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In Matthew’s gospel, we read these words from the sermon on the mount:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
In this verse, Jesus is focusing our attention on earth, not heaven.
Throughout history, many Christians have emphasized getting to heaven after death as their ultimate goal. The lyrics of the popular hymn This World Is Not My Home read, “This world is not my home. I’m just a passing through. My treasures are laid up. Somewhere beyond the blue.”
Yet this focus is a late development in the Christian religion and is tellingly absent from the Jewish teachings of the Jesus described in the synoptic gospels.
This absence in Matthew, Mark, and Luke should challenge or even confront the post-mortem, other-world emphasis in Christianity today.
Consider these two other passages from Matthew:
“You are the salt of THE EARTH. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13, emphasis added)
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10, emphasis added)
By much of White Evangelical Christianity’s focus, one would assume Matthew’s gospel instead read, “Blessed are the meek for they shall make it to heaven.”
This departs from the early Jewish Jesus moment, which focused on healing our world, not escaping it. Jesus and his early followers viewed this world as our home. We were not simply passing through it to someplace better.
With a focus on heaven, we have emphasized the spiritual over the material, and defined the material as less-than or “sinful.” This focus has also done immeasurable damage by inspiring complicity with, participation in, or sponsorship of earthly systemic injustice, economic, racial, gendered, sexual, and more. Many Christians also live unmoved by the deep ecological crisis we are now facing as a human race.
What we find instead in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is that Jesus did not focus on getting people out of this place to some far distant heaven. Instead, he focused on bringing justice, liberation, reparation, and healing to his fellow earthly inhabitants, in his own Jewish society.
Jesus, after all, was not a Christian. He was a Jew, and healing our world has a rich Jewish history. Bringing healing and transformation to earthly systems of injustice was the Jewish prophetic soil in which the roots of the gospels grew.
The gospels’ earthly focus traces back to the ancient Hebrew Genesis narrative, as well.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” (Genesis 1:26)
The early Christian community, which also persevered for us the last book of the New Testament, ends the canon not with Earth being forsaken for a heavenly dwelling, but with the earth being repaired, restored, and healed.
“I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God’.” (Revelation 21:2-3)
Whatever one makes of the book of Revelation and its many interpretations, its story ends on Earth, not in heaven.
There are some differences of belief in contemporary Christianity on this point. Some believe we go to heaven permanently at death. Some believe instead that heaven is a temporary resting place before Earth is finally restored. Martin Luther and some Anabaptists such as Michael Sattler believed this in the 16th Century. And still, some other Christians don’t believe they will ever enter a cosmic heaven, but believe that death is a sort of “sleep” where they wait on a future resurrection here on Earth.
I’m not personally concerned with these minute differences. I’m concerned about what fruit the beliefs we do hold produce in our lives. Is our focus getting a cosmic heaven while we ignore systemic injustice, oppression, or violence in concrete ways here on earth? Does a person’s beliefs enable and empower them to engage justice work here in our world, now presently?
I don’t believe that as a follower of Jesus, we should be living as if “this world is not our home.” Let’s no longer say, “We are just passing through.”
I remember an advertisement for an interfaith chapel in Atlanta’s international airport years ago. The advertisement had clip art of a kneeling person, and under the image it said, “Because we’re all just passing through.” It was a fitting slogan for an airport where people are literally “passing through” every day.
But the more I pondered it, I don’t believe Jesus taught that. This world IS our home and we have a lot of work to do yet. “ON EARTH as it is in heaven” is a prayer not yet answered, and we are the ones that must answer it. We are the ones we’ve been waiting on, as Alice Walker stated, and Jesus showed us how.
We have to first let go of our fixed idea that this world is evil and something we must escape. No. This world has evil in it, but it has beauty, too. It has injustice, but also compassion, justice, charity, and love. As Jesus-followers, we are called to foster justice and compassion and care where they are thriving. We are called to sow the seeds of life-giving change. We are called to display what our world could look like if it was shaped according the ethics of resource-sharing, mutual aid, distributive justice, the connectedness of people, and the interconnectedness of the communities we belong to.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus commissioned his followers “to proclaim the kingdom of God and TO HEAL THE SICK” (Luke 9:2, emphasis added).
There is sickness in our world—physical, economic, political, social, and ecological. Our first concern should not be to leave it all behind, but to bring healing to the world around us. Jesus modeled how we can be conduits of healing to this world, and we are to be about setting that healing in motion. We must be about restoration, not relocation; our goal should not be to depart, but to remain, doing as much good as we can in the time we have been given.
This world IS our home. We are NOT just passing through; we are here to stay. Even if your beliefs state that at some point in the future you will find yourself elsewhere, it will be at that location that you can sing that you are “just passing through.” The story of the New Testament ends here, on Earth, and for the sake of those that will come after us, we must take up the work on healing our world here today.
This may take some deep transition in our beliefs. It also must create an even deeper transition in our actions.
We must become more concerned with present systemic injustice.
We must become more concerned with ecological destruction as a result of prioritized capital gain.
We must begin to place people and planet over power, profit, and privilege.
If we are to have a brighter tomorrow, we must lay the foundation for it today.
To follow the Jesus of the synoptic gospels is to deeply, humbly engage our communities and our society. What we’ll find when we do is that this kind of work is already being done by many who have been doing it for quite a while. We’ll find that they have wisdom that they will offer if we are humble enough to listen and learn. And there is plenty to do. We can come alongside them, put our hand to the plow, and invest our energy into the work as well.
I’m reminded of the words referenced by Rami M. Shapiro in Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” (p. 41)
We are in this together.
Together we can create beautiful communities of love and justice.
Another world is possible if we choose it.
And we can.
I’ll close with these words the Jewish Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues on Sabbaths throughout the year:
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
A Special Message to RHM’s HeartGroups:
It has been shown that we have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”
We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time, and encouraging each of you to stay virtually connected and to practice social distancing. We can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. We ask that when you do go out, you keep a six feet distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.
This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.
This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. For now, let’s figure out new ways to take care of each other while we are physically apart.
Thanks for checking in with us this week.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, working toward justice.
Another world is possible if we choose it.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week.