As It Is in Heaven: Can re-imagining the Gospel revitalize the church?
The New Testament writers tell the story of God creating a new heaven and a new earth. In this story, the risen Jesus is the source of God’s new creation, and the Holy Spirit is the energy bringing the new world to birth. The story is one of hope in the power of God, who comes from the future into our present world to bring justice, peace and reconciliation. Modeled on the freedom and life of Jesus Christ, the story concerns the transformation of human hearts, human relationships, societal institutions, culture and, eventually, the transformation of all creation. Popular Christian piety, however, has prevented us from reading the New Testament as the story of God’s new creation coming to birth in our world.
Instead of proclaiming the good news, we often proclaim the bad news or the dull news.
In popular Christian piety, the Gospel is presented in the following manner: the Son of God came to earth, died and rose to forgive our sins. He opened the gates of heaven so that if we live a good life, our souls will go to heaven when we die (and the souls of those who do not will go to hell). In this version of the Gospel, Christian hope is reduced to life in heaven when we die. Homilies, especially funeral homilies, hymns, catechetical lessons and books on popular piety have embedded this story deep within the Christian imagination.
Yet there are many problems with this understanding of the Gospel. It neglects important aspects of the New Testament, such as Jesus’ kingdom ministry, the centrality of Jesus’ crucifixion and bodily resurrection, life in the Spirit, discipleship, the mission of the church and God’s creative renewal of the whole of creation. This telling also assumes that the Gospel story moves from earth to heaven, which orients the Christian imagination toward life after death. As a consequence, Christians do not expect to encounter Christ at work in their daily lives. Directing our energies and desires toward heaven makes earning a place there the focus of the Christian life, rather than knowing and serving Christ in this world.
This popular version of the Gospel gives Christians no reason to transform society, and its otherworldly nature has little chance of re-energizing the Christian imagination. Perhaps Catholics are reluctant to share their faith because it seems to have little to offer those who struggle with everyday life.
Good News for This Age
In a world filled with bad news and shallow entertainments, people long for good news that means something. This good news is found in the story told by the New Testament writers. If the new evangelization is to succeed, the church must recover this story and share it with the world.
To read it correctly, we must reorient our imaginations regarding the direction of the Gospel story. This story moves from heaven to earth instead of from earth to heaven. It moves from God’s future world into the current world. This is why we pray that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
This change in direction transforms our understanding of Jesus’ ministry. He was not working to get us into heaven, but brought the life of heaven to earth. He is the one through whom God’s future world enters our world. Read this way, Jesus’ healing and exorcisms, his offer of forgiveness and his confrontation with evil are all instances of God’s new creation breaking into our world. Jesus understood his ministry in these terms: “If through the finger of God I drive out devils, then the kingdom of God is among you” (Lk 11:20). The resurrection of Jesus does not mean we will go to heaven when we die; rather it signals the definitive inbreaking of God’s new creation. St. Paul indicates that he also saw the Gospel story moving from heaven to earth; he prayed, “Blessed be God...who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ” (Eph 1:1). Jesus opened the “pearly gates,” not so we could get into heaven, but so that the future life of God could flood our world.
The reorienting of our imaginations in this way takes work. But the more Catholics locate the Gospel within the hopes of first-century Jews, the easier it becomes and the more clearly we can see that our faith is about God’s new creation in Christ. Many first-century Jews believed the age in which they lived was evil. Their world was dominated by suffering, injustice, sickness, death and brutal pagan tyrants. They hoped God would act one day, as after Noah and at the Exodus, to rescue the world from evil and create it anew. On that day God would rule the world as king from Jerusalem, God’s people would be restored, evil would be defeated and humanity along with all creation would be renewed.
What the Jews believed God would do in the future, the early Christians believed God was already doing through Jesus’ resurrection. God’s kingdom had dawned among them. God’s new creation was coming to birth in and through the Christian community. This is why St. Paul can tell the Corinthians, “All God’s promises, you see, find their yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20). He also reminds them, “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor 5:17).
This is the story told throughout the New Testament. Paul tells the Galatians, “It is not being circumcised or uncircumcised that matters, but what matters is a new creation” (Gal 6:15). In the Second Letter of Peter, we read, “What we are waiting for, relying on his promises, is a new heaven and new earth” (3:13). The Book of Revelation concludes with the author’s vision of a new heaven and new earth: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride dressed for her husband” (21:2). Each of these texts describes a movement from heaven to earth. Each celebrates the dawning of God’s new world in the midst of the old one. This really is good news worth sharing.
This way of reading the Gospel also has profound implications for the way we understand our lives as Christians. It presents the Christian life as an event of God’s new creation, emerging out of the resurrection of Jesus. Cast in these terms, Christianity is a way of life coming from the future into the present, energized by the Holy Spirit and informed by the values of God’s new creation. It is a new kind of existence made possible by the risen Christ, who stands in the midst of our church communities and at the center of our lives. Christ fills us with God’s life and with all we value most—life, justice, peace, freedom and love. This new kind of existence motivates us to resist all that is opposed to God’s new creation. It compels us to share the good news with others.
The Essential Role of Preaching
This entire discussion, however, depends on good preaching. Without an all-out effort to renew preaching, the new evangelization will be dead on arrival. Catholics are often “homily hostages,” as a friend of mine puts it, forced to hear priests retell the Sunday readings or rant about the one moral issue they are concerned about. This approach snuffs out the embers of faith instead of re-energizing it.
When preaching is done well, the Christian faith becomes infectious. If the church is serious about the new evangelization, it must engage in a massive overhaul of the practice of preaching. Until there is a revolution in the way priests and deacons proclaim the word, the faith of the baptized will not be energized, and few will want to share it with others. Instead, people will continue to walk out the door.
We need well-trained preachers who can proclaim the good news that God is liberating us and creating all things anew in Christ. Of course, preachers must learn the story of God’s new creation as told by the New Testament writers. They will have to know this story from the inside by experiencing the freedom and new life God offers us in Christ. When preachers speak from their experience of God’s new creation and read the New Testament as the story of their experience, their hearts will be set on fire. They will once again be able to reignite the dying embers within the church, and perhaps young and old will return to church to hear a meaningful word from God.
Sidebar: Papal Principles
Catholics rarely use the term evangelization to speak about passing on the faith, but since the Second Vatican Council the magisterium has used the term, as have three modern popes.
Pope Paul VI introduced the idea with the publication of “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (1974), arguing that evangelization is essential to the nature and mission of the church. Vatican II, he said, took evangelization as its theme, seeking to prepare the 20th-century church to proclaim the Gospel.
Pope John Paul II devoted his entire pontificate to evangelization and coined the term “new evangelization.” In “Redemptoris Missio,” he called for new methods of evangelization grounded in the universal call to holiness.
Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized evangelization by establishing the Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization. He has called the Synod of Bishops to consider the subject at their meeting in Rome in October, with the theme “the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith.”
Sidebar: Catholics Take Leave
Recent research confirms that re-energizing the faithful is the urgent task of the church today, for people young and old are leaving the church. The Pew Research Forum reported in 2009 that one in every 10 Americans is a former Catholic. And for every one person who enters the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, four are leaving. One of the chief reasons Catholics give for leaving the church is the poor state of preaching.
According to a Pew study in 2011, 71 percent of people who left Catholicism for a Protestant denomination said their spiritual needs were not being met. Large numbers also reported leaving because the church focused too much on rules, money and power rather than spirituality.