On this, the sixth and effectively the last Sunday of Easter, we are already looking ahead to the Feast of the Ascension — Christ’s return to the Father, and with him, the beginning of the return of all things to God. And after that, the descent of the Spirit, the Feast of Pentecost. The Advocate, the promised parakletos, is Jesus’ greatest gift to his followers, for the Holy Spirit is his spirit. But in today’s gospel, Jesus gives us his first gift, his peace. So, Jesus tells his disciples not to feel distressed or fearful. But why should we not be afraid? Things can get scary!
We fear terrorist attacks and gun violence, we doubt our ability to make things come out right, to find work, to provide decent housing and education for our children, to stop the killing in the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and on the streets of our own cities and towns, to make peace more than an ideal in an imperfect world. We worry about North Korea and now, Iran. On the news channels and perhaps in our hearts, we hear echoes of Jeremiah’s complaint, “They cry ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14).
We wonder how we can ever find ways to bring food to millions of starving people, to halt the wanton destruction of the life-sustaining capacity of this planet. It’s as if the Earth itself is now fighting back for its survival after centuries of environmental abuse.
But what we hear Jesus saying is, simply, do not fear: it all makes sense. Not perhaps to you or me, but that does not so much matter. What matters is that the reins of time and human history are in the hands of God. The world has already been saved. It is always being saved, perhaps little by little according to our human standards, but nevertheless saved. First of all, by God’s grace. But grace works through the efforts of God-minded people. Not by observing religious laws, which so concerned some of the first Christians as we hear in the first reading, but by faith in the grace of God, by hope in the wisdom and the power of God, and by love — every kind of love, but especially the love that does justice.
During the Easter season, the daily readings for the Liturgy of the Hours are taken from the Book of Revelation, as are many of the second readings at Sunday masses. It can be pretty harrowing reading, and you might wonder why this, the last and for many people the scariest book of the Bible, is chosen for this time of year. But the Book of Revelation is in fact a testament of hope, a promise of the ultimate victory of God. Despite sin, oppression, and the suffering of God’s people and the Earth itself, God will triumph in the end, when every tear is wiped away and there is no more death or mourning. It is God who makes all things new (Rev. 21:5).
At the end, the City of God, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, is not only beautiful. It is big. We tend to miss that, and the dimensions are given in a different chapter. But when you work out the volume, as I make my students do, it describes a cube 1,380 miles on each side and 1,380 miles high – about 2,628,072,000 cubic miles – very nearly half the volume of the moon by our standards. It is the largest habitable structure ever imagined by the human mind. But the simple point the author is making is that there is enough room for everyone. Everyone who ever lived, who is living now, and will ever live. Salvation is inclusive, which is the theme of the book itself and also of today’s readings.
We should remember, however, that it is not we who build the City of God. It comes from God, the human home for everyone as the heart of the new heaven and the new earth. And the Psalmist was right — if God does not build the city, in vain do its builders labor. It is a grace, a gift from God, not the product of human ingenuity, much less money or technology.
But we must also remember that God builds with human hands, God loves with human hearts, God’s light shines forth from human hopes. We are responsible for the city, for we are the city, a city built of living stones, with the prophets and apostles for its foundation. Each of us is an essential part of that structure, being built up to the glory of God. But it is still God’s doing, God’s gift, God’s glory.
And so our fears are groundless. We have no reason to fear, to be afraid of the dark. To the extent that the world turned from God, Jesus overcame the world. And in the gift of the Spirit, sent from God as the earnest of Christ’s return, we have the pledge of an everlasting home. A very big one. The return of Christ to the Father that we will soon celebrate is the beginning of the end, a prelude to the coming of the Spirit of Christ that fills the whole world, the Lord and Giver of Life, making all things new. And in that Spirit we build our human city, which one day will be taken up and transformed into the true and eternal City of God.
You may have noticed that the weather has been strange lately. You should have. It is very strange and getting stranger. “Weather” is the local version of climate, and there is little room for any doubt now that global climate change is well underway. Nor is there any doubt remaining in the view of the world’s top climate scientists that human activity is the predominant factor, the unintended consequence of an industrial revolution begun over two hundred years ago. Such is the reiterated verdict following a three-year consultation of 15,000 studies by 150 experts from 50 nations published last week in a 1500-page UN report. [For more information, see https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/]
Unprecedented destructive storms and floods may not be the worst consequence of human mismanagement of the planet. Over a million animal and plant species are now in danger of extinction within this century, including all-important insect pollinators vital for agriculture, fish stocks in every ocean on which billions of people depend, and the great land and sea mammals. For over a decade this looming disaster has been labeled “the sixth great extinction” in the history of the planet.
Sober thoughts on this Fifth Sunday of Easter. But early this morning I was pondering the words of the great hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” by F. S. Pierpoint, composed 150 years ago:
For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the Love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.
For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.
Such reflections may seem to present a stark contrast to the scientists’ work as well as the second reading from the Book of Revelation, perhaps surprisingly the most
ecologically-informed work in the Bible, drastically most of the time, as it details the destruction of the living planet because of human sinfulness – not too far a remove from the UN panel’s dire predictions. On the other hand, not only does Revelation champion the redemption of the earth (“The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth” Rev. 11:18). It also draws to a close with the most astonishing of promises: “See, I am making all things new” (Rev.21:5). We may fail to save creation from our own foolhardiness, but the Creator will not be cheated.
The first reading sounds a vastly different note, taking us back to the foundation of the Christian churches in southwest Asia. If you were to look on a map for Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, Perga, and Attalia, you’d have to look very carefully in the area of south central Turkey. You’d also have to use a very old map. Because of all those ancient cities and towns, only a few are still recognizable at all. Iconium is now Konya, Attalia is called Antalya. Tarsus, Paul’s home town, is still there, and there are ruins in Ephesus and other cities of Asia Minor once important as the Christian faith spread to the west. The rest are now mainly mounds of ruins, including the seven cities addressed in the Book of Revelation .
We remember them, basically, because it was there that the faith was planted, nurtured, and grew. Luke notes, almost in passing, that Paul and Barnabas “installed elders — ‘presbyteroi,’ a word that eventually came to mean ‘priest’ — and with prayer and fasting, commended the people to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.”
And that is always how faith grows — rooted in the life and faith of the community, guided by leaders from among the community, through prayer and fasting. Well, though prayer, anyway. Fasting today has more to do with paleo and keto diets and other fads than the spread of faith. But in the gospel reading, we also hear of the bond that created and preserved that community — deep and inclusive love. It is the great commandment Jesus left us, in truth, his only commandment.
The second reading, from near the end of the Book of Revelation, describes the future of the Church rather than its past — the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city that is God’s gift to all the world, not a human creation. We do not build this city of God! For one thing, it is very, very big — larger than any structure ever designed by a human being, larger than any structure human beings will likely ever build. But that is another story. Here, the promise is what is important — God will dwell there with the people, always with them, beyond death and mourning, beyond all pain and suffering. All that will be gone. And here, the whole book of Revelation comes to a point in that simple phrase, “See, I am making all things new.”
God is the source and energy of originality, of freshness, the Creator now making and remaking the world instant by instant, holding the universe in the palm of his hand. And we hear three times over in the New Testament, that universe was created in, for, and by Christ, in whom it mysteriously holds together. In Jesus, the risen Christ, God first makes everything new and fresh.
It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope. We only have to look at the news in the papers or on television to see what a mess we human beings can make of things. If anything, we have a tendency to go backwards, to undo things rather than make them truly new. War is perhaps the best example of regression. So much waste, such vast destruction, sorrow, pain and loss. War, violence, and ecological destruction is what we too often do. Peace, love, and renewal is what God does… and seems to expect us to do as well. We had better get moving!
Today the celebration of Mothers’ Day in the United States comes as a welcome respite after weeks of violent weather, deadly shootings in schools, churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as what seems to be an upsurge in airline crashes and other disasters. That we live in turbulent times is an understatement. Nor can we avoid the spectacle on this day especially of thousands of mothers (and fathers) along the UN-Mexico border whose children have been torn from their care by officials protecting what some call “the American way of life.” If God weeps, perhaps the uncommon rains we have been experiencing are tears of divine sorrow. And warning.
Our readings today remind us of the spread of early Christianity in the decades following the
Resurrection of Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke documents the spread of the faith throughout Asia Minor, what we now know as Turkey. We are more likely to recall cities like Corinth and Rome, but the original cradle of the Gentile churches was the central and western regions of Cilicia, Galatia, Lycia, and Phrygia, north and west of Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas and other Christian missionaries preached and won enough converts to establish small congregations. It was not an easy task. They met hardship and resistance, but the faith grew town by town, as they made their way west toward Rome, Spain, and Gaul. By the way, the little island in the Aegean Sea where John the Elder received his vision of the risen Christ and may have composed the Book of Revelation, was also in Asia Minor, not far off the southwest coast of the ancient city of Ephesus.
There is a subtext in these readings that is worth noting today, when prejudice, discrimination, and division are in the ascendant. It is highlighted in the opening verses from the reading from Revelation, where John writes,
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…”
This is the inclusion theme, appearing in what you might suspect would be the most unlikely place to find one in Christian scripture. But the phrase appears over and over again in Revelation, like a drumbeat: “every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages,” culminating in the great vision of the New Jerusalem coming from heaven, and the fulfillment of the earlier promise:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ [Revelation 21:1-5]
He then gives the dimensions of the City of God, which is so vast it could hold all the people who ever lived and are living now, and will probably live in time to come. The only condition is to live justly with compassion and honesty. It can be a struggle, as we have seen just this week, but the promise stands.
And that is the same subtext we find in the short passage from the Gospel of John: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” [John 10:27-30]
The story of early Christianity, the struggles, sacrifices, disasters and small triumphs, are fascinating in themselves, but the lesson we can take from these accounts is much more significant than geography. It is not simply that Christianity began as a Jewish sect or rapidly grew into a West Asian religious movement, much less a European one, but that it was from the beginning universal in its embrace. All are equally welcome. All.
A Latin chant once used during the Lenten office begins Media vita morte sumus… It sums up much of what has transpired this week.
“In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek help but you, O Lord; who for our offenses are justly displeased? Yet, O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, give us not over unto bitter death.
V. Cast us not away in the time of age; forsake us not, O Lord, when our strength fails us.”
It is equally and even more true that in the midst of death, as Jesus and John the Elder proclaim, we are alive. For it is the hand of God that sustains us. So long as we remain true, despite everything, no one can ever snatch us away. May we be sustained on our way by the love and faith of our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, all the way back to that little band of valiant women who went to the tomb that first bright morning of eternal promise.