ave you ever wondered what heaven will be like? I mean, beyond the Pearly Gates, which are often the only thing depicted when heaven is portrayed in the popular imagination. What does heaven look like in your mind’s eye? After all, for something that occupies a large place in many people’s personal faith, we spend remarkably little time talking about it. And when we do, it is in clipped thoughts. We speak of the people we will see there, the people who have been waiting for us: our grandparents, our parents, close friends. We imagine it will be bright, like a day without end. We’ll be happy; all the cares of this life, the anxiety, the fear, and the suffering will be no more.
Some people imagine that it will be a place of eternal song as we sing praise to God without ceasing. Which is great if you like singing. Others envision it like a never-ending Sunday afternoon spent on the porch. Looking out over a green lawn, bordered by roses and hydrangeas, contained neatly by a white picket fence, we watch all of eternity pass by. But the truth is that many of us rarely give it a passing thought. It is too uncomfortable a question, forcing us to dwell on our own mortality.
We may not have a clear vision of what heaven looks like, but Jesus does.
For the past several weeks, we have had an extended tour of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It began with the Beatitudes, went through the salt of the earth sayings, and included Jesus’ re-application of and commitment to the laws both last week and this week. These teaching, some of Jesus’ best known words, paint a picture of his vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.
What does the Kingdom of Heaven look like? My friends, in the Kingdom of Heaven, God blesses the meek, those who mourn, and those who have no hope. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God vindicates the peacemakers, those who hunger for justice, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. No more will their efforts be ridiculed, nor will they be reviled and scorned by the powerful and the privileged. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the light of the faithful burns brightly, like a beacon in the night. It is a light that no power in heaven or on earth can extinguish or cover up.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s holy law is fulfilled. God’s holy law is completed, for neighbor will love neighbor. And more than that, the foreigner will be treated with justice, and without prejudice, and will be welcomed into the midst of the community. And we will love our enemy. And we will pray for our enemy. For in the Kingdom of Heaven, we will not live by fear, but trusting in God, we will live in the fullness of the sacred Community. For Jesus’ vision of heaven is not focused on which relatives we will be reunited with. It is a vision primarily concerned with how we are in relationship with one another. It is a vision where in every person we recognize and honor the dignity and value given by God.It sounds like a nice place, doesn’t it? It sounds like a world we want to live in. It almost sounds like the world as God intended it to be.
The Good News of the Gospel, and I don’t mean just today’s reading, but the whole thing, is that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. It is not separated from us by death. No pearly gates block our entrance. In Christ, heaven has come to us. It has come to us now, in this time. It has come to us here, in this place.
We don’t normally think of heaven in this way, as something that can be found in this life. That is because we have a very limited concept of eternal life. We think of it only as something which comes after death, as something which is no longer bounded by time. But eternal life is so much more than that. It is life unbounded, not just by time. It is that expands outward infinitely. Eternal life is life unconstrained and set free, life that grows expansively, reaching toward God. It is not something that happens in the future, it is something that we find now.
How do we find this eternal life? How do we find the Kingdom of Heaven? By following Christ. “By being perfect,” Jesus says in our reading, “just as God is perfect.”
Now, before you throw your hands up in despair over this impossible task, take a deep breath. The English translation does Jesus’ words a disservice, using the word “perfect” in a way that we are not used to hearing it. You can get a hint at its meaning if you replace “perfect” with “perfected.” It is not meant as a moral value, but as a completion. What Jesus speaks of here is the fulfillment of a goal. “Be as God intended you to be,” Jesus instructs us, “be the people God intended you to be.”
It is, after all, more than an individual mandate. It is a communal mandate. We are to be the community God intended us to be. We are to care for the weakest in our midst, for those who are at the greatest risk. We are to love justice and do mercy. We are to stand against injustice, oppression, and evil, in all its forms, countering not with violence and aggression, but with witness to the Good News and with acts of healing and reconciliation. And we are not to live lives governed by fear, like a people without hope, a people terrified of the world around them. We are to be a people of hope, who live boldly, trusting in the God who calls us into eternal life.
In short, we are to be a people who keep God’s law. We are to be a people who live God’s law with the fullness of our being, just as Christ taught us.
And really, this should come as no surprise, for the yoke of God’s law is not heavy. It is given, not to restrain us and bind us, but to set us free. God’s law sets us free from those things that prevent us from being the people God intended us to be. And when, by God’s grace, we become unbound, we are able to step into eternity and see that indeed, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
Preached by Adam Yates