5th Sunday of Easter
Preached May 19, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Today’s 2nd reading gives us a vision of unsurpassed beauty; it is the beauty of hope that is perfectly fulfilled; it is the beauty that finds a dim reflection in the most beautiful and radiant bride on her wedding day.
Let us start with what is easiest to grasp: There shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain. Life without suffering, sorrow, and death. All the tragedy, all the tears, all the conflicts, all the violence not only of our own time, but of all time, wiped away – He shall wipe every tear from their eyes.
That is something that either we long for, or we would long for if we thought it possible – but perhaps it seems impossible to us.
Yet, it is actually something that ‘activists’ strive for. We have often heard the cry, “Never again.” We have seen movements seeking to stamp out war, violence, disease, poverty, and pollution.
There are even people who seem to think that mankind (or some members of humanity) will discover the secret of overcoming death. Transhumanists seem to think that one day they will be able to upload their brains onto a hard drive of some sort and then, from that hard drive, run a robotic body.
In many ways the engine that has driven the history of the past couple of centuries has been the desire for utopia. The word “utopia” comes from title of a book written in the 16th century by St. Thomas More; St. Thomas More coined the word, the literal meaning of which is “nowhere”. St. Thomas More was actually making fun of the fictional “Utopia” or “nowhere land”. The aspiration for utopia, which is very real, is the desire to realize within human history, by human effort, the reality promised in today’s reading: no more death or mourning, wailing or pain – “never again”.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some sobering comments on this matter. We read:
“Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement.” (CCC 675-676)
In other words, with the loss of faith in the modern world, we have seen substituted for the vision of the new heaven and new earth proclaimed in today’s 2nd reading, the proclamation of a manmade “new order of the ages”.
The utopians claim that traditional Christians are so preoccupied with heaven that they don’t care about people in this world. Contrariwise, only the vision of heaven, only the knowledge of our true goal, enables us to make right use of this passing world; those who are busy going to “utopia” (or going nowhere fast) are the ones who have been busy destroying even this world in the name of their passing fantasies.
Unfortunately, the proclamation of “utopia” is often clothed in language derived from the Christian faith and is presented as though it were the goal of Christian hope; it is even at times presented by Church leaders who would place the Church’s organization and institutions at the service of the ‘new order”. All of this, in truth, is the deception of the Antichrist.
The 2nd reading is taken from the book of Revelation, which speaks also of the persecution of the Antichrist; it is taken from the end of book; it is the sunlight shining forth after the storm; it is the peace that comes after the Antichrist is defeated, the devil is cast into hell, and death is destroyed, which will take place when Christ comes in glory. What we heard about today, then, is not so much the result of human striving as it is the gift of God. The holy city, the new Jerusalem comes down from out of heaven from God; it is God who wipes the tears from every eye; it is God who declares, Behold, I make all things new. Then, as in the beginning he spoke and it was done; so in the end he will speak and it will be done.
In all of this, however, I have only spoken about the end of suffering, sorrow, and death; I have not said a word about the fullness of life that is promised. That fullness is also announced in today’s 2nd reading in these words: Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and he will always be with them as their God.
If we think of God dwelling with his people we might think of Jesus Christ living among the Apostles and disciples when he walked the earth. In the new heaven and the new earth, the man Jesus, who is the Son of God, will indeed be visibly present to his people, reigning as King, but that is only the outward aspect of that kingdom.
It is significant that at the Last Supper Jesus said, It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate (that is the Holy Spirit) will not come to you. (Jn 16:7)
Jesus said that it would be better, because so long as he was with his disciples visibly, he was also present to them only externally; when he sent the Holy Spirit from the Father, the Holy Spirit came to dwell intimately in the souls of the faithful.
So Jesus also said at the Last Supper, If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you. (Jn 14:16-17) And with the Holy Spirit comes also the Father and the Son: My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our dwelling with him. (Jn 14:23)
The supreme joy of heaven consists in the vision of God, we shall see him as he is. (1 Jn 3:2) But we will not see God with our bodily eyes, outside of us, rather we will see him with our spiritual eye, dwelling in the depth of our soul.
In the resurrection of the body (the new earth) the inner glory of the soul will be revealed in our very bodies, much the way the glory of God was revealed in the radiant body of Jesus in the transfiguration on the mountaintop. Even now, St. Paul says of the baptized, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom you have from God. (1 Cor 6:19)
Even now, through the Holy Spirit, God dwells in our soul through faith and makes our bodies to be true temples. Even now all of this comes about through Jesus dwelling visibly among us by way of the sacraments, above all by way of the Holy Eucharist, through which he nourishes his presence within us. Everything that is now hidden in the mystery of faith will be made manifest when Jesus comes in glory to usher in the new heaven and the new earth, when the new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God, when God will make all things new.
This is the inheritance of the baptized, but it is not guaranteed. Shortly after today’s reading we hear: As for the cowards, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall b in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. (Rev 21:8)
So the heavenly inheritance does not belong to those who have ‘faith alone’, but it belongs to those who believe in Jesus Christ, who believing in him love him, and loving him keep his commandments.
In today’s Gospel we heard Jesus sum up his commandments in one: As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. The commandment is often abbreviated, as Jesus himself does, as love one another, but when taken out of context the simple love one another quickly becomes distorted and even dangerous. That is precisely what has happened in a world that has turned its back on God, but still retains some elements of Christian language and Christian inheritance, which it reduces purely to human love – which by itself is always weak, changeable, and prone to disorder – without God.
Jesus commandment, in full, is: As I, the Son of God, have loved you, so you also should love one another.
How did the Son of God love us? The quick answer is that he died for our sins, but really there much more contained in that answer. Through his death on the Cross he not only wiped out our sins, but he also gives us to share in his life, divine life, life in the Holy Spirit. Further, it is that life in the Holy Spirit, communicated to us concretely through the sacraments, that gives us the power to love as he loved. In other words, he not only gives us an example, he gives us the power.
To love as Jesus loved means to love more with a divine love than with a human love; it means to give completely of ourselves, as Jesus did on the Cross. It also means to love with that is pure and rightly ordered because it orders all to the glory of heaven and the glory of God.