Harrowing Of Hell
June 18, 2023

The Kingdom of God in Review

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Click here to watch the sermon.

When I first came to Epiphany 15 years ago, the message I preached a lot was: the kingdom of heaven is here, right here, right now, and that is good news! Do any of you remember that?

The kingdom of heaven, is also the Kingdom of God…those ideas are the same idea. The kingdom of heaven phraseology comes from the gospel of Matthew. The Kingdom of God phraseology comes from the gospel of Luke. They mean the same thing.

Whether it is the kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God, you are in it, right here, right now.  It is this near. Closer than a proton is to an electron. That pretty near!

And you’re wondering, why is this good news? Well, since you’re here, let me explain.

We’ll begin with the scripture in front of us. Jesus is proclaiming the good news in the cities and villages. These are places. He talks about the fields and the towns and even the houses. These are places. The Old Testament reading expands the sense of place to include mountains and the wilderness and even camps. Camping it turns out takes place in the kingdom of heaven; which means that crows that eat your trash, are in the kingdom of heaven; and bears that steal your supplies are in the kingdom of heaven; and mosquitos that bite your wife, are in the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is a place that God created, and not by accident. It is entirely intentional, carefully crafted, for one very specific reason; as a venue for the love of God to be known…which then also means as a venue for our human freedom to be expressed.

And here’s the good news: the design of the kingdom of heaven is so well tuned, that it guarantees that if the Conn family goes camping, and there are mosquitoes, they will bite my wife. And oddly, in that certainty, she has greater agency, to not go camping, or to make sure she is completely prepared, repellent in hand, for the inevitable encounter.

It would be more complicated if sometimes they bit her, and sometimes they didn’t bite her. But since it is an inalterable inevitability by some divine operating principle that the mosquitoes will bite her then she always knows what to expect, which is the good news.

For in the kingdom of heaven the consistency of the divine operating principles gives us a sense of security; because a kingdom of heaven operating principle is something that always happens the same way every time and so, enables us, human beings, you and me, to have to think less about some things so, we can think more about other things.

You see God created two realms for human participation. Two kingdoms really, both made by God. The very first line in the Bible proclaims this: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The heavens being the realm where – what God wants to have happen always happens that way God wants it to happen: so, crows eat trash, bears eat provisions, and mosquitoes eat my wife. And earth is where God withdraws God’s preferred operating principles in favor of our freedom. I’ll say more about that in a minute.

But first, if you really want to understand the kingdom of heaven ask a scientist. That’s what they’re all about. They observe, measure, test, repeat, then proclaim a hypothesis to be true until proven otherwise. Scientists are kingdom of heaven experts whether they know it or not, whether they want to be or not. This connection has a long tradition.

Just think of Hildegard of Bingen. You might know her as Saint Hildegard of the Rhine… ringing some bells. 11th century?  German Benedictine Abbess?  Well, she is considered the founder of scientific history in Germany.  11th century – Female – Christian – Scientist.

How about 18th century Presbyterian preacher Thomas Bayes? He developed the mathematical formula to understand probabilities, which, when paired with computers in the 1950’s changed the landscape of scientific research. Bayesian formula?  Ring any bells? Just a regular Christian preacher seeking to better understand God’s divine operating principles.  

And the list goes on and on and on. Why? Because when Christians see the world they wonder about God’s designs and patterns, and so studying them is one more way to grow closer to God.

To think that science and Christianity aren’t compatible is completely to miss the point that the kingdom of heaven is right here, closer than a proton to an electron. I know what I’m talking about because I spent many, many years missing the point.

Many of you have heard my story. I grew up in the church, but the minute I went to college I renounced the church and fell into a state of active agnosticism. I had a sense that there was something out there, but it certainly wasn’t manifest in the teachings of Christianity, as far as I could tell at the time.

So, I pursued a very dualistic path. On the one hand I set out to achieve, to accomplish, to accumulate, and to conquer…so as to build my earthly kingdom. And on the other hand, I also sought the secrets of creation, and the spiritual enlightenment they promised to reveal. That meant managing jobs, internships, and grades, while working with a spiritual guide to achieve nirvana.

My yogi was named Pradan. I didn’t study with him for very long, but what I did learn in our time together was how to meditate, with the goal of moving beyond the illusion of this material world, to the place of perfect emptiness, liberating me from the stuff around me.

I started this process in 1987 and I finished it in 1994. Because one September morning in 1994 I arrived at that place of perfect emptiness, and I found that there was nothing there. I got to where I was going, and it was not where I wanted to be. It was the void, and I was gripped by existential dread, stricken by the fear of being absolutely alone in the universe. If this was all illusion, then I was all alone…

I shook myself out of my meditation that day. I was completely rattled and shot through with angst. I didn’t know what to do, so I called the Episcopal priest I had become acquainted with as Kristin and I began to return to church, to find a place to get married.

I went to his office as quickly as his schedule allowed. I told him what had happened. I’m not sure he knew what to do, but the Holy Spirit moved through him in a way that changed my life and allows me to stand before you today.

After I told him of arriving at the void, he shifted the conversation by asking me what I did for work. About this woman he saw me with at church. Where I met her. What did she do? How did we get to Cleveland? Do I play tennis? Do we have a dog?

What he did with these questions changed my life, because it redirected my gaze from the interior to the exterior; from the delusion of illusion, to incarnational reality. Suddenly, the scales dropped from my eyes, and the dualism of material acquisition and spiritual enlightenment collapsed into the singular blessing of a dynamic, integrated world that I sat in the midst of; right then, right there.

On that day, in that Episcopal priest’s office, I became a Christian, and here is why: incarnational theology and trinitarian theology. There’s a lot in this, but it’s important to understand as Christians, and simpler than you might think.

Incarnational theology is about Jesus. Jesus as God in creation, teaching us by word and deed, that this world is where God is, it is God’s Kingdom, and it is good. No illusion. God loves this world and God made it for us. Jesus came to personally punctuate that point. Incarnational theology proclaims:this world is a blessing because God is here.

Trinitarian theology teaches us that all this stuff, us included, are in relationship. Relationship is primary. Relationship between everything — all inextricably, completely, interdependent connected,from quarks to galaxies.If you don’t believe me on this topic, or Jesus, or the theologians, ask a scientist.

So, the attributes of the kingdom of heaven are: that God is ruler, heaven is where God lives, and in heaven what God wants to have happen always happens the way God wants it to happen from crows to bears to mosquitoes.

Heaven is a place created by God that is consistent, enabling us to think less about some things, so we can think more about the most important things… which are alignment between heaven and earth, or as we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Earth, then, is the home of our freedom. It is a place made by God, where God withdraws God’s divine operating principles, in favor of our freedom. Earth, in theological speak, is not the ground under our feet, rather it is the place owned by each one of us, our own little kingdoms if you will, where we choose in our heart, relationships, and community to:

  1. align our kingdom with God’s Kingdom, that is to say where our actions align with God’s preferences for our actions – “on earth as it is in heaven;”
  2. or we choose not to align with God.

And God gave us this freedom, because God is love and God generates love and love seeks connection, but it can only connect when invited to do so…there is no love if there is no freedom.

We are made free, which can look like picking up trash, or hanging our backpack from a tree, or wearing mosquito repellent, and also, and maybe more importantly, free to be people who seek the blessings of incarnation and the connectivity of Trinity.

That is the good news that is right here right now. We are in the Kingdom of God. God is right here this near, and all this creation exists so we can choose to experience the love of God.

And that ends my sermon.

But before I sit down, I want to invite you to consider the kingdom of heaven over the summer, and how your kingdom aligns with God’s Kingdom. How do you experience the blessings of the world around you? How do you use your freedom, and the things that you do to align with God’s preference for your life? And what might that preference be?

I invite you this summer to say the Lord’s Prayer every day and when you get to the words: “on earth as it is in heaven,” consider the blessing of incarnation and acknowledge the reality of the Trinity. Then look around at the place in which you find yourself: whether on a mountain, or in the wilderness; whether in a village or town or city; whether at home or out camping – Notice God’s divine operating principles that surround you on all sides, notice their consistency, their sublime beauty, their connectedness, and their blessedness.

Notice that you are in the Kingdom of heaven right here, right now, right there, right then,and give thanks to God.