Sunday, 6 November 2016

on being so heavenly minded to be of no earthly use

Year C | 3rd Sunday before Advent

Luke 20.27-38

Today's gospel reading puts me in mind of an old saying. When someone was obsessively spiritual or overly pious they were said to be 'so heavenly minded they are no earthly use.' It's not an expression Jesus used, but if it had been then I think we find in this passage the occasion on which he might have used it.

Jesus has been called upon to mediate in a religious argument. He is presented with two religious factions. In the blue corner are the Pharisees, who believe in the resurrection of the dead. In the red corner are the Sadducees who don't. They had a vested interest in resisting the idea of the dead rising to life in a new world. The Sadducees, you see, were drawn from families of the aristocracy who were major landowners and whose sons would grow up to become great high priests in the Temple. So they were powerful in both secular and religious terms. (It is perhaps not dissimilar to the Oxbridge-educated sons of the landed gentry who were fast-tracked to become deans and bishops in the Church of England until not so long ago.)

The Sadducees therefore wanted to see everything remain exactly as it was because they were doing very nicely thank you. The idea that the dead would come back to life as part of a new creation threatened their status.

Interestingly, Jesus does not come down firmly on one side of the argument or the other which may come as a surprise, as Christians very clearly do believe in the resurrection of the dead. But it isn't that Jesus doesn't believe in resurrection, he just thinks it's a subject that is too easy to get obsessed about; risking becoming so heavenly-minded to be of no earthlyp use.

Remember, the thing Jesus taught most frequently is that the kingdom of God (aka the kingdom of heaven) is at hand. Through Jesus, heaven has already broken through into the world and become available to us here and now. And he wants his followers to get stuck into the work of the kingdom ('thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven'), not to project all their thinking and energy into what happens after we die, because that is beyond comprehension. The human mind simply cannot conceive of what the after life is like, because it will be so different from the kind of life we experience on earth.

I often think of this passage when people ask me if they will be reunited with loved ones when they die. Will they see their parents and grandparents again, their husband or wife or children? What about pets? And I think the answer to that question is, 'It will be even better than that.' Whatever you imagine is the best thing eternal life can offer, whatever you hope for in the future, I think we will discover that our imaginations are too small, too limited to understand what it means to be perfected and present in the glory of God. We reduce it to the best things we can imagine, based on our experiences of life in this world. But Jesus very clearly tells us life in heaven is different.

But enough about then, what about now?—because this is essentially Jesus' point. Stop wondering about what heaven is like, or arguing about who does or doesn't get in (as too many Christians spend their time doing, cheapening grace in the process). God is not God of the dead, but of the living. It is here and now that matters. For us eternal life has already begun. We are called by Jesus to join in with the work of creating a new order which he came to inaugurate—the kingdom of God. In this realm, as we saw last week, the poor are blessed, strangers are welcomed, the hungry fed, the grieving consoled.

Jesus locates the experience of godly living and spiritual fulfilment in the present. The fullness of life that he offers comes to us by living in the moment, in the here and now. The potential to glimpse an experience of heaven—of stillness and peace and fulfilment and contentment—is not found by getting caught up in questions about the past, as the Sadducees did, or placing all our hope and expectation on the future, as the Pharisees did. The kingdom of heaven is at hand for us when we prayerfully open ourselves to God in the present moment and, in the stillness of now, encounter the God of the living.

This is the spiritual wisdom that Jesus brings to his followers. Don't get caught up in point-scoring religious arguments, instead become caught up in the love of God that is present to us right now, a love that enables us to become agents of change in the world, bringing that love to those people and situations that need to encounter it most in the world today.

Don't become so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly use.

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