Who gets to Heaven?

July 20, 2008

Readings:  Genesis 28,10-19a; Romans 8, 12-25; Matthew 13, 24-30 & 36-43


( This sermon has two parts. One, designed for the children was preached after the Old Testament reading (with congregational participation!). The second preached to the adults after the children had left for their own activities).

 Is or was anyone  a Scout or Guide, Cub or Brownie?

Do you remember this campfire song – ‘You can’t get to heaven.’ Sing any verses you remember. 


That tells of ways you can’t get to heaven.

How do you think you can get to heaven? Ideas


Our Old Testament  reading imagined a ladder from heaven to earth – for angels going up and down.

Perhaps most of time invisible – but on this occasion revealed to Jacob – as a pledge that he would one day use it.

Sometimes people think it’s what we believe that gets us to heaven.

Many people think it’s how we behave.

The Old Testament doesn’t confirm either of those.

It’s God’s choice it says – and God sometimes chooses very unlikely people.

Jacob – a nasty bit of work at this time – tricked his brother out of elder son’s privileges. Lied to his elderly and blind father. Now running for his life – no money, no prospects, no wife. Yet God says to him “You will be one to fulfil my promise to Abraham,  and found a great nation and possess this land. 

So is what we believe that gets us to heaven – but not facts or creeds – but trust in God’s promise.

The story reminds us that it’s not what we do that gets us to heaven – but what God does. God offers free pardon and grace to all – and help to grow into sort of person he made us to be. Salvation through Jesus Christ.

So hooray – there’s another verse to the song we can sing: “We all get to heaven, through Jesus Christ. Now ain’t that good and ain’t that nice.”


Are there any gardeners here? Or even someone with an allotment?


I wonder where you get your gardening advice from? Books perhaps? Or the TV – Gardeners World etc. Or radio – Gardeners Question time.


I am prepared to bet you don’t take your gardening advice from the Bible! Who on earth would attempt to grow crops of flowers along the lines suggested in the parable of the wheat and tares ( or weeds) we heard from St. Matthew’s Gospel. No one who called themselves a good gardener would fail to prepare the ground to exclude as many weeds as possible; and no good gardener would  let any weeds that appeared afterwards carry on growing, to take nourishment from the crops they wanted, to strangle them and spoil the look of their plot. Any sensible gardener would pull up any weeds as soon as they appeared.


But, of course, the parable is not really talking about growing crops. It is another of the parables of the Kingdom, which uses the natural world to illustrate how God works.


Jesus came from an agricultural society where almost everyone grew at least part of their own food. And the harvest was a well known metaphor in his society for the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgement and the End of Time. So it was natural for him to use this picture from the world of nature to illustrate the coming of the God’s Kingdom through his ministry.


In Matthew’s Gospel this parable comes immediately after the parable of the Sower, which you probably heard last week.  Both emphasise the need for patience and trust in anticipating the coming of God’s Kingdom. Although progress seems slow, things are happening ( just as things are happening underground with the growing seed). The harvest will come, without any help or action by human beings, because that is the way God has designed it. 


However, compared with the parable of the Sower, this parable is much stronger. The ‘opposition’ is not just random – it comes from a deliberate act of sabotage. And there is a more definite ‘end time’ in view, when the good crops will be gathered in and the weeds destroyed by fire. This is very typical of Matthew – and his is the only gospel in which this parable appears.


When Jesus told this parable, it is probable that he had only one point in mind – to emphasise that God’s kingdom had arrived with him, no matter what it looked at from outside. Some of the traditional Jewish descriptions of the Day of the Lord said it would come when there were no sinners left in Israel. In Jesus’ time, there obviously were still sinners around. Jesus is saying that, in spite of this, God’s  harvest time is now.


But, like the parable of the Sower, this parable has an explanation tacked on to it. This treats the parable as an allegory, and gives an explanation for every element in it. It was written in a time after the death of Jesus when there was persecution of Jewish Christians from within the Jewish faith, and when there were beginning to be divisions within Christianity, with some interpretations being labelled heretical. The writer of Matthew believed that every believer had to make a choice, now,  about which side they were on, since the judgement would come very soon.


But what does this parable say to us today?


No-one has to tell us that we live in a world where good and evil coexist. Nor that both good and evil can come out of the same religious faith. We live all the time in that situation which Paul describes in our reading from the letter to the Romans. We long for a time when evil will be defeated and pain and suffering will be no more. We can hardly wait for the time when the promised new life begins, and we can be, as we believe we were created to be, the sons and daughters of God.


And being human, we want to do something to hurry that longed-for  end time along.


Paul, however, like Jesus, counsels patience and endurance. Nothing can come between us and the hope we are given in Christ, he says.  But we must wait for God’s good time before we can fully enjoy it.


In particular, I think, the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds warns us against too hasty a judgement in the religious field.


Too many religious people are only prepared to live in a field of pure wheat. They want to root out and destroy those whom they see as ‘weeds’ – those who are different, those who don’t behave or believe in exactly the same way as they do.


But our human judgement is inevitably limited, and frequently faulty. And even if we are correct in our judgement of what is against God’s will, as the parable warns us, any attempt to remove the ‘evil’ does more harm than good.


We have only to look at our religious history to see the truth of that – at the persecution of heretics in the early church and the Middle Ages; at attempts to expel Jews and Muslims from Christendom; at the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of Christ during the Reformation; at the sort of society you get when it is run by religious zealots of any faith.


Through this parable I believe we should hear Jesus telling us that we must live alongside those we consider wrong-headed. Any attempt to expel them from the church will inevitably bring disaster.


We must continue to feed on Christ and grow quietly in faith – and allow others to do the same – and trust in God. When the harvest comes, he will carry out his judgement, and do any separating that is necessary without human help; and his harvest will be great and good – though we humans may well be surprised at what gets gathered in to his heavenly barn when that end-time comes.

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