My idea of heaven is the peace of a beautiful garden, which fits well with the story of Adam and Eve. But the writer of the Book of Revelation has a very different idea. He suggests that when all the struggles of life are over, and we meet God in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1-5), then it will not be like a garden but like a city! A city? Now that is a surprise! Of course, he means by a city a relatively small place, but nonetheless a place where there are lots of houses and people and buying and selling, and some kind of government. A city is also a surprise for those who know this book well. The writer has spent a long time showing how wicked the great city Babylon is – he means the city of Rome – so we might think he would choose the countryside for an alternative image of heaven. But, no, he chooses a city.
The reason I think is that the countryside, for the writer, was probably a place of subsistence peasant farming – just keeping alive. The city was the place where human life could be lived to the full, and wherever that happens, there, most definitely, God is present. So he writes further, “You see this city? Here God lives among men. He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God.”
Two things spring from this. The first is that all the best that we humans do, as we organise ourselves, as we build houses, run businesses, and create beauty, is actually inspired by God himself. So yes there can be evil in cities, but there is also great goodness. Finding God alone on some beautiful hillside may be one way of finding God, but God is actually more present, in the hustle and bustle of us human beings close together, especially when we work together for the Common Good. And the Common Good, as the Catechism says is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.” (CCC Para 1906) That’s why Christians are always encouraged to play their full part in civic society, including elections! To dismiss all politicians as corrupt may be very tempting, but it is not very Christian.
We tend to look at our buildings, our works of engineering, our computers, and our art and music and our government as the works of men and women. At their best we take great pride in them and admire their magnificence. But rarely do we see all the human activity that has gone into creating them as the work of God. Works of beauty maybe, art, music or great literature, but I have surprised some of you before, and I make no apology for saying it again, that we should also find God at work in a great piece of machinery or in the latest bit of computer wizardry. All of these things would not exist if God did not give us the basic elements of the earth, and the intelligence and inspiration to take them and transform them into steel, plastic, microchips or whatever.
The second point that springs from this idea that heaven is like a city is that the Church itself, is also part of God’s plan for us. Some non-Catholic Christians try to suggest that any structures that a church uses to run itself are just a useful bit of organisation, and that it is only our individual relationship with God that really matters. But we humans are not just individuals, and so although our personal relationship with God is important, even more is our relationship with God in and through one another. So Jesus says in our Gospel today to his disciples – the first Church – “I give you a new commandment : love one another, just as I have loved you.” (John 13:31-35) Notice too what Paul and Barnabas did on their missionary journeys as described in our 1st Reading (Acts 14:21-27). “In each of these churches they appointed elders (what we now called Bishops) and with prayer and fasting commended them to the Lord.” The Church then, as a human structure led by the Bishops with the Pope at its head, is part of God’s will for us. This surely is why we say that the Ordination of Bishops and Priests is a Sacrament – not just a convenient form of government and teaching – but an outward form through which God is especially present in a focussed kind of way.
Sadly, like the human city, the human church is not perfect. We humans are all too good at messing up even the best and most beautiful things. But just because we sometimes spoil our cities with dirt, ugliness, violence and corruption, we must not give up on what they are at their best. Similarly parts of the church can also be corrupt, but that means that we must work all the harder constantly to renew and purify the Church (as we must civic life) so that God’s presence may shine through for all to see. God chooses, as our writer of Revelation says “to live among men”. We might think it a strange choice given what we humans can do. Surely heaven ought to be somehow different.. up in the clouds far away from the hurly burly of human life? But no, despite all that is evil in us, God has chosen us. Heaven is God coming to us and making his home among us again and again in every generation, and raising up what is good and glorious in our humanity with the risen Jesus to make a new heaven and earth out of our all too weak human flesh and bones.