Who are you? It’s one of the most basic existential questions, and one that Zen challenges us to realize.
I’ve been reading/studying the Gospel of Matthew lately, which answers the question for us: you are a citizen of the realm of heaven. Let me explain. Matthew was writing to early Christians who were wrestling with their identity and way of life. Following the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem around the year 70, Jews and Christians alike struggled with making sense of their reality. As Roman oppression made an example of these religious groups, asserting its power and making sure it could not be challenged (crucifixion anyone?), God’s people struggled with significant questions. What was God doing? Had God withdrawn God’s presence and blessing? Were the people being punished? How should they live faithfully in such a world?
In short, people were struggling to know how to best live in and make sense of a difficult world.
It’s not too different from where we are today. We similarly struggle to make sense of a world where injustice seems rampant, and corrupt governments seem to reign. Living in the midst of that, we similarly struggle to know how we can best live in the world to have a positive impact and bring about real change.
Matthew provided his Gospel as a guide to respond to all of these issues. He asserts that through Jesus, God has initiated a new realm right here on Earth. This realm, while hidden (you won’t find it on a map), is real, growing, good, and eternal. And it turns our world upside down and overcomes all the injustice and suffering of our world. Matthew makes it clear in the story of the birth of Jesus, that a new ruler has come on Earth, and not just any ruler, but one sent from God. Actually, one who is God. And Jesus comes announcing that this realm is very, very close. In fact, it is already here. The realm of heaven is not some far off place we go when we die. For Matthew, it is right here on Earth wherever God’s will is being done.
In the realm of heaven, things are different. Success, blessing, and power all look very different than we normally think of them. Vulnerability, justice, and compassion are ruling characteristics. And I don’t know about you, but I think the world needs a lot more of all of those things. This realm of heaven is definitively good news for us and our world.
So what does it look like to live in this realm? While I can’t cover everything in Matthew’s Gospel (but it’s good, read it!), here are some highlights:
1. Compassionate love and service for those who are suffering
While we want to believe that our governments and world powers act benevolently and in justice, we must recognize that a majority of people in this world are suffering in some way by the hands of human injustice. In the realm of heaven, Jesus responds very practically: heal, feed, serve. Demonstrate compassion. Jesus does not ignore the plight of those who are poor and suffering. He serves them. In fact, he proclaims them blessed. In the realm of heaven, those who are blessed are not who we normally think of (those who are healthy, wealthy, successful), it is those who do not seem blessed, because Jesus raises them up as those whose needs are served and are viewed as worthy in the realm.
Jesus instructs his followers to carry out this work in the realm: to live lives of compassionate service and to proclaim in word and deed God’s blessing to those who now suffer.
Jesus challenged the government and systems of injustice that were causing the suffering of vulnerable people. The realm of heaven challenges our way of life and the status quo. The in-breaking of heaven is subversive, political, and dangerous. It cost Jesus his life. He was executed for challenging the status quo and standing up against injustice. The empire tried to silence him and his followers, and stamp out the realm of heaven.
As citizens of the realm, we are called to stand up against authority and advocate for justice. We are to challenge oppression everywhere: of people and all of creation. While Jesus made it clear that his followers’ resistance should always be non-violent (5:39-42), we are to reject hierarchical structures of power that oppress (20:20-28).
3. The empire’s power is not ultimate.
Politics can really get us down, no? It’s easy to be overwhelmed with despair by the state of politics today. But we’re not the first people on Earth to live under incompetent, oppressive powers and we won’t be the last. But in the realm of heaven, Jesus demonstrates that the empire does not have any ultimate power. After all, with all its power, Rome was unable to silence Jesus and the movement he created. Rome could not keep Jesus dead. And here we are, thousands of years later continuing to proclaim the realm of heaven here on Earth, claiming Jesus as our ruler. And in case you haven’t noticed, the Roman empire is long gone.
We find ourselves in the middle of a story in which we are facing injustice by worldly powers. Jesus calls us to resist, and to love and serve in the midst of that story, trusting that God’s love and realm of heaven always prevail. The current state of affairs may be bleak, but God demonstrates again and again that our story always ends with the realm of heaven, where God’s justice always prevails.
The Realm of Heaven is at Hand.
Whoever you are, whatever you do, you are called to be part of this realm. Jesus blew the doors right off of the gate and welcomes us with open arms of love and forgiveness. In this realm, we find a way of living right here, in the now, in the everyday world along with all of its ups and downs, joys and sorrows. It’s a way of living that challenges us, but also opens us up to the grace and goodness of God at work all around us. It tells us who we are: God’s own blessed and beloved.
Rejoice. The realm of heaven has come near.