It just takes a moment for everything to change, and for us to be brought face to face with just how close the kingdom of heaven is.
I was the minister at a recent funeral here in Dunedin. The woman was evidently prominent in the community, and the room was filled with people she had impacted in life. Curiously to the people in the room, she had asked me and my colleague Mau, two Pentecostal pastors she barely knew, to speak (briefly) on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of them were not people of faith. So we did.
A few weeks later, a lady called the church in earnest to find out how she could "get to heaven", as a consequence of that sermon. Though I should expect these things to happen in response to the preaching of the gospel, I was still surprised. It made me reflect again just how close God’s realm is to ours, all the time, and the new perspective on the world this woman would now have.
Jesus gave this bold instruction to his 12 apostles, some 2000 years ago: "Proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay." Matthew 10:7-8.
Jesus was pointing out the reality and proximity of heaven to people’s day-to-day realities and needs, as well as their eternal consequence. For some today, a dependence on God for his sustenance and direction is a daily reality. For others, the idea of heaven and the end seems significant, but is something that can be considered at a "more appropriate time". While many would dismiss the idea altogether, perspectives of "the end" can become motivation for a change in lifestyle today.
What has gripped the imaginations of Christians and non-Christians alike is Jesus’ assertion that the demonstration of the kingdom of heaven is not just an intellectual or emotional assertion, but one that is evidenced by the presence of the miraculous. However, is it reasonable for educated people to believe that miracles happen?
In an academically saturated environment like Dunedin, talk of miracles can be problematic. The naturalistic worldview has no room for miracles. Noted retired professor of chemistry at Oxford, Peter Atkins, a famous atheist, once declared on a televised talk show, "there has never ever been a miracle."
Such a statement steps beyond the strictures of scientific discovery because it is impossible for Peter to have been at every incidence of a reported miracle in order to scientifically evaluate these reports. Rather it is plainly a belief statement that is coherent to a worldview which denies the existence of God.
Jesus is offering a different perspective. A number of times Jesus highlights for us that the presence of miracles are an evidence base which support a different worldview. On this theistic worldview, God is real, the ordered author of all that we see around us, and is present with the capacity to introduce substantial novel events to the world in which we live. We describe these extraordinary things as "miracles". From the perspective of a living God, the presence of miracles are entirely reasonable, and even to be expected, though they do remain somewhat rare in universal experience. These include from Jesus’ point of view, the resurrection of the dead, the restoration of sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and so on.
Having been a missionary and pastor for 20 years, I’ve seen many miracles. I have also walked with people through the trials of life, when their miracle didn’t happen. You might therefore wonder what I am arguing for here.
Put simply, we all need a little hope and joy in our lives. For the non-Christian — I encourage you to ask God to help you in your situation, even if you don’t yet fully know him. And when God does in a way which speaks to you, take the next step of trying to discover more about Him and the way He’s interacted with the world for millennia through the Bible.
For the Christian — I encourage you to take a courageous step.
In the small opportunities that may open up, let people in your life know that God’s kingdom is real and much closer than they imagine.
■Gabriel Chan is senior leader at Elim Church Dunedin.