Sunday, April 4, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Joshua 4:14-24
Luke 4:1-12

And as they were afraid, and were bowing their faces toward the earth, they said to them,

"Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here: he is risen.

Luke 24:5f.

The Gospel accounts frame the Lord's life with miracles--the virgin birth at the beginning

and the resurrection at the end. The apostles were not much concerned with the first. It

had happened long before they knew anything about Jesus--for some, probably before they

themselves were born. But the resurrection was a different matter entirely. This had

happened to them, and it had transformed their thoughts and changed their lives. The book

of Acts tells of the choice of a successor to Judas, to round out the number twelve again.

Peter outlined the "requirements" as follows:

So of those who have been part of our company throughout the time that Jesus came and went

with us, beginning from the baptism of John to the very day he was taken up from us, one

must be appointed to be a witness with us of the resurrection (Acts 1:21f.).

It had been a long journey from the baptism to that point. What had drawn them in the

first place? It must have been the combination of Jesus's personality and his words. The

words touched their own faith in the promises of the prophets, promises of a restoration

of Israel to the glory of the time of David. The personality assured them that there was

substance behind the words, that this was no power-hungry charlatan.

Little did they know, though, what lay ahead for them. They would be called upon to make

that most difficult of transitions, laying aside their very real political and material

dreams for the very present demands and rewards of the spirit, transferring their central

loyalty from the kingdom of Israel to the kingdom of heaven. All the teaching that went on

during their period of discipleship led toward this end. Palm Sunday brought all their

material dreams to the surface. The crucifixion utterly annihilated them. The resurrection

completed the process, convincing them beyond any doubt of the absolute presence and power

of the spirit.

This was, so to speak, the curriculum the Lord announced when the first disciples

enrolled. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near." The kingdom of heaven has

drawn near. Often it does not seem that way. When heaven is thought of as something we

find only after death--or worse yet, only after some remote last judgment--then its

promises are promises of "pie in the sky bye and bye." Social reformers want something

more immediate than that and call our attention to things that need fixing now.

But how close are the external solutions? When I was doing research on the 1893 Parliament

of World Religions, I was struck with the optimism of those days. People really believed

that technology--especially the miracle of electricity--was going to put an end to

poverty. The twentieth century was going to be an era of peace--and in the opinions of

many, an era of the final triumph of a Christianity whose enlightenment was seen as

central to external discovery and progress.

In retrospect, we cannot help concluding that sincere as they were, they were talking

about a future that has not come a century later. Or again, one of the scholars at the

conference on Russian spirituality at Dartmouth a couple of years ago called attention to

Soviet "millennialism." All the sacrifices the government was demanding now were justified

by the glorious vision of the perfect communist state that would be achieved in a thousand

years or so. That is really "pie in the sky bye and bye."

In a way, the problem is really rather obvious As long as people want to hurt each other,

they will find a way. One of my favorite cartoons shows two men in Biblical garb. One,

looking very discouraged, says to the other, "It's not working out the way we planned.

We're having a rash of ploughshare murders." Our doctrines make it very clear that we

should not provide people with the means of hurting each other more efficiently, that we

should do what we can to restrain them, but they also insist that ultimately injustice

must be attacked at its source. Until there is a fundamental change of heart, human greed

and self-seeking will continue to wreak their harm. As one of the Russians at the

Dartmouth conference put it, "It seems as though every time we try to come up with a

better system, the bad guys are first in line."

By contrast, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." A change of heart can be now. A program

on Islam in America Friday night had a segment on Black Muslims, including the story of

two who converted to Islam while in prison. One started earning a living by mowing lawns

after his release, and gradually built up a landscaping business for which both of them

now work. It has taken eight years, though--"this world" is slow to catch up with the

spirit. The basic transition was made "back then," and is still at work. In a sense, their

present lives are simply a witness to the quality, to the authenticity, of that


Clearly, at the heart of that transition was a resolve to change themselves. In whatever

terms they might describe it, they refused to blame everything on the world around them

and accepted a discipline for their own lives--a discipline that centered in the five

"pillars of Islam," faith, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage.

Our Old Testament reading is perhaps the classic correspondential image of this

transition. Spiritually understood, embarking on the conquest of the Holy Land is a

picture of taking on our inner enemies. Facing one's inner enemies for the first time,

though, is a scary step. It involves a kind of leaving behind the whole realm that has

been of critical importance--the realm of what other people think of us--and facing the

awful truth of what we think of ourselves. It involves moving from one level to a deeper


But "the land of Canaan" has also long been a favorite image of heaven, and "crossing the

Jordan" therefore an image of death. In the words of one of our own hymns,

When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside.

Bear me through the swelling current, land me safe on Canaan's side.

The obvious reference is to physical death; and when we put this meaning together with the

previous one, the image of physical death and the image of facing our inner enemies come

together. We are close to what the Lord was saying about laying down our lives. We are

faced with the realization that the "kingdom of heaven" that awaits us after death is no

further away than our own hearts. It is "at hand."

It the time of Joshua, the Israelites were commanded to take twelve stones from the bed of

the river and set them up as a memorial. Joshua's charge in this regard is clear:

In time to come, when children ask their fathers what these stones mean, you shall teach

your children by saying, "Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land, for the Lord your

God dried up the waters of the riven in front of you until you had crossed over . . . So

that all people of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that

you might fear the Lord your God forever (Joshua 4:21-24).

That is, the miracle at Jordan was a kind of physical proof of divine power in very much

the same way that the resurrection was. The stones were an abiding witness to this, to be

appealed to long after the human witnesses had died. The apostles did not set up stones as

a reminder, they simply assumed the responsibility of being witnesses.

In each case, the reason is the same--that in our necessary concerns for what are

traditionally called "the things of this world," it is all too easy to forget the nearness

and the power of the other world. Those who are present at one of the rare occasions when

the power breaks through feel called--are called--to bear witness. In our own times,

people who have "crossed Jordan and returned" in what we call "near death experiences" are

just beginning to speak out. One of the consistent themes of their witness is their

conviction that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand," that we are spiritual beings here and


In that sense, we are all called to be "witnesss to the resurrection." This is what the

two Black Muslims were doing when they spoke of the transition from their old life to

their present one. This is what we do whenever we acknowledge that we have been changed,

especially that we have been "brought to life.

What is different about the Easter story, then, is not so much its kind as its degree. It

is as though everything leading up to it is practice--this one is for real, for keeps.

Swedenborg consistently describes the crucifixion as the last and climactic temptation, as

the end and even summary of a life of smaller battles. Each previous one led to a deeper

level of difficulty, to a more strenuous challenge. This final one led to complete

victory. There would be no more struggles. The risen Lord is peace itself.

When he is "taken up into heaven," things seem to return to normal. That perfect peace is

once more invisible. This world claims our full attention again. But his promise has been

clear. He leaves only to prepare a place for us. In the words of John's Gospel, "It is

expedient for you that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to

you; but if I leave, I will send him to you" "John 16:7). There must be the return to the

everyday, to the mundane. Otherwise we will never learn to listen for the inner presence,

we will never discover that the divine presence is everywhere.

It may be worth remembering that for the disciples, the resurrection was a shared

experience. They were all together in that room. They had still to learn that the Lord

could be present with them when they scattered. In a way, they had to learn that the

material world was deceptive, that even the risen body was deceptive if it led them to

believe that he was "here and nowhere else."

Little by little, we can learn this for ourselves. No matter where we are, the kingdom of

heaven is at hand. This world, with all its charms and all its woes, is not all there is.

It is as persuasive as ever, it still seems much more real and much closer to hand than

the kingdom of heaven. We still want to believe that we can eliminate injustice without

facing it at its spiritual source. We still want to believe in the sociological dream that

we will be contented if we get the house or the job or the car or the camera that we want.

We are still reluctant to believe that we will never be contented until we learn to love

and to be loved, to understand and to be understood. We have to keep trying to improve the

system, but as long as theire are bad guys, they will keep crowding to the front of the


The kingdom of heaven is not without its witnesses, though. There are times when we cannot

help but recognize that we are spiritual beings here and now, beings whose hungers and

thirsts cannot be satisfied by material goods or accomplishments. We are created for

citizenship in heaven, for living in human community, for mutual thoughtfulness and

understanding. Only as that kingdom becomes real and dear to us can we fully give our

lives to that part of the prayer which we say so often, "Thy kingdom come on earth, as it

is in heaven."


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