replace our natural self-interests and selfishness with the interests of a loving and caring God, that becomes Heaven on Earth. I have never been able to appreciate the concept of a “reward” after death for “believing” Jesus is my Savior. Even if it were true and real, I have always had the impression that I would cross that bridge when I got there. Until then, I am presently and intentionally going to place my life and my energy into enjoying the heavenly experience right here in Shreveport, Louisiana! Cheers!
Your phrase “replace our natural self-interest…” reminds me of a phrase I didn't keep in the sermon: “learning to love what God loves.” Maybe next week!
Tell my friends in Shreveport I said hi. Off to see the good folks in Bastrop in a few minutes.