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On earth, as it is in heaven

By Father Brian Larkin
Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver

“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”

– Ephesians 2:19-20

I used to have a basic agreement with God: I will go to Mass on Sundays, try to be a decent human being and avoid the really big sins.  God, your part is to provide yours truly with a comfortable life.  I understand if it’s too much to ask for a mansion in Hawaii, a second home in Frisco will be just fine.  Of course, it’s a given that I’ll go to heaven, even if a short stop in purgatory is insisted upon.

There were a lot of problems with my relationship with God back then, but I needed what the Anglican scripture scholar N.T. Wright calls a Copernican revolution.  This is the revolution where we realize that the Sun doesn’t go around the Earth, but rather the Earth orbits the Sun.  As it turns out, Christianity isn’t about what I’m doing, but rather, what God is doing.  My Earth has to reorient itself around his Sun. But what exactly is God doing anyway?  If Heaven is the final plan and if God is out to rescue us, then what is he waiting for?  Why not just bring us there now?

I often think that we are looking at the faith through the wrong end of the looking glass. We long for heaven and hope for a nice life until Elijah’s chariot finally comes for us, but what if we flipped the looking glass around?  What if God wants his Kingdom to come and for his will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven, as we say daily in the Lord’s prayer?  Perhaps Christianity has more to do with God breaking into our world than of us escaping it.  Just before Jesus ascends to heaven, it seems the apostles would ask Jesus to take them with him, but instead they ask him when the kingdom will come to Earth![1]  The rest of the book of Acts tells the story of God’s kingdom breaking into this world, a kingdom which was powerfully established through the Spirit on Pentecost, spread by the work of the apostles, and one which you and I are called to extend.

The beginning of God’s kingdom on earth is what we call the Church.  As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) beautifully writes: “The Church is communio; she is God’s communing with men in Christ and hence the communing of men with one another… The Church is the celebration of the Eucharist; the Eucharist is the Church; they do not simply stand side by side; they are one and the same.”[2]  This is what God is up to, his plan to unite things in heaven and Earth[3], the undoing of division resulting from sin.  Thus, in God’s plan, the division caused by Adam and Eve’s sin, the murderous hatred of Cain and the splintering of humanity at the Tower of Babel are undone, reversed in the passion of Christ, and the harmony of the nations on Pentecost.

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This reality of communion cannot simply happen on a universal level; no one can love all men but not love anyone specifically.  The Church’s mission of the reconciliation of the world to God happens concretely, and this means at your parish! Parishes are not simply convenient places to fulfill our obligation to attend Mass, nor are they social clubs where we can join like-minded people and avoid the messiness of our broken culture.  Parishes are the places where God is setting the world right, communities where, in and through the Eucharist, God’s kingdom breaks into this world.  With this in mind, I want to offer a few suggestions about how our parishes, and each of us, can find the joy of cooperating with God to set the world right.

  • The primacy of prayer. God is the center of all things, and all our hard work and good intentions won’t get us anywhere without him.  As Jesus reminds us: “apart from me you can do nothing.”[4] The ancient church captured the world not because it was clever or had donut Sunday, but because the Holy Spirit burned within the hearts of its members.   If we are to carry out our mission, our union with God is simply more important than any strategy.
  • Good news before good advice.[5] The Gospel certainly has lots of good advice, but that comes after the good news part.  The moral teaching of Jesus is beautiful and true, but “gospel” doesn’t mean teaching or advice, it means good news — and that is precisely what it is.  God doesn’t ask us to follow the law and then he will love us, rather his reckless love sets us free to follow his law.  A parish on mission will be one which knows and proclaims the good news before it gives out good advice.   Paul knew this well, as he powerfully reminds us: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”[6]
  • Know your Purpose. When a church loses its mission and sense of purpose, things get ugly quick. We think the Church is here to serve us, and we go back to the Sun orbiting the Earth.  Or maybe we grow irritable and jealous about small things: “who put the flowers there?  Why does this group always seem to get their way?” We think we are entitled to sing in the choir or be the lector at the 11 a.m. or whatever else it might be.  This is a sign we’ve lost our bearings, like a ship stuck in the dock whose crew has forgotten how to sail.  C.S. Lewis points us in the right direction in his book Mere Christianity:

It is easy to think that the church has a lot of different objects — education, buildings, missions, holding services… The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs.  If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.  God became man for no other purpose.  It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.[7]

Are you and your parish drawing people into Christ?  Does your parish know that the Earth goes round the Sun and not vice versa?  Are you an agent of God’s communion?  Are you sharing the good news of what God has done rather than the “big book of good advice”?  May God give us all the fire of the Holy Spirit, and may God work through us to set things right.

 

[1] Acts 1:6

[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, San Francisco Ignatius Press 1989, pg. 53

[3] Colossians 1:20

[4] John 15:5

[5] This insight is drawn from N.T. Wright’s book Simply Good News

[6] Romans 5:8

[7] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: Touchstone, 1996, pg. 171

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