In our second reading, taken from Revelation, we heard these words: “I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”1 Then we heard these words: “Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.”2 These words convey a very important message. The message these words convey is so important that not to receive it is to compromise the mission of the Church, which, as our reading from Revelation also tells us, is the bride of Christ.
What is the message? The message is that heaven is not up in the sky. To conceive of it as such is to let your faith disconnect you from reality. Christ calls us to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute it. That heaven will be on earth is clearly attested to by Scripture and the Church fathers.
Just as our bodies will be resurrected, the earth will be renewed with eternal glory. Because we exist forever as embodied beings, we need a place to inhabit. Rather than a garden paradise, the kingdom of God is a city, a new Jerusalem, a holy city inhabited only by saints. As Christians, we revere Jesus as Emmanuel, or “God-with-us.” It has been pointed out that the “Event of God becoming human is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma” on the cosmos.3
Since our observances of the Ascension and Pentecost are rapidly approaching, it is important to note that Jesus did not abandon his disciples when he ascended. Rather, he sent his Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of the Father. It is by means of the Holy Spirit that the risen Lord remains present in us, among us, and through us. It is by the power of the Spirit that Christ is really present to us in this Eucharist in four distinct but inextricably related ways: in the gathering of the baptized, in the person of the priest, in the proclamation of Scripture, and in the consecrated bread and wine, our partaking of which makes together the body of Christ.4
None of these four ways in which Jesus is really present stands alone. On their own, each of these ways makes no sense whatsoever. Even so, as one of the men in white told the astonished apostles at Christ’s Ascension: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you… will return in the same way as you have seen him going [up].”5 This proclamation is preceded by the question, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”6 And so, “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”7
This prompts the question, what shall we do in the meantime, in the time between the Lord’s Ascension and his glorious return, which will precede the arrival of the city of God? It’s quite simple: we are to usher in the reign of God, making the kingdom present in the form of a mustard seed until it is fully established.
What does living in this way look like? Our first reading from Acts gives us a clue. In the first instance, like Paul and Barnabas, we are to proclaim the good news. The good news is Jesus Christ crucified and risen. As Pope St. Paul VI noted: in our day people listen “more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if [they do] listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”8 Just as Jesus told anyone who would follow him they must be willing to take up their cross, Paul and Barnabas teach those who would be Christians, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”And so, “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”9
It is not easy being a professing Christian today. At least in the United States, this is not due to the fact that we are being persecuted. It stands to reason that as the number of professing and practicing Christians declines, the Church will continue to lose political clout, which, in light of the Gospel, is a good thing. What makes being a Catholic right now so difficult is the Church’s seeming counter-witness to the good news. To many, those of us who remain faithful members of the Church look willfully ignorant or even hypocritical. No amount of apologetics will resolve this state-of-affairs.
Rather than a bad thing, exposing sin is a step in the right direction. We need to be reminded that Christians are not hypocrites because we’re sinners, or even because, in our shame, we seek to hide our sins in the same way Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after eating from the forbidden tree.10 Such behavior is indicative of our deformed humanity. But it is never pleasant to experience the dissolution of our often carefully-crafted façade. Doing away with what The Who, in one of their hit songs, referred to as an “Eminence Front” is a good thing because the “eminence front” is always “a put-on.”
Acknowledging that behind the whitewash is a sepulcher is necessary for true repentance. I don’t know about you, but it’s because I am a sinner that I am a Christian. In Jesus, I have met someone who, through the grace of God, helps me to see that I am greater than the sum of my failures. Because of Christ, my identity is not reducible to the worst thing I have ever done, far from it! It is Jesus who takes away my guilt and shame, thus restoring me to my dignity and conforming me more while more to his image.
Because as Christians we have experienced the mercy of God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit first-hand, we must bring this good news to each other in concrete ways. Because God has forgiven us in Christ, it is imperative that we forgive one another, bear with each other in our weaknesses and through our failures. This is easy to say and hard to do. As the first Christians in Ephesus were exhorted: “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”11
This is exactly what Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel by giving his disciples (you and me) “a new commandment” – “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”12 The obverse of this is failing to love one another in a Christ-like way. If we fail to do this we are not a community of Jesus’s disciples. Taking our cue from Tertullian, one of the earliest Church fathers, when people look at St. Olaf parish their response should be “See… how they love one another.”13
This, my friends, is how we live God’s kingdom as a present reality. This is how we live and bear witness to the good news. It is by living this way that we allow Christ to make his dwelling among us, acknowledging him as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Living this way is the only convincing proof that God is with us. This is how we build the city of God, a new Jerusalem, a holy city. We cannot do this if we remain standing around looking up at the sky.
1 Revelation 21:2.↩
2 Revelation 21:3.↩
3 John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, 7.↩
4 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.↩
5 Acts 1:11.↩
6 Acts 1:11.↩
7 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 125.↩
8 Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, sec. 41.↩
9 Acts 14:22.↩
10 See Genesis 3:6-12.↩
11 Ephesians 4:32.↩
12 John 13:34-35.↩
13 Tertullian, Apology, 39.↩