Our second reading this week is again taken from the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. Once again, Revelation informs us in dramatic but certain terms that heaven will be on earth. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. In fact, how we live our lives and how we proclaim the Gospel hinge on understanding this very fundamental aspect of Christian faith. If we conceive of "heaven" as up in the sky then chances we think of ourselves living eternally as disembodied spirits. Too many Christians think of their beloved dead as angels. Human beings do not become angels because to become an angel would mean taking a step backward, not forward. Because Jesus was resurrected, we will be resurrected. As a result, we are destined to live forever embodied, which is not only how God made us but why God became human. "What is man that you are mindful of him," the psalmist asks God.1 "Yet you have made him little less than a god," the psalmist continues, "crowned him with glory and honor."2
Thinking of heaven as "up there" somewhere and conceiving of yourself as a spirit trapped in a body is Gnostic, not Christian. It's difficult to think of an outlook more alien to authentic Christianity than Gnosticism. Christianity, which takes the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son as its starting point, has contended with Gnosticism, which is something of a spiritual parasite, from the start.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis noted the danger of this Gnostic tendency. "Thanks be to God," the Holy Father writes, that throughout her history, the Church "has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity."3 Those who tend toward Gnosticism "do not understand this," he continues, "because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines."4 In separating the intellect from the body, these Gnostics render themselves "incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions."5
It bears noting a second time in as many weeks that such a Gnostic view disconnects those who hold it from reality, causing them to constantly look beyond, distracting them from their own lives and the lives of others, especially those in need. It leads to an attitude captured well in the Letter of James. When confronted with someone who is clothed in rags and/or hungry, a person with this disconnected view responds by saying, in effect: "'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,' but [does] not give them the necessities of the body..."6
Rather than a garden, heaven-on-earth is a city. The city of God marks the completion of God's creation. It is only then that God will rest as will those who enter into the sabbath rest by inhabiting the city of God.7
Everyone is invited to live in the city of God. This is made clear by our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This reading tells about the somewhat anachronistically named "Council of Jerusalem." This council was convened to ascertain the status of Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) converts to Christianity. Without a doubt, even prior to Paul's missionary activity among the Gentiles there were Gentile Christians. It's a pretty safe bet that this early on these Gentiles became Christian via Judaism. At this point, there was no hard-and-fast split between the church and the synagogue. This early on, Christians probably gathered in their own synagogues.
The difference between Gentiles who became Christians via Judaism and those who converted in response to Paul's evangelization efforts was that Paul forbade the latter from becoming Jews prior to becoming Christians. For example, Gentile men who converted were not circumcised. Paul emphatically insisted that a one becomes a Christian through baptism. Both men and women are baptized. In his Letter to the Galatians, which is Paul's strongest extant repudiation of the idea that Gentiles needed to become Jews into order to be Christians, wrote: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."8
Understandably, Paul's radical activity quickly became a matter of concern due to the fact that it caused many great scandal. As a result, Paul was called to Jerusalem to answer for himself. It seems that Paul acquitted himself well, at least well enough for the council to reach an accommodation for the Gentiles. This accommodation permitted the continuation evangelization throughout the world to everyone, irrespective of race or gender. This is how the citizenry of the city of God is gathered, shaped, and formed.
Our Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter- the Sunday just before our celebration of Jesus's Ascension- breaks into three separate but related parts. Jesus tells those close to him that they are his disciples only if they keep his word. What is his word? It is the new commandment he gave them in last week's Gospel reading: love another as he (Jesus) has loved them.9 Second, Jesus promises them that even though he is leaving he will not abandon them. He promises to send the Spirit. The Spirit will remind them of everything Jesus taught them. Peace is what the Spirit brings in every situation, no matter how perilous. The Holy Spirit is the way Jesus remains present in, among, and through his disciples until he returns. Third, Jesus assures his troubled disciples that he will return. As his disciples, striving to love each other the way Jesus loves us is how we "await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."10
"I'm hopeful," the late poet Robert Lax, a close friend of Thomas Merton's, told a young Mike McGrgeor in the mid-1980s, "that the world's societies are caught up in an evolutionary moment, one that will bring us into the ideal city, where music will play and all will move to it. If you decide to put on all blue clothes and do cartwheels across the square, that will be fine and in time with the music."11 When McGregor, noticing no such movement afoot in the world, asked Lax how this might be realized, the poet admitted he didn't know. Lax, who was Jewish and who, like Merton, became Catholic as a young adult, said, "the first step was to be positive and hopeful."12 He was convinced that we each need to do our part, not only as Christians but as human beings, by living our belief "that violence shouldn't be part of life."13 We do this by seeking to eliminate violence from our own lives. "In every moment," Lax observed, "we make decisions, both large and small. True life comes in understanding that these decisions are of ultimate importance."14
This brings us back to the beginning, to Jerusalem, the holy city coming down from heaven. The holy city will have no temple. God himself and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, will be the temple. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, will be the lamp that gives light to the city. Jesus Christ, we are told at the very beginning of John's Gospel, is the "true light, which enlightens everyone."15
How fitting, then, is our Psalm response today- "God, let all the nations praise you"? This is just another way of saying the alternative Psalm response, which can be used every Sunday during Easter: "Alleluia!"
1 Psalm 8:5..↩
2 Psalm 8:6..↩
3 Pope Francis, Gaudete et exsultate [[On the Call to Holiness in Today's World], sec. 37.↩
6 James 2:15-16.↩
7 See Hebrews 4:8-13.↩
8 Galatians 3:28.↩
9 John 13:34-35.↩
10 The Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass,” sec. 125.↩
11 Michal N. McGregor, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, 23.↩
14 Ibid., 24.↩
15 John 1:9.↩