Not Going Anywhere

Seventh Sunday in Easter  |  John 17:6-19

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical  theology.

Pine Straw TossEverywhere I go in the world of Christianity, I hear about heaven: heaven is real, going to heaven, back from heaven, phone calls from heaven. If not heaven, then I hear about hell: it is Jesus or hell, the fires of hell, you don’t want to go to hell, you are going to hell. (That last is usually from people who read these posts.) Yet in this long prayer, on the eve of the crucifixion, in what amounts to a farewell benediction, Jesus does not pray about his followers leaving this world for heaven, nor does he issue dire warnings of hell.

All this talk about heaven, yet Jesus openly prays for his followers, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world….”

He does ask that God protect them from the evil one, one might point out. There it is, the devil himself, right in the heart of all of it. Really? To borrow a question from a long line of thoughtful theologians, who is the evil one? This Satan who is rarely mentioned in scripture but whom we have built into a central figure in horror films? Or is the evil one our too human neighbor? The criminal who does us harm? Our enemies on a battlefield? Are we, ourselves, the evil ones? If so, Jesus is praying that we be protected from the darkness of our own hearts.

John’s Gospel records Jesus confessing that he has given his followers the words that God gave him. This Gospel began with it: in the beginning was the word, we read, the logos, the essence of God. Jesus confirms that his followers keep that logos, that word, that essence of God within themselves. It is an echo of the famous statement found in a very different Gospel, Luke 17:21—the kingdom of heaven is within you, or perhaps, the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.Pine Straw Smiling

We hear no pie in the sky Gospel message, not in these passages at the least. We hear a Jesus who passionately claims that the essence of God, the power of God, the bliss of heaven, is already present in and among those he leaves behind, here on this earth, in this life.

All of which begs the question, what are we waiting for? According to this prayer of Jesus, we’re not going anywhere, at least not any time soon, and any one day destination is entirely forgotten in the urgency of realizing the presence of God, the essence of God, here and now, where we already are, in what we are already doing.

Pine Straw CoveringIt is good to have a future hope. It is better to have a present one.

We become so focused on the future that we forget to live, forget to be present, forget that God is present—in, behind, around, through, in the midst of our lives, our hopes, our needs.

This is where Jesus intends for us to be—in this world. Our lives change, our needs shift, our gifts vary, our interests broaden or deepen or narrow. In all of these circumstances, it is the claim of the Jesus of the Gospels that we are already touching heaven. We walk on streets of gold, whether we look for them or not. We dwell in the mansions of eternity, whether we pause to experience it or not. Whether we feel it or not, accept it or not, believe it or not, we are already in the presence of God. And God’s not going anywhere.


Finding Shangri-La |  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The perfect land of Shangri-La, made famous by James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, has become part of our modern world—perhaps not in reality, but as an ideal. Hilton based the name on the Tibetan paradise, Shambala. We apply the name to any unattainable ideal.

People seem to think that Christianity is about heaven—who gets there, how to get there, what it will be like. There are all sorts of details they will give you about the last days, the last judgment, and particularly about what heaven will be like. We hear a lot of talk about streets of gold, white robes (no jeans), and music. There is also a lot of talk about the kind of people who will get to heaven and the kind of people who won’t. (We take comfort in being able to point out the folk who will not be joining us.)

It is Shangri-La. It is the future that is better than the now.

Walking thru Field of GrassOddly enough, Jesus didn’t really talk about heaven that much. The Gospel of Matthew did record him talking about the kingdom of heaven, but that kingdom seems to have more to do with now and less to do with the future. Jesus kept saying, “The kingdom of heaven is…” but not, “The kingdom of heaven will be…”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus throws out a string of parables like pearls beside the people who came to hear him. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast a woman hid in flour, like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is itself a pearl of great value, worth everything.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea. It pulls in everything.

Jesus does talk about sorting fish and pulling weeds, but we are not told that we’ll get to do any of the sorting. We like to think that we are the fish worth keeping, the whole reason the net is thrown out there to begin with. And we like to think that we are not going to get culled out, thrown out.

We’re the good stuff. Aren’t we?

We are getting in, but some of those other people are not. At least that’s what lots of Christian folks say.

Jesus says that heaven is not only real, it is really close, as in within us. It is mysterious, like a huge plant growing from a tiny seed. It works without being seen, like yeast in a pile of dough. It is hidden in plain sight, like a treasure in a field. And it is worth more than everything else we’ve been holding onto.

We like to think that other people are the weeds and we are wheat, but maybe we are the field full of both. We like to think that we are the fish worth keeping and that other people are the bad catch, but maybe each of us is a net full of all sorts of things, and it is the work of heaven to throw out the bad and to keep the good parts.

We think that heaven is tomorrow and one day, but maybe that kind of thinking just keeps us from seeing God today, here in this kingdom of heaven. Where our treasure is hidden in plain sight. Where everything we see is worth less than what we overlook. Where God is doing mysterious, creative, extravagant things all the time. Where what God is doing is bigger than we imagine it is, even bigger than we imagine it will be by and by.

You know. Here in this heaven. The one that Jesus keeps talking about.