May 5 is the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Liturgical Year C, Cycle I). May 9 is Ascension Thursday at the Vatican, as well as the Archdioceses of Boston, Hartford, Conn., New York; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia, and the dioceses of the state of Nebraska.
Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29
“Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky …”
John Lennon’s song Imagine, which is often presented as an anthem of hope in difficult times, longs for a world where there is no religion and no governments, but just a “brotherhood of man.”
While it is true religion has sometimes wrongly been used to justify violence, today’s readings suggest that, far from being a source of hope, the abolition of heaven would destroy hope.
In fact, Lennon’s theory got tested on a massive scale in the 20th century, and it turned out to be frighteningly false. Soviet communism in many Eastern Bloc countries and in China sought to root out religion for the good of society. The result: 85 million-100 million people dead, according to Harvard University Press’ The Black Book of Communism.
It seems that those who try to build an ideal world too often start by violently rooting out those who disagree with them. Instead, the Scripture insists that a better world is possible in three places, and each is a dwelling place of God: in the heart of a true disciple; in the work of the Church; and in the hereafter, in heaven.
1. The disciple. Jesus Christ makes a stunning statement in the Gospel: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”
“Make our dwelling” is the kind of language associated with the Temple. The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies was the place where the Lord made his dwelling with man. Here, Jesus says that the Holy of Holies will be located in every believer who lives according to the loving commandments of God.
But it is important to realize that Jesus doesn’t speak about believers strictly as individuals. He speaks of believers who belong to the Church.
2. The Church. As the reading continues, he explains two actions that will create a better world. The Holy Spirit will “teach you everything and remind you of all I told you,” he says, and, significantly, he uses the plural form of “you.”
The Holy Spirit will guide us together, not guide us individually.
The first reading shows what that “guiding us together” looks like. It’s an account of the Council of Jerusalem, when the Church solemnly declares four codes of behavior designed in part to make the Christian religion more available to Jews as well as Gentiles.
In proclaiming this decision, the apostles begin: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.” Here, in the Church, the Holy Spirit is actively building a better world.
3. Heaven. Last, Scripture promises a better world in the life to come. The reading from Revelation presents a picture of heaven. Here, the whole city is modeled on the innermost sanctum of the Temple.
The Ignatius Study Bible offers some key points: Whereas the Old Jerusalem was a city built around a Temple, the New Jerusalem is a city built inside a Temple. The Trinity itself gives it light: In the reading, the Lord is the Father, the Lamb is the Son, and the light is the Spirit.
Here at last is truly a place where there is a brotherhood of man, a place where you can imagine “all the people living life in peace,” as the song says.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.