Don’t you love to get something new? A new car – doesn’t it have a wonderful smell. A new outfit – ready to step out and show my stuff. A new restaurant – some dish that promises to tickle my taste buds. A new movie – okay, do me. The new gets us pumped up. Well, as the saying goes, go big or go home. How about a new heaven and a new earth? Big enough! That’s what St. John talks about in the second reading from the Book of Revelation. “I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away.” And the passing away of the former heaven and earth was a good thing. The former heaven and earth that St. John knew included wars where innocent bystanders are chewed up and spit out. They included a society where those who needed health care were not able to obtain it. They included a system where the rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. They included discrimination based on race and nationality. In other words, the former heaven and earth that St. John knew was remarkably like our own. So good riddance and bring on the new.
There’s just one problem – the way that St. John talks about it the new is already here. I saw the new heaven and earth – perfect tense, completed action in the past. If the new heaven and earth are here already how come we are still dealing with war and illness and poverty and racism? If the “old order has passed away” why does the smell of rot still dominate the landscape? We don’t recognize the new heaven and earth because we tend to envision them as something out of this world — a combination of Neverland, Narnia and Oz We would like to move from black and white to color, from stormy skies to somewhere over the rainbow. Because what we know in our here and now is so messed up the new thing of God must be other, must be out of this world, must take us up, up and away. If you think about it, that kind of thinking was what inhibited peoples’ ability to recognize the presence of God in Jesus. They expected the Messiah, the Christ, to be an extraordinary figure, a Marvel-hero, a superman. The fact that he was so ordinary, so much Joe Six-Pack (or Joe Six-Stone-Water-Jars?), blinded them to fact that God operates in the midst of everyday life. To see the new thing God was doing in Jesus the disciples had to find God in the ordinary. To see the new heavens and the new earth requires a way of looking at going to work, cleaning the house, raising the kids, talking to the neighbors as being the occasions for God being with us.
Notice how St. John thinks about the new. He says, “God’s dwelling is with the human race.’ We will see the new thing of God not in someplace out there but in here, among us. “God will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.” Instead of seeking to escape from the troubles of this world the Book of Revelation suggests we need to enter more deeply into it, to plunge ourselves into the people who are God’s own. If the new heaven and new earth of God can be found anywhere it will be here since here is God’s dwelling. The challenge, therefore, is to put on the corrective lenses, to develop the x-ray vision that equips us to see the new that God is doing.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John how to recognize the presence of the new heaven and the new earth. “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” On the one hand this is not a new commandment at all. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he quoted from the Bible: Love God with your whole heart, soul and strength from the Book of Deuteronomy and love you neighbor as yourself from the Book of Leviticus. The commandment to love is as old as the Bible itself. Jesus calls it a new commandment because he supplies a yardstick with which to measure how we are fulfilling that commandment. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” To share in the new heaven and earth we must love as Jesus loved. We must love those of our friends who abandon us when the going gets rough – for that is how Jesus loved his twelve apostles. We must love the person who denies our worth, our value, our dignity – for that is how Jesus loved Peter. We must love the person who betrays our deepest hopes and dreams – for that is how Jesus loved Judas. As Our Lord put it in another place, if we love the people who love us, big deal. Anybody can do that. It’s loving the mean and the miserable, the nasty and the naughty, the hopeless and the helpless that open our eyes to the new thing that happens when God dwells in our midst.
Forty-six years ago as a newly ordained priest I was young enough to be the youth minister – hard to imagine, right? We used to do this exercise with the teens: is there enough evidence to convict you of being a Christian. The group would set up a mock courtroom, appoint a prosecutor and defense attorney, a judge and a jury. Then they would put one of the young people in the dock. The evidence the jury looked for was not whether one went to Church or one’s knowledge of the catechism. The jury wanted witnesses and exhibits A, B and C to testify that the accused loved those around them. If so, they were pronounced guilty of being a Christian. Their judgment was based on the words of Jesus: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” What do you think? If we were to hold such a trial here today would there be enough evidence to convict the people of St. James of being disciples of Jesus?