Monday, July 28, 2014

Hell and the Kingdom of Heaven: Meditations by Fr. Frank Wade

[Responses to meditations by Frank Wade, priest and interim dean at the Episcopal National Cathedral, printed in the May-June-July 2014 issue of Forward Day by Day.]

"The kingdom of heaven," concludes Fr. Frank Wade, "is as real as our next conversation, as fleeting as our last one" (Forward 90).  Wade's meditation takes off from similes for the kingdom in Matthew 13: "It expands like a mustard seed or yeast. It is valuable like treasure or a pearl.  It is as diverse as a net full of fish...."  But is it a place on earth, or a place that we reach after death?  "My personal experience tells me that it is not about geography," Wade writes, but about "the relationship in which God rules." He explains:
I have felt its expansive joy, its treasure, and its scope when I let what I know of God rule me.  I have seen it melt away like mist when I have grabbed the crown and plopped myself onto the throne.
His other meditations align with this one to point us away from speculations about afterlife, as not unimportant, only not our current business. 

Wade considers the parable of the king's wedding feast (Mt 22:11).  For the king to reject the A-listed guests and to welcome lower-classes was reassuring to early Christians who "saw themselves replacing the Jews in God's favor" (66).  But, with the one guest improperly robed, the parable "takes a nasty turn."  Wade admits that the passage defies easy interpretation, but concludes, "God's generous inclusion does not reduce God's expectations or the consequences attached to them."

For Wade, the question of the widow's seven husbands (Mt 22:28) is "cynical coming from the Sadducees, who do not think there will be marriage or anything after death."  Wade admits that "those of us who not only believe in but also rely on life after death" want to know the answer, and he hasn't got one. But "the key is not information, as the Sadducees implied.  It is trust, as Jesus' less than complete answer implies."  The kicker for this meditation, though, is this lovely thought: "We dwell on the edge of mystery as surely as the unborn." 

Wade asks, if we could just "bask in the promise" of faith, then what "yoke" is Jesus laying on us (Mt 11:29)?  Wade distinguishes "belief" from "faith."  He cites the context of John the Baptist who spoke to the failure of the studious religious to recognize God's presence, and a passage about childlike faith, concluding,  "The experience of God is not usually found outside of belief, and belief is not usually entered through scholarly inquiry.  We trust God and then experience God.  That is the yoke" (69).

What else do we learn about the kingdom of heaven in terms of relationships on earth?  Jesus tells the Pharisees that they have neglected not just the "weightier" matters of law, but also "the others" (Mt 23:23).  Those weighty matters are justice, mercy, and faith.  The "others," Wade says, are those little things in community that make faith easier: hospitality and integration of faith with actions.  "The Pharisees," Wade writes, "made converts as petty as themselves" with their "self-serving" theology (71).

The end of the world comes up in readings for July 11 and 12, and Wade again refuses to speculate about it, wisely asking instead, "Why do we care so much?"  We long, he says, for "the end of the nagging doubt that distinguishes faith from certainty" and we look for "vindication, if not revenge" on those who've hurt us.  But life insurance and pension plans have taken the edge off our anticipation of the end of times, and now we are more likely to dread it.  Wade also asks why the gospel's writer(s) and editor(s) retained the saying, so obviously out of date, that "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mt 24:34).  Wade takes this as sign of Matthew's good faith not to "filter" his writing.  Wade's kicker:  "Scripture both pre- and postdates us. The parts that seem awkward to us must be kept before us" (75).

When Wade gets to the saying about sheep and goats (Mt 25:32), he's uneasy.   The separation is "difficult to reconcile" with other things we know about God.  If we are to be judged "pass / fail" in the afterlife, does that mean that any good deeds of the "failures" will be forgotten?  That goes against other sayings of Jesus, such as the one that "the kindness of a cup of cool water won't be overlooked" (Mt 10:42).  Wade prefers St. Paul's image of life "as a building that is tried by fire," burning away the weak parts and leaving what's good (1 Cor 3:15).  But Wade concludes, "With or without my comfort, judgment is a reality.  What we do now matters later. What we do today matters into eternity" (79).

In the next two readings, Wade finds good in one bad guy, and shares the blame with another!  Caiaphas, he notes, was doing the best he knew how to do (Mt 26:3-4), caught between the rebellious Jews and domineering Romans, trying to tamp down the revolution.  He was right to do so; Jews' revolt in 70 CE failed, and their temple was destroyed.  About Judas (Mt 26-21), Wade observes that he was no different from the rest of us.  "The opportunities for betrayal of our Lord" are "numerous": 
Words spoken or not spoken; unwillingness to see doors the Spirit opens for us or refusal to go through the ones we do see; forgiveness denied or hope trivialized; anger unleashed or grace restrained.  Jesus could have said "Truly all of you will betray me."
He warns us to remember that we are loved by God "in spite of" more than "because of" (81).

In the end, then, Wade has returned to the thought with which he first introduced the theme of judgment and faith:  Whatever the kingdom of heaven may be after death, our relationship to God begins here, in our relationships to others around us.

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