More Than ... Religion

Romans 14:13-20; Mark 1:14-20

Inspired by John Wesley’s 7th sermon, “The Way of the Kingdom”
By: Michael Roberts

Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand. This kingdom is big! To actually describe it can be a daunting task. There is almost no way any of us can wrap our little, finite, human minds around it, without help from above. Perhaps think of explaining quantum physics to a three-year-old, and we might begin to understand the problem. Since this was the main topic of Jesus’ teachings, he had to find a way to help us “get it.” And, he did so, less with lectures or formulas, and more with stories. We call them parables.

The kingdom of God, for example, is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds and grows into the greatest of shrubs. OK. Everyone in that culture would have known this. Yes, it is a mystery – a tiny seed growing into a bush. It is an inspiring lesson, I guess, but nothing extraordinary, or out of place. But then Jesus adds a twist, as he does with many parables. Jesus says that this seed becomes a tree where all the birds of the air can come and nest in its branches. Now that is something new. In the kingdom, a seed -- a life -- can be transformed into something completely new. And where on earth will we see all types of birds, of many different species, nesting together in the same tree and making it a common home? That doesn’t happen here, but it is what the kingdom of God is like.

So often when we hear the phrase “kingdom of God” we think of something out-there, something beyond this world, a place reserved for us when we die. Yet, Jesus says that this kingdom is at hand. It is here - here, in our hearts - and this kingdom changes everything.

Here’s another parable from Jesus. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seeds in a field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. And the workers of the field wanted to know if they should pull up the weeds. The landowner said, “No. Let them grow together until the harvest, for in gathering the weeds you might uproot some wheat as well. At harvest time,” said the landowner, “I’ll sort it all out, collecting the weed and bundling them to be burned and gathering the wheat into my barn.”

In the natural way of things, that’s just not how it is done. So, to “get it” we must change our perspective and allow God to transform our hearts so that we can live from a whole new orientation. The kingdom of God is about transformation. And in God’s kingdom, weeds can be transformed into wheat. Weeds, representing what is going on in here (heart), can be transformed. We get to work on that as we live and grow in the “fields” of our daily lives. By the grace of God, selfish pride can be transformed into humility. Hatred, envy, malice can become love for all. That’s what happens in the kingdom of God. And at harvest time, when it all gets sorted out, and those weeds (in here) are separated from the wheat (in here), may we all still be able to recognize ourselves after this sorting happens. What will be left in you?

In our first scripture lesson, we heard about people in the early church demanding that certain rules and rituals be followed, especially those that revolved around the dietary laws of the Hebrew people. It was the big issue of the day. Should we, or should we not, follow the rules about clean and unclean foods? For many “true religion,” or representing God’s kingdom on earth, was wrapped up in all these outward rules and rituals. God’s kingdom was defined by rituals, creeds, and a lot of “do’s and don’ts.” So Paul proclaims, echoing Jesus, that the kingdom of God – or “true religion” – is not rooted in any law, or creed, or even scripture, or anything outside of the heart. All these things are important resources, but only as they lead us to the kingdom of God found here (heart).

Paul says that, “the kingdom of God is not meat or drink”, (or in anything external to the heart). The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The kingdom of God is, first of all, a “right relationship” with God where love rules and where we are able to grow in the fruits of this love – humility, kindness, gentleness, and patience. The kingdom of God is peace, says Paul – that peace that can overcome all the fears that might torment our souls, the fears of truly living, the fears of dying and this being all there is. The kingdom of God calms those fears. Next, the kingdom of God is joy. This joy is so much more than mere happiness. Happiness depends on the circumstances around us. If things are going well, then we can be happy. There are also a lot of times in life when we are not happy. But we can also have joy, for joy is a gift of the Spirit, springing up from deep within, from that place where the circumstances of the world have no power. Joy is a deep, abiding assurance that we are loved and that nothing, in life or in death, can separate us from this love. Having this gift of the kingdom planted deep within, we are able to “rejoice” (have joy) in all circumstances. Yes, the kingdom of God, says Paul, is not rooted in anything external to the heart or any outward circumstance. The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

What can we do to discover these blessings of God’s kingdom? The first step is to look inside. Turn towards the spiritual mirror and face who you are and what is going on inside. We could give elaborate definitions of “repentance” and “believing” – and we have before, and as Wesley does in his sermon on this topic -- but at the heart of it is a willingness to let God transform you from within. The kingdom comes to life in us as God’s pours love, peace, and joy into us and as we open our heart to these blessings. When this happens, in us, everything changes.

What is the kingdom of God like? Well it may be like a person who is angry, even with God, and then something moves them, deep inside, to come here – to church – and they feel that anger melt into forgiveness, and understanding, and even joy. What is the kingdom of God like? It may be like a person struggling with addiction, and they are given a power to overcome, and by grace, they are able to become a new person. What is the kingdom of God like? It may be like looking in the mirror and seeing eyes full of envy and lust and a heart full of selfish pride and greed, and then seeing, in that same spiritual mirror, the possibility of love, peace, and joy and wanting that more than anything. What is the kingdom of God like... for you? Amen.