Yesterday I got into a section of the third chapter of The Divine Conspiracy called "Heaven Invading Human Space." The images and language that Willard uses there is festering within my mind and soul. Willard emphasizes in his book that heaven is not some distant place where God lives and people go after they die. "The kingdom of the heavens," as he puts it, is not only breaking in, but is and has been upon us throughout all of human history. Jesus, God incarnate, points the way to this "kingdom of the heavens" and teaches how we can live as people of this kingdom right now. I understand all of that, and do agree with him. As much as any place, John's Gospel reveals to us how we can live in this spiritual, heavenly kingdom right now. The problem is that, like so many of us, what I can understand in theory does not always play out in my life. Again, that's the call of this blog: Love Christ Live Faith. Start living the kingdom. Start living in grace.
Willard has given me an image that's going to stick for a long time:
The inability to accept the fact that our familiar atmosphere is a "heaven" in which God dwells and from which he deals with us leads to some curious translations of biblical texts. In Acts 11:5-9, within a span of five verses, exactly the same phrase, tou ouranou, is translated in three different ways by the NASV, and by most others. It is translated "the sky" in verse 5, "the air" in verse 6, and "heaven" in verse 9.Willard makes this point by lifting up a passage from Acts as an example. But even before Peter and the sheet full of food Willard gives many examples even in the Old Testament of heaven truly invading human space: from God appearing to Abraham to Jacob bridging the gap between heaven and earth. What happens when we truly no longer think of heaven as being some distant place in the sky, but present among us like air and atmosphere?
This, you may recall, is where Peter in a trance sees a sheet with all kinds of animals on it being let down through the atmosphere (tou ouranou). Among them are birds of the atmosphere. and he hears a voice from the atmosphere telling him to rise and eat.
Now our English sky means something quite different from air, and heaven means something quite different from either. The translation becomes entangled in these meanings. The sky is more a limit than a place, and as a place it is farther away than the air. Hence, we say, "The sky's the limit," not "the air's the limit." Heaven, of course, is strictly out of sight for us, beyond the moon for sure and quite likely "beyond" the physical cosmos.
A consistent translation of tou ouranou drawing upon the biblical context could use "air" or "atmosphere" in each occurrence, as I have just done, and thus give the precise content of Peter's experience. God spoke to Peter from the surrounding "thin air," where birds fly and from which the sheet came. This conveys quite a different impression than the standard translations, which usually only speak of "heaven" in this passage. (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Ch. 3)
Jesus says "and remember, I am with you always until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). The Spirit is given to the disciples like a gust of wind at Pentecost (Acts 2:2). Jesus compares being born of the spirit and living in the spirit to wind in John 3. "Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Jesus' primary message to the world is that the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven or "the kingdom of the heavens") has come near. "Repent, and believe the good news (Mark 1:15)." This repentance is more about changing your life than about confessing sin. It means breaking free from the confining structures of the worldly kingdom that limit us, tell us no, and enslave us to sin. Changing your life means loving Christ and living faith through embracing the consciousness of Christ. We are free to follow. We are free to live responsibly. We are free to live the Kingdom of God. And as Jesus says, this is "good news." Believe this "good news."
Back to the atmosphere, which is Willard's translation of literally "the heavens" in the Greek. What would it mean to feel a warm breeze and remember the presence of God and the inspiration of the Spirit? What would it mean to have the air conditioning blow upon you and remember you are a child of God, living the kingdom, partaking in the "Bread of Life" through faith.
As common as wind blowing through your hair are the moments of God's presence and guidance. God moments remind us of our connectedness and the helping hand of the Good Shepherd; they are moments of living in the freedom of the Kingdom of God. And my friends, this is the truth you want to live in. It is a Kingdom of the Possible and a Kingdom of Hope. It is the reality of giving your burdens to Christ and taking upon yourself his yoke, which is so easy and light. The Kingdom of God, which is among us, is where we have life and have it abundantly.