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Vol. 78 - No. 4
APRIL 2007

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:             

Heaven on earth? 

            An amusing comparison of capitalism and socialism, supposedly made by a Soviet official in a debate, goes like this: “Capitalism is the oppression of man by man, but in socialism the reverse is true.”  (I once shared that with a socialist friend.  He nodded solemnly and said: “Yes, that’s exactly right.”  He didn’t get the joke).

            In reality, of course, capitalism emphasizes free enterprise and private property, while socialism envisions public (i.e., government) ownership of major industries.  The most extreme form of socialism, communism, abolishes private property altogether, so that the public (i.e., the government) owns everything.

            Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently made a very pointed comparison of socialism and capitalism.  Capitalism, he said, is “the road to hell”.  But in socialism, Chavez continued,  “we build heaven on earth.”

            Now the Bible doesn’t map out any particular economic system.  I myself was converted to capitalism in my youth–not by the Bible, but by a book called The Shaping of Jewish History by Ellis Rifkin, in which he argued persuasively that capitalism and political freedom go hand in hand.  In my view, capitalism is not the “road to hell”, but the road to freedom.  And certainly I feel that the statement by the owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable–“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”, Matthew 20:15–is a great summary of capitalist economic freedom.  But the Bible isn’t a book on economics–so I don’t feel I can say, “God likes capitalism better than socialism”.  What I can say, however, is that the notion that any political/economic system can create “heaven on earth” is both dangerous and idolatrous.  Neither capitalism nor socialism is capable of making “heaven on earth”.

            Because “heaven” implies perfection–and conditions on earth will never be perfect.  A sensible economic system acknowledges the imperfection and works with it.  But when government leaders talk as if perfection is possible–that one can build “heaven”or “paradise” on earth–an  extremely dangerous situation is created.   When a government tries to create a perfect society, it usually has to eliminate everything that doesn’t fit in with its concept of perfection.  This is what led to the horrors of Stalinism, Hitlerism, and Maoism.  They were all trying to build a kind of “heaven on earth”–a workers’ paradise, a new order.  To achieve that, they exterminated or enslaved everyone who didn’t share their vision, everyone who fell outside their concept of perfection.  “Heaven on earth” has a horrible tendency to turn into “hell on earth”.

            Ultimately, heaven is not something we can “build”.  Heaven is a gift.  It’s not a human achievement; it’s not the product of adopting the right economic system or the right political system.  Heaven is ultimately the presence of God.  And that presence is His gift to us.  We can’t earn it, we can’t “build” it, we can’t achieve it by our own efforts.  God graciously and lovingly draws near to us in Jesus Christ.

            Can there be “heaven on earth”?  Absolutely!  Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is heaven.  When He touches our lives, when He enters our lives, we have been embraced by heaven.  St. Paul says something interesting in Ephesians:   God...made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (2:5-6).   Through the cross and resurrection of Christ, which we celebrate this month, we have been elevated into heaven...even though we are still in this world, we are breathing the atmosphere of heaven!

            This is most powerfully experienced in our worship.  When we gather together, the crucified and risen Jesus is among us.  He is present in the Word that we listen to; He is present in the Blessed Sacrament to feed us with His very self.  We who stand in His presence are powerfully connected with heaven.  When we sing, we sing with the holy angels; when we pray, we pray with all those who have gone before us into eternal joy.  A church service is truly an experience of heaven on earth!

            But not completely, of course.  We are occasionally reminded that we are not quite there yet.  The organ breaks (as ours did recently).  The pastor stumbles over a word or two (as I prayed in a recent 11 a.m. service: “Lead us to sin” rather than “lead us away from sin and to Christ”).  The candles sometimes refuse to light.  The pastor drops a communion wafer, or says the wrong creed.   These little glitches remind us that, even when we touch the joy of heaven, we are still in this imperfect world...that even though we taste the joy of heaven here, there is a still a  new world of perfection coming!

            This world can never be completely heaven until Jesus comes.  That’s the only thing that will make “the kingdom of this world...become the kingdom of our Lord”.  Neither socialism nor capitalism can transform this world into heaven; only the final return of Jesus will.

            But until that great day, I get a taste of heaven as I walk with the risen Christ–as I know His forgiveness and His peace.  And this taste becomes especially real when I come into His holy house, and kneel at His holy altar.  That’s all the “heaven on earth” I need.  And it’s not something I “build” through an economic or political system–it’s God’s sweet gift to me in Jesus Christ!

            Glory to the crucified and risen One now and always!  God loves you and so do I.

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