Sunday, February 24, 2019

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Have you ever been asked, “What does Heaven look like?” Maybe by an inquisitive child or someone having a conversation about faith?  What was your answer?  Or what would you answer right now?  Usually when we talk about Heaven, we mingle scripture and tradition.  We talk about streets paved with gold, giant gates made of pearl.  We might say St. Peter waits for us at those gates…certainly there are a few jokes that start that way.  Would you say that those one has loved and lost will be there waiting to greet the new arrival?  Perhaps one would describe the innumerable angels or even the throne of God in its magnificence, surrounded by all peoples in adoration.  When I did a search on the internet for, ‘descriptions of Heaven’ many results came up.  Most of them quoted scripture, especially the Book of Revelation, chapter twenty-one, to talk about what Heaven looks like. 

From the Common English Bible, “the city…was fifteen hundred miles. Its length and width and height were equal. The angel also measured the thickness of its wall. It was two hundred sixteen feet thick. The wall was built of jasper, and the city was pure gold, like pure glass. The city wall’s foundations were decorated with every kind of jewel. The first foundation was jasper, the second was sapphire, the third was agate, and the fourth was emerald. The fifth was onyx, the sixth was ruby, the seventh was peridot, and the eighth was beryl. The ninth was topaz, the tenth was turquoise, the eleventh was jacinth, and the twelfth was amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was made from a single pearl. And the city’s main street was pure gold, as transparent as glass.”

But what if the best descriptions of Heaven have nothing to do with what the visual experience is?  What if the best descriptions of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, what we might even call (in theological terms) ‘the eschaton’ have more to do with how it feels to exist in such a place?  The Book of Revelation touches briefly on descriptions that talk about no hunger, no thirst, always bright, no death, no mourning, God dwells amongst the people.  But how often have you been asked, “What does Heaven look like” and you’ve gone to the words of Jesus, about the Kingdom of God.  Would you think to recite one of many parables that Jesus spoke, which begin with the words, “The Kingdom of God is like…”?  It gets confusing, I realize that, when we hear Jesus say something about the Kingdom of God, and then to say that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but then also to talk about that eschaton, or the end of all things which brings us to the fullness of that Kingdom, or as we call it, Heaven. 

Through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, that Kingdom of God begins to break into our world.  Jesus teaches continually about how to live that ideal existence, about the values of the Kingdom of God, and today’s Gospel lesson is no exception.  That’s why what Jesus says today about turning the other cheek, about giving without expectation of receiving, about doing to others as you would have then do to you seems both wonderful and completely unattainable.  Jesus never says, “The Kingdom of God is easy and super simple to experience.”  We know that living in the world means if you turn the other cheek you may be inviting more violence.  Giving more to those who have stolen from you might encourage more of the same behavior.  Jesus isn’t speaking hyperbolically when we he says those that are willing to lose their life for his sake will save it. 

In the Revised Common Lectionary for Eucharistic readings, this passage from Luke only shows up once: for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C.  What you may not be totally aware of is that the season after Epiphany does not have a fixed number of days.  Its length is determined by when the Feast of the Epiphany falls and when Lent begins.  So there can be up to eight Sundays after Epiphany possible before the last Sunday after the Epiphany.  The last time the calendar fell in such a way that this passage from Luke was used as the Gospel was Sunday, February 18th, 2001.  It’s been eighteen years since we have heard this passage at a Sunday service.  I’m pointing out the rarity of this passage because of how important Jesus’ words are.  This passage is important because it’s incredibly difficult and yet exemplifies what it means to really live as a Christian.  Jesus Christ makes clear to us that there is nothing Christian about fighting back, there is nothing Christian about defending yourself with violence.  There is nothing Christian about walking past a homeless person and pretending they don’t exist so we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves. 

Now, I know we are all going to fail at this teaching again and again.  These are values of the Kingdom of God, and that is a huge height to aspire to.  As I often tell people, I am a pacifist, and I believe without a shadow of a doubt that is what Jesus Christ teaches.  I will hold fast that pacifism is the only way to respond to violence as a Christian, even if that means losing your own life.  That is a value I hold.  But what I will also tell people is that the strong conviction I hold for that Christian ideal has never once been put to the test.  So, in all honesty, I know that while I have no doubt that is how Christ wants us to live, if someone actively threatened my life, I can’t tell you how I would actually react.  I would like to tell you how I believe I should react if I am a follower of Christ, but I also know I’m not perfect.  God knows that too.  Jesus knows that, and certainly if he ever forgot this, his disciples were there to remind him of the fallibility of humanity.

So what do we do with teachings that seem unreachable?  What do we do when Jesus tells us how to live and his way seems absolutely unrealistic and out of touch with the world we live in?  On April 16th, 1963, The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Junior wrote the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ where he was placed after being arrested for non-violent demonstrations against segregation.  In that letter he wrote,

“…I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” […] So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

This is the work of a Christian.  Jesus Christ gives us the clearest views of Heaven and how we live into the values that exist there.  Jesus calls us to be willing to stand against the cultures of the world and proclaim these values by word and deed.  So, when someone asks you, “what does Heaven look like?”  Tell them, “Heaven is a place where everyone lives in Love; just as Jesus himself calls us to do now.”  This life of a Christian is not an easy one, but if we believe, then we know it is one to which we are called.  Jesus’ words are clear.  Now it is our turn to take up our cross and follow.