Saint Paul presumed that Christ’s return to earth – his “second coming” – would happen within Paul’s own lifetime. In his last days, Jesus had said to his followers, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”[i] These things Jesus is talking about are wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, earthquakes, tortures, betrayals…[ii] All of this was happening in Saint Paul’s lifetime. (Sounds familiar.) Saint Paul was convinced that Jesus’ return was any day. Therefore, we should live out our lives, Saint Paul says, with “watchfulness,” in a “spirit of hope,” and understanding “the present sorrow and suffering in light of the coming joy.” In Saint Paul’s day, there was plenty of sorrow and suffering because of the prejudice, injustice, and torture wielded against Christians. Again and again Saint Paul’s writings repeat the hope of Christ’s return. As we read in his Letter to the Romans: “…For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near…”
But Saint Paul dies before Christ’s return. He is martyred around year 65, and so the church had to reinterpret Saint Paul. If Christ’s return was not immediate (which is where Saint Paul’s letters begin), or if Christ’s return is not immanent (which is where Saint Paul’s letters end), then Christ’s return is sometime in the future. Hold on; be prepared. Meanwhile the appalling persecution of Christians continued for nearly three centuries until the Roman Emperor, Constantine, became Christian in year 310. But the reprieve of suffering was short-lived. A century later, year 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, and the empire destroyed. The greatest nation in the world – a self-proclaimed Christian nation – had been infiltrated, divided, and conquered.
Saint Augustine received word of Rome’s devastation.[iii] He was Bishop of Hippo, in northern Roman Africa, modern-day Algeria.[iv] The people whom he served were deeply shaken, understandably, by the fall of the empire. Huge numbers gathered in the cathedral, and Augustine preached a tenacious sermon, beginning with the question, how God could allow the Christian empire to be destroyed? Augustine’s answer: “God does not raise up citadels of stone and marble for us…. [God raises] citadels of love which could never collapse when this world has been reduced to ashes.” Augustine continued, “…Rome has collapsed… Since when did you believe that [humankind] had the power to build things that are eternal?” Twenty years later the Vandals laid siege to Hippo and utterly destroyed the cathedral while Augustine himself lay dying.
I’ve remembered Augustine’s words as a backdrop to the political rhetoric that now runs rampant through our own nation. We, like ancient Rome, have been called the greatest nation in the world; we, like late, ancient Rome, have been called by some a Christian nation. And though we are not threatened by Vandals or Visigoths, we have plenty of adversaries who are wont to disrupt or destroy us.
As Christians, we have a dual citizenship (or a dual residency). On the one hand, we share in the gift of God’s earthly creation, beholding God’s glory and wonder, and entrusted to be good stewards of all that God has created. As a child I remember singing an old Gospel hymn that began with the words, “This world is not my own, I’m just a passin’ through.” Those words have stuck with me, not because I think they are true, but quite the opposite. Even as a child, I thought these were wrong words. We are stewards of God’s creation. Our only experience of life is life in this world which, from the beginning, God called “good.” God’s becoming human in the face and form of Jesus boldly reaffirms the original blessing of creation. Though our life on this earth is fleeting, we are to steward God’s magnificent provision in creation with humility, and generosity, and gratitude. Earthly life is to be reverenced as we bequeath onto the next generation what has been entrusted to us. Life on this earth is not just “a passin’ through.”
On the other hand, life on this earth is like an icon through which we glimpse God eternal. Jesus assures us that he goes to prepare a place for us when we die, and where we will belong for all eternity.[v] The neighborhoods of heaven will surely not have divisions marked by the boundaries of state, by political factions, by religious denominations, by ethnic groups, by class, or race, or language, or age, or orientation, or ability, or any of the other demarcations which so often tragically divide us on earth. The glorious panoply of God’s creation is surely a foretaste of the magnificent beauty, diversity, and splendor of all eternity where we will belong, one with another, as children of God.
I don’t know of an easy formula for how to live life with this dual citizenship, with dual residences: on earth and in heaven. But I do think it essential that we be on speaking terms with both places where we belong: earth and heaven. One way to negotiate the divide between earth and heaven is to cultivate practices of life which, we imagine, will wear well in eternity. What for you would be a habit of heart, a practice in life, that has an eternal value? Would it be kindness, or generosity, or peacefulness, or gentleness, or encouragement, or what? Cultivate practices in this life that you imagine will wear well in eternity.
Meanwhile we need a second repertoire of life practices to confront the injustice, and tragic suffering and oppression we experience or witness. We need to be bilingual and ambidextrous. We sometimes must draw on a very different vocabulary and action. We have a vocation, a calling, to re-present God in this world: to be God’s eyes, and ears, and heart, and muscle. Saint Augustine said, “God without us will not, as we without God can
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