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.