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Sermons

The Kingdom Within

July 15, 2012

Bible Reading

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”

(Matthew 13:44-51)


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.“

(Matthew 5:17-20)

Sermon

Let’s talk today about a beautiful spiritual subject, shall we? Let’s talk about something that the Lord spoke about more than fifty times in his ministry—the kingdom of heaven, which is within you. To begin with, what are some basic ways of trying to define what God’s kingdom is—knowing, of course, that, as the Chinese people learned through the Tao Te Ching, any attempt to label and define what the infinite God is and what heaven is will be approximations. The Lord’s kingdom will be unique to each person. Thus, what you’re about to hear from me are some of my best attempts to describe a spiritual reality that Jesus himself knew would take many parables and special sayings in order to help draw a higher perspective out from the shadows of ignorance and doubt. As a New Church minister, I will be drawing heavily from the revelations about the kingdom of God found in Swedenborgian theology. But whenever greater clarity comes, it is only due to greater light from the Lord and his kingdom entering our minds.

Please understand that what you’re about to hear today is intended to help you explore this subject—this very, very beautiful subject—for yourself, using your own unique mind. So let’s talk about heaven and how the Lord described it as something special that lives within you.

Simply put, God’s kingdom is that which receives the Lord—it is a collection of very, very good spiritual energy, which is often referred to as “love.” The kingdom is also, therefore, the true thoughts that grow from love. We’re dealing here with the most precious stuff of life, that which cannot easily be quantified, proven, or tested by science. So to get into talking about God’s kingdom, we must open ourselves to internal treasure—the goodness of the kingdom, the spiritual stuff that impels soldiers to die for their countries or that inspires a mother to stay up all night long with her child.

The Lord’s kingdom may also be seen as the immense collection of angelic spirits who are the subconscious conduits of God’s grace—the interconnected web of conscious minds who receive the warm light from the Lord, who is the effulgent Sun of heaven. The Lord’s kingdom is made up of angels, but it’s probably most helpful this morning to focus on his kingdom as a very real and powerful force of infinite love. So we’re dealing here with that which corresponds to or is represented by the morning sunrise. When was the last time you just soaked in a good sunrise? Wasn’t it gorgeous beyond words? All that golden light bathing you and inspiring the beauty of life! Remember the peace and stillness such a sunrise elicits, and how it connects you with a feeling of being one with its source. Doesn’t it bring out the serenity from within?

The kingdom of heaven encompasses all that we treasure most about life—heaven contains the Lord! It is his Spirit manifesting blessedness and grace. Heaven is the energy that Jesus brought in abundance into our world—or, as Swedenborg said, it is mutual love and the innocent desire to be helpful.

Heaven is charity living in the heart. The kingdom of God is the direct love with which God fills our hearts, and it creates something equally beautiful in return, which is a beautifully ardent love that we feel for Him. Two of the greatest reasons to celebrate life every day and on Sundays during worship are, first, that the Lord is alive (or, said differently, that divine love is alive!); and second, that the Lord’s kingdom of compassion and innocence has been placed inside of us. This is a given. You don’t have to work for this reality. And this is a reason to celebrate!

What isn’t a given is each person’s unique and wonderful consciousness and overt involvement in this kingdom. We are quite free to reject the kingdom of God within, strange as that may sound. And what’s even odder to hear is that in reality, there are some people who actually choose to reject this gift of inheriting God’s kingdom of love.

Every individual is given the freedom, over many years’ time on Earth, either to seek out and be sought out by the kingdom of love or to choose not to let this saving force have an enormous influence within him or her. We can reject the transforming love and goodness of God and allow the hells to develop instead. If we do choose the hellish path, then the “evil yeast” that Christ spoke of will spread like cancer. If we choose to run from God’s kingdom, then we will inherit “spiritual death,” so to speak, and wind up in hell forever—very much alive, but alive with evil and falsity and the negative energy these forces make use of.

But the central focus of my sermon is that the wells of salvation that exist inside of your spiritual heart are real—there is a kingdom of beauty within you! I heard a lovely story a couple of years ago that illustrates a crucial element of what I mean.

The Rev. John Sanford, an Episcopalian priest and Jungian pastoral counselor and preacher who’s written many books on spiritual psychology, tells a story from his childhood about an artesian well near his family’s home. This well they were blessed to enjoy was always faithful, even during drought seasons: it offered cool, clean, pure water for them to live on. The faithful capacity of this well to offer up water that gave them and their animals life and nourishment astounded John as a young lad.

Then the family’s finances evolved to the point where they were able to afford to drill a conventional well, and so the family put a cover over the deep artesian well. Several years later, young John was very curious to peer down again into that old family well, which he had admired and loved so much, so he took the covering off. And what do you think he found?

Bone dry it was! But why?

John did some investigating and discovered that artesian wells are fed by tiny rivulets or veins of water, and that the little rivulets are kept active only when the well is being tapped and used. Thus appears the correspondence of such wells to our spiritual lives and our connection to the kingdom of God within— the never-ending spiritual wells within us that supply fresh, life-giving waters of truth (which come from the Divine’s supply of love) only remain active and accessible if we continue drawing upon their resources. If we do not, they dry up, and so does our relatively easy access to the kingdom within. There is a living well of spiritual truth inside of you, whose rivulets of inspiration are flowing from the very love of God! But to keep it forever intact and renewing as a well springing up with everlasting life that satisfies all your spiritual thirsts, you have the responsibility of drawing from it regularly. And so one of the many ways of describing the kingdom of heaven is to look at how it behaves like a well dug in the ground.

Another way of describing God’s kingdom is to talk about the quality and character of the religion it creates. The Lord intensely disagreed, in a host of ways, with the religion being taught by the authorities of his day. One had to do with the way in which many of the authorities interpreted the laws of God to focus entirely on religious obedience. “If you toe the line and behave correctly within these commandments and follow these prescribed rituals, then you’ll be righteous before God,” they taught. They were not concerned about an individual’s personal engagement with and experience of the living kingdom within. Jesus was concerned about people feeling heaven and gaining a true understanding of it, too; the Lord wanted us to feel love and all the derivative feelings it births.

So in a sermon like this, I would be remiss if you never heard me say, “Use what I’m talking about as a springboard for launching into your seeking the Lord’s kingdom as an experiential involvement in the now, being vulnerably and tenderly open to the actual flow of the merciful and healing love coming into you from heaven.”

Our Lord Jesus zeroed in very quickly and wisely upon the dangerous focus of the religious authorities. He saw the evil within their shallowness; he recognized the affection for outward control being promoted thereby. They were after an external religion and a dry spirituality. They wanted people to follow what some call the “herd mentality”—that is, to be mindless and passionless members of the group and forget about exploring life, God, and religion from their own unique vantage points. “Toe the line or be damned! And whatever you do, don’t think deeply for yourself or engage the divine through internal or mystical avenues!”

The simple and extremely serious problem with this approach to spirituality was that it didn’t allow people to embrace the essential and simple quality of God that saves us—that is, they were avoiding personal contact with what can make a grown man bawl joyfully, like a little baby being picked up and held by his mother or father. They were simply afraid of God as love! And this is why we hear the Lord exclaiming to them, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lock up the kingdom of heaven from people. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in.” So the kind of approach the authorities of the day were into won’t get people into the kingdom of heaven—either here on earth or after death. It may get people to the doorway of heaven, but it won’t allow them in. Obedience to the truth must lead to a passion for the truth. The Lord said, “For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” It doesn’t get much plainer than that.

One of the awesome gifts that Christ brought into the world was a whole new premise for what the kingdom of heaven is. The Lord brought the thrill of the truth that the kingdom was not to be evidenced by external things like physical good health and worldly prosperity, which is why we hear Christ saying, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Another helpful way of understanding what the kingdom of God is, is to internalize the truth that this kingdom is not a passive force; in fact, it is actively searching for you and wanting you like a merchant in search of fine pearls. The Lord’s kingdom of angels is seeking you out! You and I, when we’re open to higher living, are as valuable and desirable to the Lord as pearls being sought out by a merchant. Most people misinterpret this parable of Jesus, thinking that He’s talking about heaven being as beautiful as a pearl. If you listen to the Lord carefully, you’ll recognize that heaven is being compared to the merchant in this case, while you are the pearl of great price.

The Lord realized that he had to use a second example to show how very active and outreaching heaven is for us all, and how wanted we are by the Lord and his kingdom. Thus we hear the Lord sharing this powerful story about the kingdom of heaven being like a fisherman casting his dragnet into life…knowing, of course, that some will fall short, with weeping and gnashing of teeth. The kingdom is so very good and worthy of our deepest and most ardent searching! And so we find the Lord sharing another parable about a man in search of treasure hidden in a field. When one of us stumbles upon the kingdom within us, we are so awestruck and moved by its sheer beauty and meaning—that is, that we have stumbled upon the source of all love and life itself—that we will give up everything in life to possess such a treasure.

Heaven is a kingdom of love that strives for usefulness. The application of this fact on the practical level of life will inevitably rub elbows with some of our more deeply seated evils, however, such as not wanting to love and be of use to the growth and betterment of those in this world we feel don’t deserve our help and good wishes. In the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom that lives and breathes down deep within you, everyone, and I mean everyone, deserves your loving care and concern. Everyone deserves your compassion and mercy. Everyone in this world deserves to be thought of as a child of God—even those hell-bent on hurting and hating.

One of the keys to understanding Swedenborg’s theology of heaven is what we read in paragraph 60 in Divine Providence: “Everyone who has any religion thinks about heaven and wishes to go there. Yet heaven is granted only to those who know the way to it and walk in that way.” The growth of the kingdom of God inside of us doesn’t typically happen overnight. It slowly grows and grows, like good yeast within a lump of bread dough, as the spiritual truths from the Lord’s Holy Word work their subtle miracle within you while you deeply live whatever good religion or spiritual path makes the most sense to you; this subtle, gradual growth makes your heart “rise” like bread dough with yeast inside of it, becoming ready to be eaten, so to speak.

So it is with our human hearts and wills, which must become warm and “edible” to others with God’s Spirit inside of them. And with this subtle yet expansive increase of the kingdom within us, we’ll begin to see the effects of the growth of the kingdom within: feeling the warm softness of God, given that God is love; the reality of the Lord’s spiritual presence in all good religions and people; a greater tolerance for differences in others while simply wanting to facilitate the spiritual growth of everyone; a lessening of fear about death; and lastly, a very simple and consistent desire to help—whether it be at home, at work, or at church. Heaven brings with it joy in being useful, which is what can turn doing taxes or cleaning the cat box into a spiritual practice.

What examples do you have, from your life experience, of signs of the kingdom of God developing inside of you? May your engagement with the kingdom within you be real, one that may put you into difficult anxiety or even depression at times (as the anti-heaven elements within you fight against and resist it), but that will ultimately yield its saving and succulent fruit. Amen.

Rev. Kit Billings