Shortcut to Paradise

Soon we’ll reach the shining river. Soon our pilgrimage will cease, Soon our happy hearts will quiver With the melody of peace. 
--Robert Lowry, “Shall We Gather at the River”

True revelation is always immediate, while religion is often an exercise in deferred gratification.  Two thousand years ago an itinerant rabbi wandered out of the wilderness and proclaimed, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  He was called Yeshua, or Joshua, namesake of the tribal leader who more than a thousand years earlier had led God’s people out of the wilderness into the promised land.  When this latter-day Joshua, whom we know by his Greek name of Jesus, said the kingdom of God was “at hand,” he meant right now.  He instructed people not to look for signs that the kingdom was coming but to look within.  This advice was quickly forgotten.  

After Jesus was martyred, his followers expected him to return in their lifetimes.  When this didn’t happen, their focus shifted from this world to the next.  There were apocalyptic visions.  Faced with suffering and persecution, the early Christians soon came to view God's kingdom as everlasting compensation for the trials of this life.  As time went on, the church became increasingly preoccupied with the hereafter. Elaborate hierarchies of heaven and hell were incorporated into popular belief.  From Augustine onward, the church fathers painted a lurid picture of hell’s eternal torments, in contrast to the faint promise of salvation for the righteous few who had atoned sufficiently for their sins in this life.   As fasting, scourging and other penances grew ever more arduous, the church offered the temporary sufferings of purgatory as consolation for the faithful who had not completed their acts of atonement before they died.  

There is a shortcut to paradise that is overlooked every time we look elsewhere for redemption.  When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, he prefaced it with a call to repent.  Repentance is usually understood as a turning away from sin.  But the literal meaning of metanoia in the original Greek is a change of mind -- not simply to think different thoughts or to act differently but to see the world with new eyes.  The change Jesus had in mind was so radical that he likened it to being reborn.  Unless one is born anew, he said, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 

The kingdom of God is indeed at hand, closer at every moment than our own breathing – right here, right now, always.  It doesn’t come with signs to be observed, but from the inside out.  Rather than remake the world or remake ourselves, we are called upon to see the world as it is, as God created it.  The world was perfect once; it still is. Paradise is not lost; we are merely lost in it.  “The world is a mirror of infinite beauty,” wrote Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth-century English cleric, “yet no man sees it.  It is a temple of majesty, yet no man regards it.  It is the region of light and peace, did not men disquiet it.  It is the paradise of God.”  

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