Life is Good (10/16/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
We spent the last ten weeks with the series on fundamentalism, and now its time to shift gears, transitioning back to weekly messages. This caused a sort of shock to my system. It has been nice knowing ahead of time what the subject of my sermon would be. Those ten weeks sort of fell together.
I had an attack of writers block when I first started writing this sermon. I felt like anything I said was going to be a letdown after the series. I read through the Bible passages the lectionary suggests for this week, and even that left me uninspired. So I asked myself, what is the one thing you want to say to the people of this great congregation? What is the most important idea you could convey in a sermon?
And today’s title came instantly to mind. Life is good. Religious folks seem to fall into one of two camps. There are those who affirm life, viewing it as a precious gift, and there are those who view life as some sort of test, some series of trials to be endured, after which one will receive his or her reward.
Christianity is a life affirming religion. So why do so many Christians view life as something to be endured as we wait for the glory of what comes after our life on earth ends? There are a few ideas in the Bible that lead people to a false interpretation of the faith. A couple of misunderstood words lie at the heart of the confusion. Those words are “life” and “flesh.”
Consider the words of Jesus as found in Matthew, chapter 16. Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
That is a little confusing at first glance. We gain our life by losing it? Trying to save our life is the surest way of making sure we lose it? It would appear that the word “life” means something more to Jesus than these wondrous biological bodies of ours. In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” So which is it? Is life something we are supposed to grab with gusto and live with abundance, or is it something we should not cling to, knowing that if we love our life we will surely lose it?
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Let’s move on to the second word. Flesh. That word has an almost naughty connotation in modern society. We don’t use the word often in everyday conversation, but when we do the subject of sex is not far behind. The Apostle Paul goes on and on about the flesh. I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin… to set the mind on the flesh is death… if you live according to the flesh you will die… what the flesh desires is opposed to the spirit…
Jesus didn’t have quite such a negative attitude toward the word. In the synoptic gospels he says that when a man and woman are married they become one flesh. He also says “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” That’s about all he has to say on the subject of flesh.
Life. Flesh. Is life in this world a gift or a curse?
The most visible sign of a Christian is joy. Joy. Because once a person really understands what Christianity is all about—the incomparable love of God toward the creatures of God’s creation—the natural response is joy. Joy truly lies at the heart of our faith, but you wouldn’t know it unless you look closely. Some of the most dour, uptight, judgmental people we meet parade under the banner “Christian.” They have interpreted the Bible as saying this life in the flesh is a bad thing, to be escaped at death, when we will receive our grand reward for having believed the right things about Jesus when we lived.
The ultimate question is simple. Is human life a good thing or not? Are the years we are granted as embodied beings in this strange and mysterious world worth living? Or are they merely a prelude to something else? Are we doing something wrong if we love life?
In the days before I entered the ministry I worked in sales management for a company that sold measurement and control equipment to the oil and gas industry. I traveled all over Texas and Oklahoma, selling engineered products into the heart of the Bible belt. One makes many friends over the years with such a job, and since I had a nice expense account I spent many hours discussing all sorts of subjects over dinner and a beer.
I remember one good friend who told me he was a Christian, but attended church only on Easter. He said, with his almost stereotypical southeastern Oklahoma accent, “I don’t know squat about religion, but I know one thing. I got Jesus, and as long as I got Jesus, I’m okay with the man upstairs.”
Ah, the man upstairs. I wonder, do you capitalize the “m” in man and the “u” in upstairs when writing that term in reference to our Creator? And I was thrilled to know my friend, quote, “got Jesus,” but I wasn’t close enough friends with him to really press him about what that meant. It sounded to me like Jesus was some sort of additive, like STP. Put a little Jesus in your tank on Easter morning and you’re good to go for a whole year.
As I traveled on business I spent lots of nights in motels, often reading philosophy and religion. I considered myself deeply spiritual at that point in my life, but had yet to understand what Christianity is all about. All I knew was that most of the people I met who loudly proclaimed their Christian faith… well, I didn’t want to be like them.
But I was always intrigued by people who were deeply religious, those who had pictures of Jesus all over their workplace, with crosses on every wall. One friend who was among the most fanatically religious of all my customers opened my eyes to how negative some people view human life. In the course of conversation I made some comment about life being good. And he looked at me like I was from another planet. “Good?” he said. “How can you call this good? This is Satan’s kingdom. If this is all there was to life, I would die right now. But the Bible says to endure to the end, and that’s what I’m doing. I don’t know exactly what heaven is all about, but it’s got to be better than this.”
He was saying what he believed to be true, and I only argued with him for a short while. But he revealed a commonly held belief among Christians. This world belongs to Satan, and life on earth is little more than a trial to determine our fitness for the kingdom of God that awaits us after death.
The kingdom of God. Jesus uses the word “kingdom” more than 100 times over the course of the four gospels. The kingdom of God, which he sometimes calls the kingdom of heaven, is the centerpiece of his message. But where do we find this kingdom? Is it in some future heaven that awaits us beyond the grave? Has God truly set aside the world in which we live as the domain of Satan? Is God’s kingdom somewhere, someplace, sometime else?
It is easy to fall into one of two camps with regard to the question of the location of the kingdom of God, both of which, I believe, are wrong. One group claims the kingdom of God is a future heaven that awaits those who live and believe the right way over the course of earthly life. The other side believes that life in this world is all there is, and all there will ever be; that our spiritual selves cannot live beyond the biological bodies that carry us through life. The kingdom of God can only be one place, and that is right here, right now.
If we turn to Jesus to find the answer to the question of the kingdom, we discover that both sides are wrong, and both sides are right. Let’s consider some of Jesus’ thoughts on the kingdom. His favorite teaching tool was the parable, a short story that holds deep meaning. Most of his parables were about the kingdom of God. This parable is found in the 22nd chapter of Matthew:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
There is no need to make that parable more complicated than it is. Ultimately everybody gets invited into the kingdom. Some people refuse the invitation. Whether the kingdom involves this life or life beyond, it seems clear from this parable that the invitation comes to us in this lifetime. We may or may not choose to attend the banquet, but if we don’t go it is not because we were not extended an invitation.
Let’s turn to another parable from Matthew’s gospel. I choose this one because it frames the kingdom in a more eternal scheme.
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand dollars was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred dollars; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
That parable emphasizes the importance of forgiveness. It brings to mind Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
There is something there that transcends this world in which we live. There is a promise of justice for those who themselves are just, and the threat of punishment for those whose lives lack love and forgiveness.
So where is the kingdom? Is it here on earth, or is it in some heavenly future? The answer is, “The kingdom is both here and now, and spread throughout eternity. In the gospels Jesus says, “The kingdom of God has come near,” or “The kingdom of God is among you.” According to the Gospel of Thomas, an early collection of the sayings of Jesus discovered in the 20th century, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, but people do not see it.”
For those who believe the kingdom of God is purely something that lies beyond the grave, I can only say, read the Bible. Jesus talks about the kingdom over and over again, and in most cases it involves relationships—the relationships we have with other people over the course of our lives. Dr. Meyers used to call the kingdom of heaven the kingdom of right relationships. And that is the kingdom to which Jesus points time and time again in the gospels.
That does not mean the kingdom is incapable of transcending our lives on earth. The kingdom is eternal. The kingdom is eternal life lived in the presence of God and in right relationship with other creatures. But eternal life is not something that begins at the grave. It begins here and now, as the kingdom of God spread upon the earth.
This is the kingdom of God. Or at least, this is part of the kingdom of God. Life is good. Life is important. Why else would God have gone to all the trouble of creating the universe? God seemed to believe it was worth the 14 billion years it took for human life to evolve in this amazing creation. Are we to discount human life as something to be endured? As some sort of test? Do we look at creation as if it were some sort of cesspool to wade through as we await future glory?
Life—life in the flesh—is good. For those who can only envision the kingdom of God as existing in some future heaven, I ask the following question: What is it you want God to do that God is not already doing?
Let’s imagine what the kingdom of heaven would be like. First, it would be a place where at any moment we could speak to, and be heard by, our loving Creator. We have that now. It is called prayer.
Second, heaven would be a place where we were free to make our own decisions. I mean, we would hardly call it heaven if we were programmed like machines to act the same perfect way in every situation. It wouldn’t be heaven without free will. Of course, we have free will now.
Third, there would be people to love. We could hardly call any place heaven where we were alone. We have to have others to share life with, people to care about, people who care for us. It wouldn’t be heaven without people to love.
And that pretty much sums up the requirements for heaven: a loving Creator who hears our prayers, free will, and people to love. And guess what. We’ve got all those things now. Isn’t that what Jesus means when he says the kingdom is all around us and we don’t see it?
Some may tell us that this world belongs to Satan. We should tell them that we live in a different world. It’s called the kingdom of God. And in our world, life is good. Life… is very good.