My fourth grade teacher took a dim view of me. At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. Take for instance her response to a playground incident I was involved in.
It was a sunny late spring morning. The whole class was playing softball. I was up to bat, waiting for the pitch, when a hard blow to the back of my leg knocked me to the ground. A boy named Steve had hit me with a bat before anybody realized what was happening.
For the record, I have to admit that Steve and I had run-ins from time to time. We also played together fairly regularly. Boys. Right? And on this occasion I had probably trash talked him about something, but I hadn’t laid a hand on him.
Our teacher ran up as I lay on the ground fighting back tears with only minimal success. Her precise words escape me now, but she was scolding me and saying something about knowing what I was like. She imposed some punishment on me and began comforting Steve as if I had stuck a hot poker in his eye.
I do remember a girl named Julie telling our teacher, “But he didn’t do anything. Steve just snuck up on him and hit him for no reason.”
What Julie said didn’t matter. I got punished and I got the message. My teacher was almost as glad that I was nearly out of her class as I was to be on to fifth grade. Hope came to me in the form of a rapidly approaching summer break and a new teacher in the fall. I would soon escape to a happier place.
No matter how sweet and good this life can be, millions of people find comfort and hope in the belief that when this life is over we will be in a happier place. In a paradise where the cares, sorrows, and trials of this world are forever in the past.
Now if you poll a sample of these people about what heaven looks like, you’re likely to hear a variety of descriptions.
For instance, somebody once told me that paradise would be spending every day duck hunting. I have to tell you, that sounded like a pretty crummy deal for the ducks to me.
But this duck hunter’s portrait of the afterlife has one thing in common with many of the images I’ve heard from other people. Heaven is the place where you get to do the stuff you love to do forever.
They figure a Savior’s role is to get you into your own eternal holodeck.
For those unfamiliar with Star Trek, the holodeck is a compartment in the starship Enterprise. Crew members can enter and call up any perfect holographic world they want: Wild West, Medieval castle, deer stand, you name it.
You just tell the computer and it will put you in the scenario of your choice, complete with sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and even a supporting cast of characters.
Some think of paradise like a celestial holodeck. It’s a setting filled with everything that pleases you, and you don’t have to share it with anybody you don’t want in there.
Pretty great, huh? Only, that’s not what Jesus offers.
Jesus did not come to transport each of us to our own private paradise. For that matter, he didn’t come to make a space for us to gather with all our favorite people undisturbed by jerks, lowlifes, deadbeats, and creeps.
On the contrary, Jesus came to prepare us to sit together at one table at a great feast. Eternal life is neither luxurious solitary play nor a ceaseless romp with your own select in-group. The Great Heavenly Banquet has a vast guest list over which we have no control.
Paradoxically, Jesus aims to create an intimacy at this vast party that is nearer and gentler than anything we have yet experienced.
It’s as if we will sit directly across the table from each person. Hearing and seeing, being heard and being seen. Without pretense. Without judgment. In perfect empathy and tender acceptance for the imperfect, messy gifts we are to one another. Christ himself is drawing us together and opening us up to each other.
As it turns out, the greatest obstacle to entering the Kingdom of God is our capacity to see in others a jerk, a lowlife, a deadbeat, or a creep where Jesus sees a child of God.
The Kingdom of God is where loving your neighbor as yourself—loving your neighbor as if you shared an inseparable circulatory system—becomes an eternal reality.
Getting us ready for the Kingdom is what Jesus does. That’s what it means to say that Jesus is our Savior.
Because let’s just face it, there are plenty of people we flinch at seeing on the guest list of the heavenly party. Or at the very least, we would like to see them assigned to a different table. Maybe even an entirely separate dining hall.
We know we’re supposed to love our neighbor. And we’re really fine with that. So long as we get to choose our neighbors and nobody irritating or offensive or threatening or distasteful is forced on us.
It’s on this point that Jesus’s teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth took such a bad turn. He had just proclaimed himself to be the Savior. He had come to bring good news to the poor, free the captive, give relief to the oppressed, restore sight to the blind, and make the lame walk.
So far so good. Then he sticks his foot in it. God’s salvation makes neighbors of people you’ve considered your inferiors and even your enemies.
Through the prophet Elijah God had fed the widow of Zarephath throughout a years-long drought and even raised her son from the dead. Only, she wasn’t an Israelite.
Through the prophet Elisha God healed Naaman of leprosy. Naaman wasn’t just a Syrian. He was a commander. Of an opposing army.
The congregation in Nazareth erupted. Jesus was suggesting that salvation included loving a foreign beggar and a military enemy as blood of their own blood.
Maybe some in the congregation thought and felt that the widow, and certainly Naaman, didn’t act like neighbors. They had different values and competing goals. And they may even drain the resources of and pose a threat to the Israelites.
But Jesus didn’t mean that we should assess who passes a set of eligibility requirements for being considered a neighbor. Jesus taught that we must act like neighbors first, and that a neighbor is someone who shows compassion. (Luke 10:36-37)
In other words, Jesus calls his followers to be neighbors to everyone we meet. A compassionate heart treats others as neighbors because that is who we are in Christ, not because someone merits our respect and understanding by what they have achieved or how they act or what they think.
As it it turns out, this is a happier place. The happiest place. This is the Kingdom of God, the kingdom where healing, restoring, reconciling love reigns supreme.
Love like this is very difficult. In fact, for us, it’s impossible. And that is why we need a savior.