Last Sunday (July 30) All Souls Episcopal Church was in a desperate situation. Our last rector had walked out in a huff some time ago, our interim rector had recently taken a new job, and no “supply priests” were available. Our Junior Warden bravely stepped up to lead the service and asked me if I would take on the sermon–or “reflection on the Gospel” as he called it. To my surprise, I enthusiastically accepted. It is true that I had received a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1968. It is also true that Embry and I have hung in as loyal church people for all these years, but no one had ever asked me to preach a sermon. And for good reason. With regard to theological matters, I am something of an outlier. But these were desperate times.
I did not know what the Gospel reading was until two days before the service. It turned out to be five parables in the Gospel of Matthew, which talk about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. (Matthew 13:24-33) Oh my goodness, I thought, how on earth could I ever talk about that? The Kingdom of Heaven was described by Matthew as a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure hidden in a field, fine pearls, and a fish net with the bad fish thrown into a furnace of fire.
Here is what I came up with:
This reading is about the “Kingdom of Heaven.” What does Matthew mean by “The Kingdom of Heaven”? He uses the term over 30 times and is the only gospel writer to use that term. Mark and Luke use the term “Kingdom of God.” Are they the same? Matthew also uses the term “Kingdom of God” but only eight times, so there must be a difference in his thinking, and scholars have spent many hours wrestling with this question.
So, here are the questions that pop up…
- How is the kingdom of heaven a mustard seed?
- How is it like yeast?
- Or how is it a treasure hidden in a field?
- Or a merchant in search of fine pearls?
- Or a net thrown into the sea with good fish and bad fish with the bad fish thrown out? And if we are bad fish at the end of the age, angels will come and throw us into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?
Recalling my days as a student at Union Seminary in NYC, I spent a good bit of time preparing for this “reflection” going over commentaries by dozens of Biblical scholars. There does not seem to be any consensus on the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven parables. The conservative scholars tend to argue that the meaning of the parables is that if we are not true followers of Jesus, we will burn in hell. The more liberal scholars are more nuanced but to me not convincing. These parables of the Kingdom of Heaven—at least for me–remain a mystery.
But there are some clues to making some sense of this.
First, do not make the mistake of thinking that the experience of the writers of what became the New Testament was like the experience of us 21st Century humans.
Keep in mind that the Gospel of Matthew was written after the fall of the temple in 70 CE. (Mark was written first probably about 10 years earlier. Luke came 10-15 years later and the Gospel of John much later, probably just before the turn of the century.) The Gospel of Matthew is the only synoptic gospel to use parables to describe heaven.
And all the gospels relied on stories and oral history. The vast majority of people could not read or write, no more than between 3% and 5%. There is nothing written by Jesus, and many scholars believe he was illiterate. Except possibly for Mark when he was very young, none of the writers knew Jesus.
In other words, it can be dangerous to think that what was written over 2,000 years ago necessarily applies to our postmodern world in a literal way. Sometimes it is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
And the world at the time of Jesus was a very different place from what it is now. No video games, no smart phones, no computers, no AI. No Kepler, Hubble or Web telescopes.
But the questions of the meaning of life are just as real now, as I suspect they were then—perhaps more so. And the story of Jesus has resonated over the centuries providing clues to the answers.
Ultimately, the religious quest to find answers involves mystery, and this includes Christianity. We humans are hard wired to ask the question “why.” Why are we here on this planet? A small, blue planet in a run-of-the-mill solar system in a nondescript galaxy.
Astronomers with the help of the Hubble, Kepler and Web telescopes now estimate there are over 100 billion stars in our galaxy and over 200 billion galaxies in the universe. A significant number of scientists now believe our universe is simply one of an infinite number of universes, which they call “the multiverse.” Astronomers estimate that there are in our galaxy alone over six billion rocky planets, about the same size as the planet Earth, which orbit their star in the “Goldilocks zone” where it is not too hot or too cold—the same kind of conditions that allowed our planet to develop life.
If understanding what this all means is impossible for us humans today, it was surely the case 2,000 years ago when everyone believed the Earth was flat and the sun and stars circulated around it, and that all of creation happened in six days. Trying to understand the world and the universe and our place in it and what it all means, I believe, is where science and religion begin to merge.
And the big questions we ask today are what humans have been asking from time immemorial– what is the ultimate meaning of our lives? Of life itself? Why does evil exist? And how do we connect with the Divine, the spiritual dimension of life “which passes all understanding”?
So, is there even such a thing as heaven? Christianity seems to be clear on this. The creeds we say tell us that yes, there is eternal life and there is a heaven where life continues (in some form) in the presence of God. But the skeptics in the room would ask, ok, where is it. Over 2,000 years ago when the New Testament was written, of course, there was no understanding of what all those twinkling lights overhead in a clear sky meant or why they were there. The powerful new telescopes we have now may show us distant galaxies, but no specific place that we could call heaven.
Perhaps we are framing the question wrong when we think of heaven as some kind of specific place where we—or at least some of us—supposedly go after we die. Rather, perhaps it is a dimension of life where we get hints of the Devine in our Earthly lives– if we pay attention. This dimension of human experience—the experience of the Divine– is present and accessible in the here and now– something we can experience while we are alive—in a mysterious way. It is a feeling of connectedness with something far greater than we can begin to articulate but deep down know is real.
In other words, heaven can best be described as connection with the Divine, for some rarely experienced in their lives on Earth but still real, and for others a more central part of their lives. And where faith comes in is the belief—and hope– that in some mysterious way this connection with the Divine will continue even after we die.
And who is to say definitively that in this vast, expanding universe, a relationship with God, the Creator, is not possible? Who is to say that there is no such thing as a spiritual dimension to life? Who is to say that there is no eternal aspect of this spiritual dimension? The fact is no one knows all the answers. How do we explain the Big Bang? How do we make sense out of the over 100 billion stars in our galaxy? How do we make sense out of the over 200 billion galaxies in the universe, and that just maybe our universe is part of a multiverse? These become religious questions alongside the scientific ones.
Could there be room in this vast universe for something we humans call heaven? Could there be room for something we call eternal life? This is where faith comes into the picture. And as long as we are alive on this small, blue planet, the answer will be shrouded in mystery. But where there is mystery, there is also room for hope.