Funerals and death are a part of life. The hope that most of the people I meet with when planning a funeral is that their loved one is now in heaven, in the Kingdom of God. But is that all there is to the Kingdom of God? Is it just 'pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die'? Or is there more to it than that.
Jesus said ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
An armful of presents to be dropped
Imagine, if you will, what it’s like to be a child on your birthday in a well-off family. You’re sitting in the living room and you have your arms literally filled with unopened presents. And then your parents stand at the door and tell you that they have a really special present for you, but it’s in the dining room. However the only way you can have that present is to put down all the presents you currently have, but that’s ok because this is better than everything else put together.
Now you don’t know what to do. Is this present really better than what you already have? Can’t they bring it to you and place it on the top of the mounds of presents you’re already carrying? You can’t see it, so you just don’t know. All you have is their assurance that there is this amazing present which they really want to give to you, but that you can’t have it at the same time as everything else. You have to put your faith in them that they will deliver what they promise.
That, I think, is the kind of scenario that our Gospel reading places before us. It begins with Jesus saying, I think with a joyous smile on his face, those reassuring words that God our Father really wants to give us the kingdom of God. But it’s a bit of an unknown. It’s clearly something special, but we can’t see what it is.
Then comes the catch.
In order to make room for the kingdom of God, we have to divest ourselves of everything else. In other words, if you’re going to have this really big present, the kingdom of God, then you have to put down all the other presents that you’re already holding. So the big question for us this is:
What is this kingdom of God?
You see no one has actually agreed on a definition. It’s obviously pretty important, but it might help if we could define it. So let me see if I can do that for you by making some suggestions as to what the Kingdom of God might be.
Perhaps we ought to start not with what the kingdom of God is, but where the kingdom of God is. That starts out by seeming a little easier because the kingdom of God is also used interchangeably with the phrase the kingdom of heaven. Heaven, we believe, is the place that is filled with angels and those who have left this world to be in the place where God rules. And that’s probably the best definition of where heaven is. It’s the place where God is the king; the reigning monarch. Now if we look at the stories of the Old Testament we discover that early on in Israel’s existence that country was a theocracy. That is, unlike other nations it didn’t actually have a physical human king. God was their king.
In other words early Israel was intended to be an extension of heaven on earth. Only that didn’t work too well. Eventually they begged for their own king and from there on in things went downhill. Their first king, Saul, turned into an unmitigated disaster. His successor, David, was their most celebrated king, even though he was convicted of adultery. He was followed by his son, Solomon, who despite his wisdom, gradually led the country into disarray, and civil war. From then on it got worse. So the kingdom of God pretty much stayed in heaven. At least that’s what we thought until Jesus said to his followers, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’
What then does it mean to have the kingdom of God within you? I think it pretty much comes down to this, to live in this life, on this planet, with these people as if you were in a theocracy. In other words living with God as your monarch and living by God’s rules. Most of the time people will appreciate that because God’s rules pretty much boil down to loving God with all your energies and loving your neighbour as if they were as important to you as you are. People who live like that are usually good to be around because they proactively put other people first. Sometimes, however, they can also be difficult people to have around because they are also willing to tell people when they are being unjust.
The other thing we need to remember is that Jesus also prayed these words in the Lord’s prayer: ‘Your kingdom come.’ In other words there is a kingdom of heaven; we are a part of that kingdom of God in heaven and should be living as such, and our prayer is that one day that kingdom of God will also be on earth. The kingdom of God therefore has an already-but-not-yet sense to it. It exists already in heaven, and it exists already within each of us as we try to live out here on earth what it means to be obedient to God. And one day it will be realised in all its fullness.
So let’s go back to my original picture of the child with an armful of presents. What makes the kingdom of God so good that we should want to shed everything else for it? I mean some of you have big houses, expensive cars and second homes. Why is the kingdom of God so good that we will be willing to divest ourselves of everything else?
You see this is really the big question. If the kingdom of God is not all that good, why would we be willing to lay everything else down? What is so good about it? You may have heard the phrase, ‘Pie in the sky when you die’. Some people think that the kingdom of God is all about living a good life so that you get to go to heaven. So this life may be miserable, but that’s OK because it’s worth it to get into the next one. But for me there is far, far more to it than that. The kingdom of God being within me, and the decisions that I’ve made to be a part of it has meant that my life has been much more challenging, and consequently fulfilling than it would otherwise have been. Now I am not in any way some kind of adrenalin junkie. I’m nervous enough to sometimes be scared of my own shadow, let alone tomorrow. But I also know that the things that I count dearly in my life, my wife, being a musician, becoming a priest, having a deepening appreciation of the natural world and its spirituality; they can all be traced back to saying yes to the invitation from Christ many years ago to be a part of the kingdom. Now I am in no way a good citizen of heaven, and thus far this life has had its fair share in difficult struggles, but there is a very real sense that he has kept his promise, and that the present I received has made more of me than I would otherwise have been, even though I probably still have far too much 'stuff'.
So is it worth it? Is it worth putting down that armful of presents in faith that the one being promised that you can’t see is worth it? Yes, I would say it is. It’s worth more than any possessions that rust and rot. So have a look at what you’ve got and ask what you need and see what the difference is between the two.
But there’s one more thing about this Kingdom of God within us that was pointed out by someone else in a discussion, and it’s the comment Jesus makes about moths being able to destroy treasure. If you put an expensive garment away in a wardrobe and forget about it, and there happens to be a moth in the wardrobe because you haven’t taken care of it, then the moth will gradually eat away at your expensive garment. When you take it out, you find it’s ruined - full of holes and worthless. So it is when we don’t nurture the kingdom of God within us. It is not enough simply to come here once a week and take the worship out of a closet before sealing it back up again. This is what Jesus meant about being ready when the kingdom of God is finally revealed.
The kingdom of God on earth should look, as much as we can, like the kingdom of God in heaven. So the church should be full of people nurturing the kingdom within them and shining with its light. It’s my belief that the church goes wrong when it starts concentrating on itself, on the institution, rather than on the kingdom of God.
So... is it time to put some, or maybe all of the parcels down to free up some space for an eternal kingdom? Or is it time to buy something else?