Today’s Bible reading
But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” –– Matthew 20:25-28
More thoughts from meditation
There are many views of what we call “Heaven,” of course. We are all wondering about what is going to happen after we pass through death, some even reasoning that there is no “passing through” at all. Among the plethora of ideas we have about the afterlife the historically prevailing notion for many Western humans, like us in the United States, is that we go to a “Christian” version of Heaven. This usually looks like a vast expanse where the architecture is all clouds (except the golden, yet pearly, gates surrounding the perimeter) with many chubby babies flying around. Maybe we turn into chubby babies! Is this really what the Triune Christian God is preparing?
The United States has been called a “melting pot” before—maybe you were in the play back in elementary school. This idea also incorporates religious ideals. As renowned theologian NT Wright likes to say, “We have platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and paganized our soteriology.” In other words, our ideas about Heaven have been influenced by multiple religions and Greek philosophy; making something that looks like a disembodied free-for-all where each individual is satiated with the fulfillment of every possible want they could have granted them, as long as they’ve been good, no matter how ridiculous (sometimes that’s even the point!). Is that really what Jesus has saved us for?
Jesus and the New Testament authors act as if Heaven were already here. That is worth pondering. And it isn’t just talk, either. Jesus and his followers taught this as if it were true and began teaching (and modeling) how to live as a “citizen of Heaven.” (Phil 3:20) The New Testament is offering a lifestyle/frame of mind where the Christian is actually living in Heaven while on Earth. That is incredibly counterintuitive considering we use phrases like “heavenly” to describe things pleasurable and “hell” to describe things painful. Which isn’t totally wrong, but if Jesus is our representative from Heaven and he was crucified, did he ever stop being its citizen? Was he ever not ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven whenever he experienced pain? When he was weeping over Lazarus’ death (Jn 11) or when he went into the Temple furiously flipping tables and what not (Matt. 21)?
Consider Jesus’ conversation with his disciples in the passage above. “It must not be like this among you,” he said. If you read the several passages this particular one is sandwiched in between you would see that Jesus is talking about what life will be like in the “kingdom to come” or what Heaven will be like. To put it plainly, Jesus describes Heaven like he describes his followers, even more specifically, like he describes himself. Heaven will a place where we live in harmonious relationships with each other and with the rest of creation (think of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1). In this place, it will not be like the social structures we know today. People will live in mutual, self-giving love relationships with each other instead of power-grabbing politics and hierarchical relationships. We know this because Jesus lived that way, he died that way. And after he was raised from the dead, he commissioned his followers to live that way and invite others to also, and he called it “the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Suggestions for action
Set a timer for 5 minutes and imagine a “scene” from your life which you experience fairly often. Could be some encounter with the coworkers, like one of those monotonous meetings, or sitting on the train or bus on your commute, or some usual scene from spending time with your kids. Imagine an experience–no matter how ridiculous it might seem–where the world around you lived like this: where every person lived in a self-giving and loving way towards the other and towards creation. Take 5 minutes right now and re-create that scene.