|Garden fountains at Longwood Gardens|
As a child I was taught the fundamentals of Christianity--in school, at church and at home--in a way appropriate to a child. Be a good boy and later man and I would enter heaven (the kingdom of God) when I died. The definition of "good" was not left to chance. There were a set of rules that provided guidance of how to live a good life. There were the Ten Commandments and explications thereof. They largely told me what not to do; they told me what sins were so I could avoid them. Honoring my mother and father and recognizing God always seemed easy enough. Not stealing and telling truth were sometimes challenging but understandable. Adultery and coveting people and stuff didn't make much sense but no harm, no foul. There was another set--the Commandments of the Church--that specified obligations related to the Church and the Sacraments. Frankly they seemed innocuous and easy enough.
Once puberty arrived, all that coveting stuff took on new relevance. While adultery seemed out of the question at the time, other sexual sins were certainly on the table. What had started out as a more or less reasonable set of rules became pretty much the sole focus of my religious education and formation. Now, getting into heaven was serious business and not to be taken for granted. Over time a grand bargain took shape. Follow the rules about personal and especially sexual behavior and you would go to heaven where you would be perfectly and eternally happy. Increasingly, "being good" became over focused on personal and sexual behavior.
As I matured, got married, fathered seven children, raised them, got divorced, changed professions, remarried, became a grandfather, I bit by bit came to the realization that the "grand bargain" was a lot more complicated and challenging than simply being a good boy and then getting into heaven. As I began to read the gospels and to study them, I began to realize that Jesus wasn't so much talking about heaven to come as the kingdom. Rather he was calling his followers to live their lives in the kingdom right here and right now. Heaven or the kingdom was a way of life that we are called to create in our daily life. More to the point, it is not just our daily personal lives but the communal life of societies and political entities. If this social aspect is not recognized, we end up with perversions of the Christian message, like the one that justified slavery in this country or that led church leadership to bow down before Hitler and the Third Reich.
Certainly Jesus did not have a political--let alone a partisan agenda--but he did have a way of life agenda that extended before our families and our face to face communities. The Sermon on the Mount, the story of the Good Samaritan, and the lesson of the sheep and goats makes clear that Christian are called to created a way of living that exemplifies these values of simply taking care of each other and especially those who are different, isolated, marginalized, discriminated against. In short, those who are not like us.
As we begin to do that--unreservedly and without qualification--we begin to build the kingdom of God right here, the only place we know for sure it counts. If we don't do that, no amount of personal rectitude makes any difference or any sense.