The Culture of Heaven. Lk6:27-38
I know this isn't the usual way of doing things, but I thought I would start this talk with the summary. That way you will have an anchor as I wander around all over the place between the Sermon on the Mount and John’s Gospel.
And the summary is this – the role of the church, and the role of individual Christians, is to manifest the culture of Heaven in the world. To model Heaven here on earth.
Now I don’t imagine that will be an earth-shattering revelation to you. But I want to explore some of the implications of that statement over the next few minutes.
Did you realise that Heaven has a culture? I think it does.
Many people who would not count themselves as Christian point to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5 to 7, or the equivalent passage in Luke 6, which we heard from today, as a great piece of moral teaching, some form of declaration of universal human values. Mahatma Gandhi springs to mind as one, and there have been many others. I want to suggest to you that the Sermon on the Mount is a great deal more than that – that it is really a description of the culture of Heaven. Or rather that it is a description of what happens when the culture of Heaven comes into conflict with the culture of this world; what happens when Heaven invades earth.
But, in order for us to manifest a culture, it has to become part of us, first. So how do we go about learning to be part of a culture? Let’s think about what could we do if we wanted to introduce the culture of some other country – any one you like, say Italy or Japan or Bolivia, etc. into our own? How do you learn another culture? Well, we could do a number of things. We could read a book about it. For the culture of Heaven, I have a suitable book here! But I wonder if that would have the danger of teaching us about the culture, rather than us absorbing it for ourselves, so that we can model it – so that it becomes part of us? Then again, we could find someone who has been to that country, and have a conversation with them, and try to learn from them about the culture. But make sure that they actually have been there, and not just read the guidebook, otherwise you may just as well have read the guidebook yourself!
But, of course, there is yet another way of learning the culture of a country – you can visit it yourself. Spend some time there, visit the sights, eat the food, learn the language.
Now you might, or might not! be surprised to know that I think of myself as an evangelical. Not that I want to go around telling everyone that they are a sinner and are going to Hell. Nor for that matter that I particularly want to be associated with a lot of people that have adopted that particular label. No, I am an evangelical because I have been captivated by the Evangel. That word is a transliteration of the Greek work euangellion, which is usually translated as gospel, or Good News. Actually, ‘good announcement’, or ‘good proclamation’ would probably be a better translation. And what is that good proclamation? It is that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It’s not a long way away, you don’t have to wait until you get to the end of your life to go there. It’s accessible now, you can enter into it!
Wow, that was a big statement! You mean I can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven now? Well yes, that is what I am saying, and I believe that was what Jesus was saying. In fact, I would even say that is what the gospel is all about.
And if you do that you may be in the best position to absorb the culture into yourself, and reproduce it on earth. I’m not suggesting that you stay there, and don’t come back. That will be the situation when you’ve ‘shuffled of the mortal coil’. In the meantime, you can go there, and come back, in the spirit. There is a guest room reserved for you in the Father's house. Jesus has made a permanent reservation in the hotel for you. You can visit whenever you like. In our Father's house there are lots of guest rooms.
Don’t get too hung up about what you call it. I call it entering our Father’s house. Call it prayer if you like. But it is not the kind of prayer where I am down here and God is up there, and I am sending requests in an upward direction. It is much more like knowing that I am in the presence of the Father, I am in the same room. And I don’t know what your definition of heaven is, mine is the place where God our Father is. In fact, what I am talking about could be called a communion – a union with - it is my spirit in union with God’s Holy Spirit which is in me. You can call it meditation if you like, but it is not the kind of meditation where you want to empty yourself. In fact, it is the kind of meditation where you seek to be filled – filled with the Holy Spirit.
Let me ask you a cheeky question, and I hope you don’t think I’m being irreverent here. When you lift someone up in prayer, do you think of yourself as pushing them up from below, or do you know that you are in the Father’s presence, and you are giving them a hand up into it? I hope you realise that I am using picture language in this. In reality the kingdom of Heaven is neither up there nor down here. The kingdom of Heaven is within you.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s not the slightest thing wrong with praying to our Father who is ‘up there.’ It’s what we do. It’s what Jesus did. All I am saying is that it is not the same as entering into the Kingdom of Heaven. (By the way, I always think it’s interesting that we close our eyes and bow our heads to pray, when Jesus opened his eyes and looked up!)
Ok, so how do you go about entering the kingdom of Heaven, then? Do you have to get a visa before you can?
Well, I suspect that I may be preaching to the converted here, as I guess many of you will recognise that you go there, or at least have been there. But, for those who haven’t, it can seem like a conundrum! As Winston Churchill said in another context, it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma! So, if that is the way you feel, let me give a few clues to help you on the way.
Thomas in the Gospels was perplexed by the same conundrum. I have an incredibly soft spot for Thomas. Doubting Thomas! I can relate to Thomas in so many ways. Perhaps there’s a bit of Thomas in all of us. ‘Show me the proof!’ There is a record of a great encounter between Jesus and Thomas at the beginning of chapter 14 of John’s gospel. Actually, you need to start at the end of chapter 13.
Jesus is saying (my paraphrase): -
Little children, I’m not with you for much longer. You will search for me and, as I said to the Jews, where I am going you cannot come.
Peter then says: -
Lord, where are you going?
And Jesus answers:
Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward. Don’t get upset, believe in God, and believe in me. There are many guest rooms in my Father’s house. If there were not, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare one for you? And when I’ve done that, I will come again and take you with me, so that we can be together. And you know the way to the place that I’m going.
And you can almost hear Thomas’ frustration when the blurts out: -
We haven’t a clue where you’re going, so how on earth can we know the way there!
(Isn’t that just like us when we first hear that we can actually enter the Kingdom of Heaven!)
Can you remember what Jesus’ reply was to that?
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me!
So that might be the first clue to unwrapping the enigma.
To get a bit further, we have to look at another place in John’s Gospel – the famous Chapter 3. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus and he says, at one point, “No one has ascended into Heaven except the one descended from Heaven, the Son of Man”. That sounds rather like we can’t enter, only He can. That’s it, forget it, it’s not possible, let’s just get on with the rest of our lives!’
But I believe there is a solution to the dilemma. And that is, that if you are in Jesus, you can be where Jesus is. And where is that? At the right hand of the Father. Jesus ascended to the Father, and he came back to fetch us!
It is a faith thing. You believe into Jesus. John 3:16 says “in just the same way God loved the world” – that’s right, the “so” in this verse is “so also”, not “so much”! “In just the same way God loved the world, that whoever believes into him may not be destroyed, but have eternal life.” In just the same way as what? Well, you have to read verses 14 and 15 to learn that. Read verses 14 and 15 and you will find there that Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert and all who looked on it did not die after they had been bitten by a snake. Jesus went to the cross for just the same reason – that, believing in him, we might not die from having been bitten by the snake, if you know what I mean. Instead we can have eternal life. And eternal life, of course, is knowing the Father.
So, it’s a faith thing! Let me make a few comments about faith, as I see it.
Firstly, you don’t need very much. About as much as a mustard seed, in fact. Just enough to get you into Jesus. There is a general principle in the Kingdom of Heaven that less on earth equates to more in Heaven. A little bit of faith here on earth will get you a long way in heaven. Jesus called his disciples the ‘little faith ones’. (NOT O ye of little faith, as if they are in a poor state because they haven’t got much!) As soon as you trust in Jesus with your ‘little faith’ you can use his faith, and he’s got lots of it!
Then again, the faith you are looking for is the faith of a child. Remember that the Kingdom of Heaven that you are seeking to enter is the Kingdom of our Father. If you’re not willing to become a child, you will never have a Father! What we’re really talking about is establishing a relationship.
And then, don’t forget that faith is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. When we have the Holy Spirit filling us faith builds in us as well.
So how do we receive the Holy Spirit?
Let’s get back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says “Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” And it is just as permissible, and I think better, to translate it as “go on asking and you will go on receiving.” It’s not a one-off thing, we have to keep searching, remaining in the vine, walking in the Spirit, if we want to find ourselves entering the Kingdom.
I said earlier that you can enter the Kingdom whenever you like. That’s not strictly true. You can enter whenever you are called by the Holy Spirit. But if you don’t keep seeking you will find that you never get called. That’s my experience, anyway.
Things tend to work both ways in the Kingdom. I am in Christ, and Christ is in us, just as Jesus said, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” If I am in Christ Jesus, then I am where Jesus is, at the right hand of the Father. If Jesus is in us, then Jesus is in the world. Jesus is the bridge between earth and Heaven, or, rather, he is the ladder upon which the messengers of God ascend and descend. The order is important in that. Did you realise that you are a messenger of God?
Time for a recap. The Holy Spirit places us into Jesus. In Jesus we can be with the Father. Where does the Holy Spirit come from? He comes as a gift from the Father. We seem to be going round in circles here!
Didn’t I tell you it seems like a riddle!
It may seem like it, but actually it’s not a riddle. We are talking about one God. When we talk about the Trinity as three persons in one God, I think it’s a theological mistake to understand ‘person’ as we do in everyday speech, as someone distinct from others. The term ‘Person’ is actually the Latin ‘Persona’ which means an actor’s mask. I think the Greek definition of the Trinity is more useful. And that is best rendered as three realities in one being.
So, In Jesus you find yourself in Heaven. For some people I know that involves visions and other kinds of ‘spiritual experiences.’ I can’t say that has ever happened to me. For me it is more like a general awareness of the Father’s presence. But there are all sorts of obstacles that can crop up to stop you going there – Jesus described those in the parable of the sower. I think in my time I must have visited all those places where the seed was spread in that parable. And probably I still do! That’s why the ‘seeking’ or ‘searching’ has to be a continuous thing. Entering the Kingdom of God is a slow-prepared meal, not a microwave dinner!
So, you have got into Heaven; what do you find there? What is the culture of Heaven like? Well, here are one or two things about Heaven that I’ve discovered along the way. I’m sure you have your own list.
Firstly, there are no sheepdogs in Heaven!
What do I mean by that?
In this world there are an awful lot of ‘musts’, and ‘shoulds’, and ‘ought tos’ and ‘thou shalts’, and ‘thou shalt nots’, and I’m not saying that it can be any other way in this world. It’s how the world works. But I think of them as like sheepdogs snapping at the heels of the sheep, forcing them to go in a certain direction. In Heaven there are no sheepdogs, only the call of the Shepherd, saying ‘follow me’. In the Kingdom of Heaven there are no rules and regulations, but that doesn’t mean that you can do what you like. It means that you are free to follow the Shepherd. That’s a one-line summary of the epistle to the Romans, by the way! Or at least chapters 6 and 7 of it. We have liberty, not law or licence, to quote the three ‘L’s of Romans. Liberty, not legalism or licentiousness!
Remember, our role is to introduce the culture of Heaven to earth. And no rules mean no condemnation. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, Paul told the Romans in chapter 8.
Secondly, when we get into Heaven, we stop eating the apple! When Adam and Eve ate the apple, they learned about good and evil, and were in danger of becoming like God because He was the only one who could rightly judge. I’m not saying that in this world we should be blind to good and evil, to right and wrong. What I am saying is that in Heaven no one exercises judgement, they leave it up to God, who knows the whole situation and is the only one who can truly assess whether someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘Why do you call me good? Jesus said to the Rich Young Ruler. ‘No-one is good but God.’ We love to judge because we like to think we are right. It builds up our ego, our self-righteousness! I would suggest to you that in Heaven no-one is concerned with being right. They are interested in speaking the Truth in Love, and that, as they say, is a horse of a different colour!
Remember that in the Garden of Eden there was another tree, called the Tree of Life. Get into Heaven and you will find that there are lots of life-giving trees – they’re all along the river of life. And the fruit of them is called Love, Joy, Peace, Generosity of Spirit, etc., etc. and you can eat as much of them as you like. As you eat that fruit, which is really just a description of the culture of heaven, you will find it growing within you. Then you, in turn, will bear much fruit.
As we heard in the reading today, Jesus said, in the sermon on the mount, “do not judge, and you will not be judged, do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” (Lk 6:37) I have got to confess that I find this extremely difficult. I always seem to find myself in conversations where I am being invited to condemn someone else for this or that, and I often don’t have the words to divert the conversation, so I go along with it. Unless, that is, I started the conversation myself, and that also happens!
In Heaven there are no sheepdogs. In Heaven you stop eating the apple.
Then thirdly in Heaven there are no clocks! In our western culture here in the world we are so used to being governed by the time that we think it is quite normal. Back in England a good while ago we had a Christian African friend, and if we invited him to lunch it was quite possible that he would arrive at dinner time – because he met someone on the way that it was important to spend time with. Is that extreme? Perhaps, but perhaps it’s we who are extreme in the way we are governed by time. Perhaps it’s another sheepdog? I suspect Jesus was more like that African friend of mine. In Heaven there is no clock, and everything happens at the right time – it’s called the kairos, the just-the-right time. Quite different from the chronos, the hour of the clock.
Now none of those things are easy – at least I don’t find them easy, I don’t know about you? They are certainly not the culture of the world that we’re surrounded by! That is why we need to get into Heaven regularly to remind ourselves of them.
I want to end by making one other point.
I hope you haven’t misinterpreted what I said at the beginning, and think that I am dismissive of the Bible in any way. I believe the Bible is absolutely essential reading for every Christian. It contains the breath of God. I read the Bible, metaphorically if not literally, on my knees. But my point was that it is essential that we not only read the Bible and study it and learn it, but that we absorb it. And, by that, I mean that it must not just stay in our head, it must make its way into our spirit. And for me, sometimes, it seems like the greatest gap in the universe is between my head and my spirit – in both directions! And notice that I’m talking about the spirit, not the heart. The heart sometimes helps, and sometimes gets in the way. The heart is fickle. Paul in Romans tells us to walk in the spirit, not the heart!
So, the mission of the church, then, is to bring the culture of Heaven into the world. That is a non-trivial endeavour! Inevitably there will be a clash somewhere along the way. The two cultures are fundamentally incompatible. And we may have at some point to work out where we stand. But we are not alone. We are in Christ Jesus. ‘In the world’, Jesus said, ‘you will have trouble. But cheer up, because I have overcome the world!’
Let us pray.
Father, our prayer is that thy Kingdom should come, that thy will would be done here on earth as it is in Heaven. Help us to find the time and the inclination to draw aside with you, to draw aside into Jesus, to learn the culture of Heaven, and in our lives as individuals and as a church to introduce that culture into our world, that is so much in need of it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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