Sunday Scriptures

Called to Love in Action, Not in Words Alone

by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

I’m amused to see how people react when I tell them that John’s Apocalypse (also known as the Book of Revelation or the Revelation to John) is far and away my favorite book of the Bible. Some people greet this disclosure with a wince or a nervous smile and then desperately try to get me to change the topic. They’d much rather talk about sports, weather or even politics, in fact about almost anything except the Bible’s very last book, with its gory scenes of doom and gloom. Still others – and I worry much more about these – latch on and insist that I offer an expert opinion on the date and time of the end of the world. Sigh!

What is it about the Apocalypse that I find so irresistible? It’s not blood or beasts or brimstone, for there’s so much more to the Bible’s very last book than that. If you have ever thrilled to the final chorus of Handel’s Messiah, “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain,” you should know that the lyrics come from Revelation 5, where they are sung by the myriads of angels around God’s heavenly throne. Readings from John’s Apocalypse make it into the lectionary during the Easter season, not to deflect our attention from joy to Judgment Day but to make it clear beyond any doubt that the final victory has already been won. As the Easter troparion of the Byzantine liturgy declares, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he trampled death!”

An Urban Book

It isn’t just the exuberance of the Apocalypse’s celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and death that catapults it to the top of the list of my favorite books of the Bible. For me, the clincher is the fact that John’s Apocalypse is such an urban book. Written late in the first century AD, it was first addressed to small groups of Christians who were a minority presence in seven bustling urban centers of the Roman province of Asia (now southwestern Turkey). True, the pages of the Bible are brimming with images that proclaim God’s glory in the beauty of green pastures and majestic mountains, seed-nourishing rainfalls and the warmth of sunshine. But for this New Yorker, there is something especially thrilling in the fact that the vision John shares in this Sunday’s second reading is of a city, “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,” gleaming “with the splendor of God.”

Cities are messy, complicated places, but they’re also dazzling, spectacular places, full of life and activity. In the words of the Apocalypse itself, cities are places chock-full of people “from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Revelation 7:9), and that makes them very catholic, “here comes everybody,” places. When so many different people from so many different places rub elbows, there’s bound to be friction.

This week’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, offers us history’s reassurance that this is nothing new. As the message of Jesus made its way from city to city throughout the Mediterranean world, the rapidly increasing ethnic diversity of the Christian movement called for careful planning on the part of its leaders.

Given the fact that the first followers of Jesus were faithful Jews, what was to be done when more and more people of Gentile origin were coming to believe in Jesus? The word “Gentile,” borrowed from Latin, was an umbrella expression used to describe peoples and nations who were not Jews. Would these newcomers be required to observe all the precepts of the Torah in order to be welcomed into the Church? This is the question that brought Paul and Barnabas from Antioch to Jerusalem for a meeting with the apostles and elders that is sometimes called the “Council of Jerusalem.” Their discussions conclude with the instruction that the newcomers should avoid practices that were associated with the religions they had left behind in order to follow Christ. This prudent decision is echoed in the oft-quoted saying that Blessed Pope John XXIII himself cited in his first encyclical letter, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.”

John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven fully prefabricated, so to speak, complete and beautiful in its perfection. There are a couple of architectural details, though, that should be pointed out. First, its 12 gates are inscribed with “the names of the 12 tribes of the Israelites,” and its walls “twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”

City of Living Stones

Yes, God is the Architect and the Master Builder of the New Jerusalem into which peoples of every nation, race, people and tongue are welcomed. Yet, this is a city built of living stones, in which each and every citizen plays a vital role, building on the solid foundation of God’s covenant with Israel and on the strength of the apostles’ teaching.

Finally, it is important to note what’s missing from the city, the sort of urban planning faux pas that no self-respecting ancient Greek or Roman city council would have tolerated: There is no temple in the New Jerusalem! The cities to which John’s Apocalypse was first addressed were full of temples to this god or to that goddess, many of them featuring temples in honor of the Roman emperor and of Rome itself. These magnificent structures, for which no expense was spared in construction or ornamentation, brought distant Rome and its Caesar close to the minds and the hearts of the population of the provincial cities.

On the other hand, Christians didn’t have any public buildings of their own: They met in each other’s homes to celebrate the Eucharist and to hear God’s word. What’s more, the thrilling vision of the Apocalypse reassures them that they have no need of a temple of their own, for God dwells among them.

In this Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples, “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.” Even now, building our city into a dwelling fit for God isn’t a matter of brick and mortar. It’s about the Spirit-infused perspiration of love at work in action, and not of love in words alone.[hr]

Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29

Psalm 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8

Revelation 21: 10-14, 22-23

John 14: 23-29[hr] Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is professor of theology at St. John’s University.