This post will appear in the Rome Sentinel on Saturday, February 10. I have the privilege of taking a turn writing the religion column a few times a year in our local paper. But, since a lot of people don’t read the paper any more, especially younger people, here’s my column for those of you who prefer digital media.
Jesus came to Galilee saying, “The time is fulfilled, and kingdom of heaven has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” — Mark 1:14-15
At the heart of my Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus came to proclaim a new reality that was breaking into the world. He referred to this as the “kingdom of heaven.” Some use the phrase “reign of God.” The Jews used the word, “shalom” to refer to a state of being where everything was whole and in harmony. Judaism also has a term that describes the reason God’s people exist: “tikkun olam” is the work of “healing the world.” I believe it is that same work that Jesus came to fulfill by inviting people into the “kingdom of heaven.”
I believe that part of the modern evangelical movement has distorted the message of Jesus.
The distortion I see is reducing Jesus’ invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven to nothing more than a claim that if you believe certain ideas you’ll “go to heaven” after you die. That kind of escapist religion treats God’s creation as a disposable and temporary place that humans have a license to foul up because they are just practicing for real life in “heaven.” To treat the earth with such contempt is to spit in God’s face.
What I believe Jesus came to do is to enlist people into a new community, a new reality, people who are committed to mending the world, restoring the creation, being part of God’s redemptive work. The Word became flesh. Jesus came to bring heaven to earth, not to lead an escape from earth to another realm. That other realm is here, “among you” or “within you” as Jesus said. That other realm is our hope, hope to release people from the hell of warfare and anger, addiction and despair, greed and abuse.
I don’t think of another place called heaven or another place called hell. They are present realities. They are spiritual realities. At the same time, I believe that nothing in life or in death can ever separate us from the love of God. God will hold me when my mortal life is through.
One idea that makes sense to me is what C. S. Lewis said long ago in Mere Christianity. “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you… into something a little different than it was before. All your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
The invitation Jesus offers us is urgent. We only need to look around us to see how urgent it is. The world is in a mess. Turn around. Change your life. Get with the program. Let the Way of Jesus shape your life, for the mending of the world, for shalom, for the new life of the kingdom of heaven. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God, and be part of God’s healing of this suffering world.