The Kin-dom of Heaven

The Kingdom of Heaven is here. All we need to do is recognise that, and then we will live the eternal life fitting in God’s kingdom, and help others to do the same.

God saw what God had made, and behold it was very good. God made us all male and female, each a complex mix of both, in God’s own image: loving, creative, powerful, beautiful. God knit me together in my mother’s womb- God’s works are wonderful, and I know it well.

Christ came as the seed which brought forth a hundred-fold, the seed which grew into a tree in whose branches the birds nest, the yeast which worked through all the dough. He told us not to worry what we will eat or wear. He told us to go out and make disciples of all nations, and promised to be with us as we did.

Jesus told us our neighbour is every human being, even the despised foreigner. He chose Paul “to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel”. All will be made alive in Christ. He is our great example, a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

Death is real in the Bible, but there are many deaths before our hearts stop beating. We die, and are born again. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. Our redeemer lives, here, now, and so shall we: we have eternal life! Eternal life, life partaking in the life of God, here, now, not after we are buried, not in a place where the laws of physics do not apply. To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

I had not realised that “The lion shall lay down with the lamb” is a misquote, though preserving the sense: but these animals are people, ceasing to be predatory on each other, but living together in love and unity here on Earth, led by the child Christ, by his great example. We are all kin, children of God.

We must take up our cross, if needed, and follow him. He did not resist when arrested and executed, but healed the ear of the man sent to arrest him. Non-resistance, the way of Peace, here, now, opens the eyes of all to the Kin-dom of heaven, for everything that was made by God is kin.

This is the Kingdom of Heaven, here, now. Open your eyes and see it. Love, and enter it.

The painting is by American Quaker Edward Hicks. More on peace, shortly.

Edward Hicks, the Peaceable Kingdom

For Michelle Lesley, with whom I had a long discussion. And, because I can find no better place for it, here is the alternative view of Biblical Christianity:

Biblical Christian Principles

It is all the more striking, in that if you image-google Dixon Diaz you see how right wing all his other cartoons are.

Jesus Unmasked

I am grateful to Susan Ritchie or Sanderson for her generous gift of the book Jesus Unmasked by Todd Friel. It is a token of Christian love for someone only met through blogging- hooray for WordPress! Susan shows little sympathy or understanding for trans women, but wishes to reach out.

I feel talked down to by the over-simplified style. Few of us have the patience for waiting. Imagine waiting four hundred years for someone. OK, you’d be dead, but that’s not the point. It is all like that, which gets wearing. It has silly errors: it claims that the “devil” tempted Eve, rather than the “Serpent”. More seriously, it states substitutionary atonement as if it were true, and evinces a literal belief in the creation story, even in Job and Jonah: The Old Testament is actually a history book with theology in it. There are no true allegories… but there are actual events that are fuzzy pictures of something else. Whereas any understanding of carbon dating, ice cores from Antarctica, or the fossil record refutes that. My heart sank at the endorsement from Ken Ham on the cover. Literalism leads Friel to call 397-5BC “The silent years”, ignoring the fact that some of the psalms and the final Hebrew/Aramaic form of Daniel were written or edited in the time of the Maccabees.

Fuzzy pictures: it takes the OT as prophecy of Jesus. It says that the Ram caught in a thicket was a prefiguring of Jesus. That is a valid interpretation, but he should not exclude others.

Friel delights in cruelty. The first nine plagues failed to soften Pharaoh’s heart, so God sent plague number ten and it was a doozey. Susan left her card in the book at p81, where Friel claims God is exceedingly long-suffering and amazingly kind, in a section on the extermination of the Canaanites. He loves Hell: There will not be a trap door with a chute that leads sinners to hell like a water park slide. God Himself will cast them to eternal damnation… they will suffer eternal conscious torment.

Unable to criticise post-modernism, he produces a straw man. Even though we completely disagree, we are both right. Then he claims his account of Jesus is true and Revealed. But the Bible is a conversation, a series of unreconcilable stories. There are many interpretations.

His contempt for people prevents him from seeing them clearly. The Pharisees and Sadducees wore splendid robes and would never stoop to hug children and babies. No, they were people who attempted to do God’s will by conforming to a set of complex rules- like modern Evangelicals. Of course they hugged children. He claims the same crowds who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with chants of Hosanna one week later were chanting “Crucify him!” Ridiculous, there were a million people in Jerusalem for Passover.

What can I agree with? He says the Bible is a progressive revelation of God. Indeed. The culmination is Jesus.

Should conservative Evangelicals wish to show their love, I would rather they prayed for me. Whatever they desire for me, the Holy Spirit will translate their prayer for my good.

Another picture by Sir John Lavery, who delights me.

John Lavery, Miss Auras, The Red Book

In the World

My friend is going back to work after some time on the sick. I salute her courage, because I could not do it. And I fear for her.

The Government have destroyed what they called “Local Authority Control” as if it were something totalitarian, rather than supportive, and replaced it with the vertiginous hierarchy of an “Academy”, a for-profit business operating Conservative ideas of education. Each lesson has to have an Objective and record evidence that the Objective has been met- so teachers write on their white-boards, then photograph them for the files. This is a primary school. She feels distrusted and controlled. Retired teachers do not know how bad it is, because they used to be able to get around the more insane bits, but now she can’t.

Another friend went to the Non-Theist Network of Quakers. She is theist and mystical, and went to find out more on the state of the Society. David Boulton refers to any mysticism dismissively as “magic”. There are Quakers who deny any spiritual reality beyond the evolved ape in a Godless universe. This is not so bad, in my view, if they are humble and mature enough to admit that these apes have experiences they cannot explain, like being moved to speak, or reaching Unity. There are some who deny that, and some of those are Christian. She fears for our Society.

My way of dealing with workplace insanity has been to run away. I do not believe “That is ridiculous, concerned only with appearances, and making the situation in reality worse” or “that is insane”, even when true, are valid objections to corporate-speak. I do not know how to cease caring, or not to be constantly stressed out with rage at the quotidian. I suppose I need to remember that humanity gets better, despite mis-steps.

Or that the world is ridiculous, and beyond my capacity to understand. I am reading A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, which is filled with jewel-like paragraphs, so I pause and appreciate their beauty. Like this:

Sometimes he felt his life was not a narrative or a sequence of events, but a succession of disconnected images, fragments of a larger dream. And Catalina had been such a fragment, torn off from the gulf. Everything that made life tolerable derived from a premise that you could expect reward or permanence: that you could build. It had been too difficult for him to accept that Catalina and the feeling that he had for her were not like that at all: That she had been a bubble on the surface of a stream, held in perfect tension- no less real because translucent, temporary- then reabsorbed by the element that had made her, carried on by the current of time.

Jesus strips away our illusions ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’

Men loading wagons

Winsome Christians

We are commanded to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Fortunately, we have been given an idea how to do this: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

And, love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Hear also what St Paul says: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

In blogworld, where nothing matters, and people can get happily steamed up, sometimes Christians frequent atheist blogs. I like Violetwisp’s blog: she creates a space where Christians and atheists may join in dialogue. Here she explains that atheism is not a belief system. Arguably it is: if you should not believe something unless you can prove it, then I have no reason to trust the voice of the Holy Spirit in my head. Not trusting that voice because of my understanding of the world requires as much a belief system as trusting it. I take a great deal on trust without proof. A good example was on The Musketeers, a silly BBC drama set in the 17th century: the surgeon boiled his instruments and found that his patients were less likely to suffer disease. Having no idea about microbes, he thought this the blessing of God. He trusted his observation without proof: the rationalist might say to him, erroneously in this case, that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy.

But telling atheists that ALL atheist arguments are based in ignorance, bigotry, logical fallacy, elitism and 100% faith in the absurd notion that everything just happened all by itself will just rile them. They believe that the universe follows rules which may be discerned, but should not be postulated without evidence.

Fortunately there is an alternative to win souls for Christ. Follow the commandments of Jesus and Paul quoted above. Then those in your immediate circle will see the light of the Holy Spirit in your countenance, words and deeds, and be won over by its beauty. The heart of our religion is the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But in argument on blogs, the atheists are unlikely to be persuaded.

Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers

What I believe

John Martin, The Last Judgment detail- Gabriel and the WhoreHaving been challenged that what I believe is rubbish, I should say what I do. Two Christian beliefs particularly offend atheists as ridiculous and groundless: that there is a God who acts in the world, and that after our death something of us survives in Heaven or Hell.

Afterlife first. Jesus quoted, there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage. So any afterlife would be very different from what we know now. There is an old line, recently quoted in Doctor Who, that speculating about it is like unborn babies speculating about what the World is like. How could we know? Official Catholic doctrine is that there is a bodily resurrection: even our “mortal body” will come to life again. Our lowly bodies will be like Christ’s glorious body- so no illness, possibly no tiredness after effort. Would there be anything I could not lift?

Much of my conscious thought is irrational and repetitive. Right now, Witch Hunt by Rush runs in my mind as an ear worm. When I cycle, at one moment I notice my surroundings, especially if a car calls my attention or my effort, or an ear worm, or a worry. It is not at all like writing. Unconscious perception becomes conscious where necessary. A lot of it relates to other human beings. A lot of it relates to needs, hunger, thirst, tiredness- if all that was taken from me life would be boring, yet Heaven can’t be boring either. The being in an afterlife would be so different from me that even if it retained some of my memory and experience, even some of my characteristics, it would not be me.

I am happy to say I don’t know, don’t anticipate resurrection, and am focused on life here. Hell does not exist, though, except in human imagination- the North Korean prison camp, the serial killer- again, here on Earth.

Arguably, Jesus was focused on life here, too. Repeatedly in Jewish texts between 600 BCE and 135 CE the Story of Israel is told. God chose God’s people, rescued them from Egypt and led them to the Promised Land after forty years in the Wilderness to do 420 miles. They made a covenant, that the people would obey God, but the people never did. God used Babylon and Persia as God’s instruments, and Israel was in exile. The release from exile had not happened, but God’s anointed King would come, and all the World would worship the One True God in Jerusalem. Spurious Messiahs arose, up to Simon bar-Kochba, to lead the Jews to miraculous conquest.

Jesus used Death as a metaphor most clearly in the lines “Let the dead bury their own dead” and “My son was dead, and is alive again”. Jesus sought to bring people into the Kingdom through example and in Love. No, the Jews would never conquer the world militarily, but the idea of Jahweh might- God is Love, worshipped now by 2.18 billion Christians. The Kingdom of Heaven is Now, in the hearts minds and acts of all of us seeking to create it here on Earth.

Christian persecution

François-Guillaume Ménageot, the martyrdom of Saint SebastianChristians are persecuted in the UK and the US, for their beliefs. Gay people use discrimination law to drive Christians out of business.

It is a Christian belief that Christians should not condone gay sex. This is most important, because some Christians (including me) believe we should celebrate LGBT as part of human diversity and God’s wonderful creation. So Christian hoteliers refuse a gay couple a double room, and Christian bakers refuse a gay couple a wedding cake, and then are driven out of business by the force of law. The gays persecute them, with the state’s connivance, taking their money and making them pay costs. You cannot lawfully be sacked for being Christian in England, but you can be sacked for expressing your Christianity, for example by stating your disapproval of colleagues’ sex lives.

It is not for me to deny that is a Christian belief, as Christianity is so wide. I had a lovely chat with a lesbian URC minister yesterday- “Lesbian”? “Reformed”? Strange, and wonderful- on how we had both thought that to be Christian you had to believe in Substitutionary Atonement, but it really wasn’t necessary, and was inconsistent with God being Love; and how people want the Bible to be infallible, without internal contradiction and easy to understand. She was angry that seven people at their Synod Jusepe de Ribera, Saint Sebastianblocked equal marriage; but they will not, for ever, and it was only seven. Before she went to her church six years ago, they voted three to one that they would accept a gay minister.

I could say they should just bake the cake, but in the Roman Empire I could say they should just sacrifice to Caesar. “Render unto Caesar”, Jesus said. Because Caesar is not God, the sacrifice has no meaning. Yet we celebrate our martyrs’ courage rather than mocking their stubbornness. The only way to respond is to close the business, or continue paying damages. The law will allow nothing else, if you persist with your beliefs.

Jesus says, Do not resist an evildoer. Pray for those who persecute you. Jesus was addressing Jews under foreign occupation. About forty years later Jews intent on resisting started the Jewish Wars leading to the destruction of their temple in 70 and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem in 135, so Jesus’ words were good advice which applies now to these Christian bakers. Resistance will only harm you.

Paul says Bless those who persecute you. Live in harmony, as far as is possible live peaceably, never avenge yourselves- for if we lived by an eye for an eye, the whole world would be blind. This is the only way to win over your persecutors.

Revolting Jews

Arch of TitusIf the Jews obeyed the Torah completely even for one day, the Kingdom of Heaven would come. What would that mean? For me, it means everyone obeying the laws of God- love God, and love everyone else. Do to them as they would have done to them. For a strain of Christianity, it means Rapture, end of the laws of physics and resurrection of the dead. For the Jews of the first century CE, it meant all humanity would worship on the Holy Mountain, that is Jerusalem. Many of them thought this would be by conquest.

There are 235 uses of the phrase “Lord of Hosts” in the Old Testament, and only two in the New Testament, one of which is a quote. Malachi, prophesying during the reign of the Persians, complained that the worship in the Jerusalem temple was inadequate. He wrote And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. God would conquer the other nations, who would submit.

Then Alexander conquered the Persians, and his successors in Egypt then Syria took control of Judah and Galilee. Just as Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Revelation) of Syria decided finally to Hellenise the Jews, setting up his altar in the Temple and provoking the Maccabean revolt, Roman power was rising. Mattathias killed a Jew sacrificing on a pagan altar, and the Greek official enforcing it, and his sons led the revolt and became rulers and high priests in Jerusalem. Jews interpreted this as God acting to defend his people. Arch of TitusThey celebrated the festival of Hanukkah yearly to remember, and read of it in the books of the Maccabees.

The Israelite covenant with God had been that the people would obey the Torah, and God would look after them. In 63BCE, Rome conquered Jerusalem and made the Jewish kingdom a client state; and in 6CE Augustus placed it under direct Roman administration. God would set the Jews free if the Jews kept their part of the Covenant; but the Messiah, a military leader, had not come. So, the temple worship was untrue, the Essenes said. The Pharisees devoted themselves to keeping Torah. Jesus prophesied that the Jews would revolt, and the Romans crush them: his new concept of the Kingdom of Heaven was the law of Love and non-violence.

In 66-73 the Jews rose. They fought among themselves as much as against the Romans, because of differing interpretations of how Jewish behaviour would please God enough that he would rise up and defend them. In 70AD Titus destroyed the Jerusalem temple. In 132, Simon Bar Kochba led a second revolt, put down in 135 with the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. The Jews preserved their identity as a people through obedience to Torah, despite dispersal and persecution.

Religion may be abused, but at its best inculcates disciplines, practices and a sense of community which is good for humanity. Beware magical thinking, that God will look after me if I perform acts pleasing to God, unrelated to practically achieving my goals. The pictures are of the Arch of Titus, commemorating the removal of temple treasures to Rome.

Historical Jesus

Tom Wright, photo by Gareth SaundersN.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham and now at the University of St Andrews, says we may find a rounded portrait of Jesus, a full personality, from the historical documents. To Wright, Jesus considered himself Messiah in a new way, unlike that expected by the Jews at the time though a development from Old Testament thought; Messiah, rather than “second person of the Trinity”.

Between the Jewish concept of Messiah in 1AD, and the Christian concept in 100AD (he finds “CE” patronising) he finds Jesus, doubly similar and different to both. The Gospels seem a credible step between. In the Gospels, Jesus says cryptically what later Christians may say clearly. His clearing the Temple of the sellers is a claim to Messiah status, as are his conversations afterwards, if we may puzzle them out: when the Lord comes, says Zechariah (14:21) there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of Hosts on that day.

What is the purpose of the apocalyptic language? “You shall see the Son of Man descending on the Clouds”- is this a prophecy of the Second Coming, the Rapture of Christians into Heaven, or the end of the laws of physics? No, says Wright. Rather it is, among other things, an elaborate metaphor-system for investing historical events with theological significance. Jesus predicted war with the Romans, which happened in 66-70 with the destruction of the Temple, and 135 with the expulsion of the Jews from Judah. Daniel’s apocalyptic similarly referred to incidents in the Maccabean period.

What is the Messiah? The strongest current in Jewish thought at the time was that he would lead the Jews to military victory. All would worship on the Holy Mountain because the Jews told them to. This remains current- I read once that if the Messiah came he would be a fighter pilot. Other currents led towards Jesus’ intent, to lead the Jews into a Kingdom of Heaven by escaping the cycle of violence. “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. This confusion is found in Zechariah, where Wright claims Jesus found much about his role: The Lord of Armies will devour Tyre by fire (9:3-4); yet there are hints that Heaven does not come by military victory. In 13:8-9, two thirds of the people will die, yet the remainder will be the People of God. Here, Heaven comes through defeat. As in the Gospel of Thomas, the Kingdom of Heaven is here, now, as Jesus speaks. It is a new way for people to be, one with another. It remains our job to create it, here.

I thought the Bible shows the history of our learning about God, and Rowan Williams gives this example. In 2 Kings 9-10, the prophet Elisha anoints Jehu King over Israel, and Jehu murders the household of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen. This is seen as God’s Will. Yet in Hosea 1:4, the Lord condemns Jehu for that bloodshed. As people see more of God, Love and Mercy come into sharper focus.

The meaning of Easter died for the wrath of Man, not the wrath of God.

Substitutionary Atonement- the notion that Jesus was the sinless sacrifice offered by God to Himself to atone for our sins- was only fully worked out by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. Prior to that, one mediaeval understanding was that God was like our feudal overlord, and after we gave false allegiance to the devil God bought our vassalage back. Substitution became central in Reformation theology, as the basis of “Radical grace”: God has abolished the system of requirements for righteousness. We have nothing to bring to God: God comes to us. Unfortunately, it became the centre of a new system of requirements: you must believe to be saved from Hell. This is valuable for a church which seeks authority over its members: they have the keys to the Kingdom. Only through them can you be Saved.

Instead, Jesus proclaims the truth to the Jews, throughout Galilee and ending in the capital, Jerusalem. This truth challenges the basis of human domination, by the aristocrats of Judea and by the Roman Empire, and is a threat to those in power. Jesus refuses to buckle under to the Domination system, but also refuses to resist: not only does he not call forth an army of angels to rescue him, he does not call on the crowd who welcomed him– surely a different crowd from that which called for his blood.

Violence begets violence. Jesus offers us a pattern and example for breaking the cycle of violence. If Jesus had resisted, he would have contributed to the cycle of repression and rebellion, violence and death. Jesus confronts human fear and the desire for control, and shows us the more excellent way of Love. Matthew reports that this is recognised by the Roman Empire, as symbolised by the Centurion: “Truly this man was God’s son“. Before the time of Christ, God revealed that sacrifice was not the way: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.

For Paul, the Crucifixion is central to the Faith: “We proclaim Christ crucified“. The rulers of the world are doomed to perish before God’s wisdom of Love. Christ died for us, showing the depth of God’s love. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

The root of the word “sacrifice” is to make sacred. Jesus’ death has become sacred for us. Jesus, our Passover lamb, is our food, as it was for the Jews. We take Love into ourselves.

Post for Ken, mostly from Marcus J Borg.