A Sermon by The Rev’d Adrian Stephens

2 Corinthians 5.6-10 and Mark 4.26-34

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight
2 Corinthians 5:6-7  

While writing to the Corinthians Paul appears determined to clarify the depth of our relationship with God. He expands the relationship to include the people around us regardless of their social status. He makes it very clear that God loves all people equally. He may treat some of us differently. Jesus appears to treat the disciples differently to his treatment of the crowds. Being treated differently does not mean that there is a variation in affection. God, Jesus, loves us unconditionally.

Paul speaks of living in the earthly body and being alive in the spiritual body. While on earth in this temporal life we are encouraged to live by faith, it is when we enter the next life that we will see God face to face. It is as we enter the next life that we will appear before the judgement seat of Christ.

The judgement seat of Christ may sound frightening. This is because we think of the court of law and the reality of judgement being imposed by the weight of the law. In this understanding it is always punishment that we will receive. In our mind judgement equals punishment.

This is not what Paul means when he speaks of judgement. Remember he states judgement in terms of recompense for what we have done during this life. This is so whether we have been responsible for good or for evil. Even so, says Paul, the love of Christ urges us on.

We might sometimes speculate about what is meant by judgement, heaven, and hell. We might sometimes wonder whether Heaven and Hell are definite places. After all, depending on our behaviour, we are sometimes told that we will be in one or the other.

I prefer to think of heaven and hell as relationship. Not as places. Heaven is to be in relationship with God. Hell is the absence of God. Heaven is where we are spiritually reunited with the people we have loved and who have died before us. Hell is a terrible existence of isolation and loneliness. When we think about the next life, as Paul teaches, we have very little idea of what it will be like. Paul speaks of putting off the physical body and putting on the spiritual body, and this will happen in the twinkling of an eye. But that in itself does not satisfactorily describe heaven nor hell.

In the gospel reading our Lord touches on this very subject, and rapidly becomes very clear that we do not have the language capacity to comprehend what the kingdom of God might be like. Our Lord speaks of the sower throwing seed about with gay abandon. Some of it does land on fertile soil, but much of it lands on paths and rocks and other places where it will never take root and flourish.

He explains this parable in terms of how people either receive the Word of God and thrive, or people will be excited for a time and drift away from faith, while others simply lack the desire to follow the teachings of Christ. These are the people who reject Church and Christ. We might think of these people as being the rocks or pathway in the parable.

A little later we come to the images of the kingdom as placed before us by our Lord. He uses the things around the people, familiar things, to describe the kingdom. He speaks of a plant growing of its own accord. Even though we cannot see it, there is life being generated as the plant germinates. God, spiritual life, is behind the scenes, actively growing, bearing fruit, leading us into a relationship with our creator. Then we have the parable of the mustard seed. That little inconsequential seed germinates and grows into a large bush in which birds perch and make nests. In this we are encouraged to understand in the first instance that God is in the kingdom, unseen, but present. In the second scene we have the image of our earthly life being a seed planted in the ground while heaven is a vast bush the sprouts and flourishes. We can only say that the next life will be very different to the first life. The spiritual life will be very different to this physical life.

I very much like another analogy that our Lord uses to describe the kingdom of God. He speaks once again of the seed as being the earthly life with the flower that blooms as being the kingdom of God. Once again, the difference is dramatic. The seed looks nothing like the flower that blooms.

In none of these images do we receive a satisfactory, detailed and unmistakable picture of the kingdom. The kingdom is always mysterious, and it is the extreme opposite to the beginning point. Seed to bush. Seed to flower. There is nowhere in scripture that our Lord does not use analogy when describing the kingdom of God. This is what leads me to believe that when it comes to describing the kingdom our language is totally inadequate. We cannot even imagine what the kingdom might be like.

Perhaps it is not knowing what the kingdom might be like that causes us to be a little fearful of death. We do not know what to expect. We believe that it will be good and positive and healing and wonderful, but we cannot experience it, or visualise it, prior to our arrival. And even though we may have no fear of death itself, I think that we can agree that the timing can sometimes be terribly inconvenient.

Some of us may have heard various accounts of people being near death claiming to have seen something special, or had having had a great sense of peace. One old lady, as she neared death, introduced me to her parents and siblings who she could see patiently waiting in the hospital room with her. A man I know died while in emergency care in hospital. When resuscitated he was able to describe very clearly everything that was done to his body as the medical staff worked to save him. He said that he was watching from above. Still other people when close to death say that they have seen a bright, inviting light that brought them such a sense of peace that they were willing to simply go with the light, and the love they felt in it. For those who live past these experiences the fear of death is taken away. There is no fear of what is ahead, even though they cannot claim, even then, to have seen God, or heaven.

As I said earlier, Paul speaks of walking by faith and not by sight. We cannot see God and yet we accept God’s presence among and within us. We cannot see God and yet we believe that we will stand before God in the kingdom. We cannot see God and yet we pray to God and we share even the tiniest details of our Life with God. We cannot see God, and we entrust our eternal existence to God’s hands. We cannot see God, and we believe that we will be healed, comforted, and restored by God. We cannot see God, and our greatest wish is that we may be reconciled with God.

There is one final thing for me to say. Even though we cannot create a lasting and exact image of the kingdom, we know for certain that the relationship that we have with God is the only thing that will accompany us from this life into the next. And we know that the kingdom will be far greater, far more embracing, than anything we can imagine.