by Pastor Doug Kings
It used to be said of someone who took their religion too seriously, “They’re too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” In the modern era, that’s been the criticism of many toward the church as a whole, and frankly, there is a lot of truth in it. Throughout its long history, the church has understood its primary purpose to be how people found their way into heaven after they died. It was by belonging to the church that you would be saved.
And only the church, and later when things got more complicated, only the right church. The adoption of Christianity as the new religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century is rightly seen as a huge and disastrous turning point in the church’s adoption of this self-righteous attitude. But it actually shows up much earlier.
In all world’s religious literature, the Bible is by far the most contentious. God’s people are constantly squabbling with one another. If anything, this only intensifies in the New Testament. Jesus, of course, argues with the religious leaders of his day. But after his death, his followers immediately begin arguing among themselves about who has the right understanding of Jesus and his message.
A classic example is the next-to-last book of the Bible, Jude. It’s hardly a book at only 25 verses. And it’s just weird. I don’t know how it got included. But listen to the tone of these verses:
Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once and for all handed on to the saints. For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into debauchery and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
It gets much worse after that, for the whole letter is a paranoid diatribe against “intruders” who “pervert the grace of God.” Therefore, Jude says, true Christians must “contend for the faith that was once and for all handed on to the saints.” In those words are the seeds for two thousand years of church infighting, rivalries, divisions, splits, persecutions, inquisitions, religious wars, crusades, and endless bickering about who’s got the one right “faith” in contrast to all the rampant supposed distortions and perversions.
For Jude and countless millions of Christians since, it’s all about salvation, i.e. ensuring you are on the official heavenly guest list when you arrive at the pearly gates. But over two centuries of serious Bible study and theological reflection have led to the unavoidable conclusion that this isn’t what Jesus was concerned about at all. Rather, Jesus’ concern was with this life in this world, not some life to come in another world beyond. In other words, Jesus was the sharpest critic of those “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.”
Jesus’ gospel was that the division between earth and heaven is a false one. It doesn’t exist. In Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus’ begins his ministry with this message: “The time is now. The presence of God is here. Change your thinking and believe this good news!” Elsewhere Jesus says “the kingdom of God” is in your midst and within you. And there is this in the gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is’. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”
As our word careens toward disaster, could there be a better diagnosis of our crisis than that last sentence? There is no “other world” to which we can escape from this one. We live and move and have our being in God, Paul says, right now. We live in an “eternal now” with God’s presence “spread out upon the earth.” The question is: What will open our eyes to “see it”?
Blessings in your life and ministry.