Would you like to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is like? Hang in here with me for a few minutes and I’ll tell you.
As most of us grew up, the popular images of “Heaven” or “God’s Kingdom” had very tangible qualities such as Pearly Gates and Streets of Gold. Those images worked for a while, but eventually they showed no difference between this life and the next. Heaven was just more glitzy. So, back to the drawing board – Scripture.
In the Gospels, some 46 times Jesus tells us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. That’s the good news! The “bad news” is that He gives us only glimpses of heaven told in very odd stories called parables. I would have preferred that Jesus just went ahead and said, The Kingdom of Heaven is …” That would have been neater and cleaner, but no, he had to say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like …”
That one little word, like, complicates everything; but the word also immediately draws us in because our reflex response is to ask, “like what?” Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a whole bunch of everyday things – like someone who plants, like the yeast that makes bread rise, like a prodigal son, like sheep and goats, like weeds among good plants and on and on.
As we dig into these many different “likes,” sooner or later we come to the conclusion that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a multifaceted precious stone that reflects light in every direction. As different as the parable stories are, I believe they are all held together by a single message; a message that is just as important today as it was then.
That message is only heard if we can find common elements in each of the parables. The editor of the newsletter Connections articulates those elements as, Story, Connection and Invitation.
Jesus tells a story (parable) from everyday life. The story makes real for his listeners the truth about how God is present in their world – maybe a bit out of sight, but real nonetheless.
The connection is critical because in it the created (us) and the creator join together rejoicing in the absolute reality of God’s love present in the most common places of everyday life.
The invitation is to embrace God’s love and embrace God’s constant presence in our lives – basically to become one with God. I invite you, my dear readers, to grab a few parables and find the story, connection and invitation in them. I guarantee you that all three elements are there in this formula.
I confess that I am a bit more empirical than spiritual, so I like formulas since formulas give me sort of a road map for life – my life and the life of the church. I submit that this particular parable formula as defined above just may be what Jesus intended for His church. Each and every community of faith in the past and today has a story. Each and every one of those stories are stories of common life in the trenches. At some point, all of those stories tell of a God connection, and at some point the story and connection invite everyone into God’s love and presence in all of our lives.
It is the last element of this formula that for me as a person and a churchman is all important – invitation. All churches have a story. All churches in one way or another have connection from their story to God. The final element is the most difficult. Do we together invite all people - the broken, the suffering, the lost, the strong, the weak, the rich, the poor into our community?
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like Augusta, Ga., where all people are invited into a community of love and harmony, respect, equality and …”
The Rev. Joe Bowden is the assisting priest at Church of the Good Shepherd.