by Chris Eyre
The text of a sermon presented at the Bowers Allerton Mission Hall
Seeing all the coverage about Israel and Palestine, and doing some background reading, a thought came to me.
Yasser Arafat is a son of God.
Shocking, isn’t it? Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the current conflict, Arafat is a long time terrorist, and his followers (if not he himself) have been responsible for the deaths of a lot of innocent Israelis.
But bear with me. In Matthew’s gospel, we read “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mat.5:9). Chairman Arafat was once a joint recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And he’s a male child, so he’s a “son”. Stands to reason……
I think, following that, that we’d all want to take refuge in the passage from Ezekiel (Ezk.18) in the reading “When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered” (Ezk.18:24). To be fair, I’d also suggest that it’s about time that those in Israel read and took to heart the wording of that chapter. There are too many fathers who have eaten sour grapes (Ezk.18:2), and too many children whose teeth are set on edge (Ezk.18:2). That passage marks the point where Judaism abandoned the concept that the sins of the fathers were visited upon the children (Ex.20:5, Ex.34:7, Num.14:18, Deut.5:9, Jer.32:18) and was a precursor to the development of the Judaism which became Christianity.
So, perhaps, for a brief period, Chairman Arafat was a son of God and would have been received into the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Kingdom of God – I don’t make a distinction between them, and where Matthew says “Kingdom of Heaven”, Mark says “Kingdom of God” when describing otherwise the same saying). Perhaps, at some time in the future, that will be the case – we can hope and pray so.
Matthew also tells us Jesus said that the poor in spirit qualified (Mat.5:3). Those persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Mat.5:10). Those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick or prisoners (Mat.25:34-37, Lk.12:32). Luke tells us “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the most high” (Lk.6:35).
So we have a promise. These actions will deliver the Kingdom to us. Jesus reinterpreted for us the standards which Ezekiel talked of, including especially charity (Ezk.18:16), and added the foundation for the commandments – that we should love our neighbour as ourselves (Mat.23:39).
So what is the Kingdom? We hear that it’s a pearl of great price Mt.13:35), as well as a grain of mustard seed (13:31), a leaven (13:33), a treasure hidden in a field (13:44), good seed (13:24), choice fish (13:47), the new and the old from a treasure (13:52), a good return on investment (18:23), given in fullness irrespective of our worth (20:1). Confusing…….we should obviously look for it, but what will we get?
Paul writes “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known”. (I Cor.13:12). What we hope for is a glimpse of God as He is, a connection with Deity, a foundation for our existence. And this is indeed a pearl of great price and a treasure. Seeing through a glass darkly is accepting the grain of mustard seed which can grow, accepting the leaven which will raise our spirits. Clearly, this is something which we cannot comprehend without experiencing it, and we will experience it only in part.
Mind you, Matthew also tells us Jesus’ words “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat.5:20)- but that may say more about how he felt about the Scribes and Pharisees than it does about what we need to reach the Kingdom.
More seriously, though, he says also “Except you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven”. (Mat.18:3-4). Has the promise been taken away if we can’t manage to abandon all our adult attitudes?
No, I don’t think it has. I think Jesus speaks here from the absolute knowledge that, before God, we will inevitably react as little children.
Now, when will this happen?
Is it to be when we die? Is it to be when Christ comes again?
I don’t think it has to be. In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom being at hand several times, as does John the Baptist before him (Mat.3:2, 4:17, 10:7) – but this is often interpreted as talking of an event which hasn’t happened yet. I think that’s not a correct reading. Luke tells us Jesus promised “There are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Lk.9:27) – and this was nearly 2000 years ago!
Was he wrong? Were his audience going to die before a second coming (as they clearly did) without his words being fulfilled?
I think not. I believe he was right; I believe some of them did see the Kingdom of God, and indeed entered into the Kingdom of God, within their natural lifetimes. The Kingdom is a thought away, if, indeed, it isn’t filling some of us as I speak.
I’ll assume that anyone who’s looking into space and seems to me not to be concentrating is experiencing the Kingdom at this moment…….
But I’d like to hear some testimony about it from them later.
But I don’t see any promise of when this entering into the Kingdom will happen, just that it will. Maybe not within our lifetimes, maybe at our deaths, maybe at some time after that.
Let me move on to John’s gospel. John has a very different approach and talks of a very different vision from Matthew, Mark and Luke. John records that Jesus said “unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn.3:3) and “unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (Jn.3:5).
I often attend a charismatic church, where they are very keen on the “born again” concept – and it seems to work. I’m not someone who’s gone through the formula of being born again in that way; neither was my father, who most of you will remember, and, I suspect, neither are several others present here today. Those of us who have arrived at faith by other means (and I’m going to come back to that) are going to find it difficult, at the least, to cast everything away and take a new path.
So do we all need to be “born again”? Born twice, indeed? Well, not as a precondition. Look at Saul, on the Damascus road: you’ll remember that Luke writes in Acts “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now, as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said “”Who are you, Lord?” And he said “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing, so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight and neither ate or drank” (Ac.9:1-9).
Saul’s heart was filled with anything but humbleness and charity, and he was a persecutor rather than the persecuted. He didn’t qualify under any of the headings I’ve mentioned, but God still gave him a vision, a faith and a mission all in one all-encompassing experience. I’m sure that in the process he was born again spiritually, as I’m sure that in entering into the Kingdom of God each of us are born again spiritually – if not yet, then in the future.
I’m sure you’ve all realised that I’ve now covered three basic ways of attaining the Kingdom.
We can have faith, do those things Jesus stated would entitle us to enter the Kingdom, and rest assured on his promise that we will do so (though we ought to take to heart the passage from Ezekiel (Ezk.18:24).
We can go through the ritual conversion which has been made out of the passages in John I mentioned and others. As I’ve said, it seems to me that this is a fairly effective way of opening a line to the Kingdom. I think John knew this route, having travelled it himself – I see his poetic writing in his Gospel as evidence of this – we all know “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and we all know “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
Or, a very few of us may be zapped by God like Saul. We won’t deserve it, but it will give instant access to the Kingdom and change our lives forever. We can’t ask for it, we can’t do anything to encourage it; it will just happen.
Unfortunately, after he became Paul, he didn’t write anything about that experience which might give us a glimpse of it from this great writer. The best I can come up with is from Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician, written in his notebook: “From about half past ten in the evening to about half an hour after midnight.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Not the God of philosophers and scholars.
Absolute certainty; beyond reason. Joy. Peace.
Forgetfulness of the world and everything but God.
The World has not known thee, but I have known thee.
Joy! Joy! Tears of joy!”
What Paul does write of at length is his knowledge that, once such an experience has happened, there is no going back, and areas where there is no room for doubt (Rom.12:2 etc.). And that the fruits of the spirit will flow inevitably (I.Cor.12).
Now, I did get zapped like Saul, or at least like Pascal. My father didn’t. He left myself and mum a message which we read after he died, and it was clear that he hadn’t had more than a glimpse of the full possibility of entry into the Kingdom and had many doubts and uncertainties. I wish he had had more; I know that Jesus’ promise means that he now does. I know that that promise means that all can share in that Kingdom, whether we arrive by a life of faith and works, whether we seek an instant transformation with the Charismatics, or whether God just decides it’s time for us to change and changes us without warning.
But, knowing father’s doubts, I’ll pray that we can all enter the Kingdom sooner rather than later, and go through the rest of our lives with the absolute certainty given to John and to Paul.