Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Kingdom of Heaven

Probably one of the things I will miss the most as an officer in The Salvation Army (pastor) is preaching. I enjoyed crafting a sermon, preparing it, and speaking before a crowd. It was my chance to share what I felt God wanted me to share. There is no reason why I cannot still do this in my blog. So I have decided to do just that. I always preached from the Lectionary. Now, I never used the Revised Common Lectionary, which runs a 3-year cycle. Instead I followed the Lectionary I used in Germany, which runs on a 6-year cycle. It always forced me to preach from texts I normally wouldn't. Interestingly enough, this week's text comes from one of my favorite Scripture passages, Matthew 25:

Jesus speaks:

““Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left. “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ "Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life."”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:31-46‬ ‭CEB‬‬

What an amazing vision this is!

First of all, I love how the Common English Bible renders the normal translation of "Son of Man." The CEB translates this as "Human One." I love this because it emphasizes Christ's humanity. At the same time, there will come a moment of judgment. When will this happen? I'm not sure.

I do know that throughout Matthew Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven being at hand. In other words, it was imminent. It is getting ready to be here now, not later, and Jesus was talking about this 2000 years ago. I believe that sometimes we confuse the Kingdom of Heaven with the heavens or the afterlife. We begin to think about the afterlife:  what happens after death, eternity. It is all well and good to be thinking about these things; however, Jesus focused on the present. When he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, he described it in ways that people understood:  helping your neighbor, going after the lost, etc. These are things that are happening or should be happening now. The Kingdom of Heaven is the responsibility of all of us to bring into reality now.

I am not certain that this judgment is at the End Times or at the Last of Days. I believe we are being judged whenever we refuse to help those we could and should help.

One of the most powerful images I have ever seen is a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz, called "Homeless Jesus." It depicts a shrouded figure on a park bench. One can only tell that it's Jesus due to the nail-pierced feet sticking out of the robe. I visited such a statue in Grand Haven, Michigan. I have a small version of this statue in my room.

Many people have been offended and disturbed by this image. I'm glad they are. We should be disturbed by this image. It is Jesus telling us that we have been ignoring him when we ignore our neighbor.

Often today I hear of people complaining about their neighbor. They complain about the immigrant. They complain about the homeless. They complain about those who think and act differently than they do. A Salvation Army soldier in Australia, named Anthony Castle, once made a powerful statement. Australia has also been dealing with immigration issues, especially those arriving on boats. The boats are diverted to other island nations where they are imprisoned until their application for asylum is reviewed and often rejected. A friend of mine turned his words into a powerful meme:

The Kingdom of Heaven is not something that happens when we die and experience the afterlife. The Kingdom of Heaven is our responsibility to bring to this world. Look at who the Human One was talking to:  those who should have known; those who already acknowledge Jesus as Lord. When we fail to serve those who are in need, no matter who they are, we fail our Lord.

My biggest challenge for me now is to answer the question myself. How am I helping my neighbor out? What am I doing? When I was an officer, I could sit behind the comfort that I was always doing what Matthew 25 asks of me to do. Now that I am no longer an officer, I am on the lookout for ways to show God's love to everyone. It is a challenge I hope that we will all accept.

As I prepared this blog earlier during the week, there was no way that I could have realized the tragedy that was to strike in Paris. However, despite these attacks, I am convinced that following Christ's commands to serve others is even more important in the light of such horrible evil. It is normal for us to want to act out in vengeance. It is more difficult for us to act out in love, especially when we have been wronged.

I do not mean that acting out in love means putting ourselves in danger. I mean that when we are wronged, we do not strike back. Instead, as far as we are able to, we should end the cycle of hate. People will be blaming all sorts of other people for this tragedy:  governments, refugees, policies, weapons, the lack of weapons, etc. Instead of blaming, why don't we show love and compassion?

Just by being kind to others, not matter who they are, is the best way to show God's love. When we serve others, when we put the needs of others first before our own needs, we bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth.

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