Why We Can’t Build the Kingdom of Heaven

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/22/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 & John 14:23-29. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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The elders of Berkeley Friends Church met last weekend. We have a retreat each year – usually in February, but this year it happened in May. This is a time when we come together and discern what we believe God is calling us to as shepherds for this community.

Faith and I are the paid pastors, and so being shepherds is literally in our job description. But all of the elders – all the members of Ministry and Counsel – are called and empowered to be co-shepherds with the pastors. We’re co-workers. Together, we tend the flock under the leadership of the ultimate shepherd, Jesus.

At our retreat this month, Steve Sims led us in a really excellent exploration of how we can be more welcoming to newcomers, showing people who are visiting for the first time, or who are back after a long absence, that we value their presence and want to know them as people. This training that Steve gave us was a valuable exercise for the elders. It was in line with the calling that we are feeling as shepherds of this church, to create space for our community to grow in ways that we might have never expected.

And this is crucial. This sense of calling. This sense that Jesus is leading us to a certain posture in the world, a certain kind of activity: Showing love to others, sharing the gospel, and inviting the men, women, and children we encounter to become disciples of Jesus. To let him transform their lives, just as he is transforming our lives.

This sense of calling is key, because there are always so many important things to do – kids to raise, bills to pay, buildings to maintain, jobs to work, loved ones to care for, and on, and on, and on. There’s no end to the work that we can find to do.

The Spanish author and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset famously wrote, “la vida es quehacer” – life is a what-to-do! He writes, and I am translating him loosely:

Life, as we all know, life gives us lots to do. And the most important thing is to find the thing we are to do in each case – not in general, but in specific, here and now – to find the actions that are our true vocation, our authentic what-to-do.

I first read that passage when I was twenty two years old, living at the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City, and it really spoke to my condition. Life is a what-to-do, and we must find the contextual, here-and-now, action that is our authentic vocation. What a challenge! What an invitation!

It’s a challenge and invitation, for me, personally, to practice discernment. To find my true calling in life – not just in general, but in specific, in the concrete. What are those things that are my vocation to do? What is my quehacer?

Ortega y Gasset offers this invitation and challenge to us as a church, a people gathered in the Spirit and teaching of Jesus. What is our quehacer? What is the true, authentic vocation that God has given to us? What is our contextual calling, our what-to-do? What guides our actions as Christ’s body in this specific time, place, context?

For me, as a young man, discovering myself and seeking my purpose, alone in Mexico City, this challenge was almost overwhelming. I felt almost overcome by the weight of the question, and my lack of a good answer.

The disciples felt this way, too. In our scripture reading this morning, from John 14, Jesus is speaking to the disciples shortly before his arrest and execution. Jesus knows what is coming, and he tells the disciples that as painful as the injustice and confusion that is to come will be, all things work together for good for those who love God.

When Jesus is raised from the dead, the disciples are going to discover their quehacer. They’re going to find their vocation. They’re going to find it in the Holy Spirit that God the Father sends them. They’re going to find it in the brilliant, unbounded presence of the resurrected Jesus. They’re going to find their what-to-do.

And so, despite all the darkness that is gathering, Jesus tells them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Because the crucifixion is just the beginning. The resurrection is coming. The Holy Spirit is about to arrive on the scene. Everything is about to change, and the disciples are going to be filled with Christ’s teaching in a way that they were never able to when he was still in his pre-resurrection ministry.

In our second reading this morning, from the 21st chapter of John’s Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation) we hear John’s vision of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, descending from heaven to earth. This is a vision of God’s kingdom come, the promise fulfilled, the redemption of all creation made real.

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And that’s certainly borne out in the witness of scripture. Because the new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem, is a wholly new reality. It is a city manifested and established by God for his people. But although this city is nothing like any metropolis we have ever experienced, it is also familiar. It is a mysterious hybrid of what humanity has been and what God has guided us, for millennia, to become. It is Jerusalem, but it is more. It is Eden, but it is more. It is the city for the children of God. It is the garden for grown-ups.

And God built it. God created it ex nihilo, out of nothing, just like every other good thing he has given us. Just as God sent us his son to live with us and die for us. Just as he has given us his Spirit to comfort, guide, and transform us. The new reality of God, the kingdom, the New Jerusalem is fully God’s creation. He made it, and it is very, very good.

So I get confused when I hear Christians, sometimes, talking about “building the kingdom of God.” As if we could build it! Our job is not to make heaven happen. Our job is to allow God to make heaven manifest in our lives. Our job is not to strive and strain and worry our way into a better world. Our job is to not let our hearts be troubled or afraid. Our job is to obey the words of Jesus, to heed the witness of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Our job is to do what the elders of Berkeley Friends Church were attempting to do last weekend: To gather, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church, and then participate in what God is already doing – where the Spirit is already leading.

If we will heed, God will lead.

Moses didn’t liberate his people; God did. The Jews didn’t establish the promised land, God delivered it. The disciples weren’t special people – Jesus chose them.

He has chosen us, too. He has freed us from fear, and worry. He has even freed us from responsibility for outcomes. Did God tell Moses, “I want to free your people, so you had better come up with a good pitch to Pharaoh”? Did God tell Joshua, “The promised land is yours, but you had better make sure to train a good army”?

God has put no conditions on his kingdom! His kingdom will come. The New Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven from God. God is doing this. It’s a done deal. The question is, are we participating?

So do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Elders, shepherd the flock as Jesus leads you. Teachers, teach the truth that was once and for all entrusted to the saints. Healers, heal. Lovers, love. All of us together, bringing our gifts, let us open our ears to what the Spirit is saying. We have a quehacer, we have a what-to-do in Jesus. We have a vocation and a purpose and transcendent meaning in Christ. It is there, and we don’t have to invent it.

That doesn’t mean the journey will always be straightforward. Just like Moses and his people wandering in the desert all those years ago, we follow a God who likes long walks. To follow this kind of God requires a lot of patience and trust. We are called to follow the pillar of fire and smoke, believing that he has a plan for us. We are called to listen and be attentive to the directions that the Holy Spirit is giving us, until finally God takes our hand and guides us into the land he has prepared for us.