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Traveling to the 'New Jerusalem'

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (RJN) often shared his hope that the sign he would see over the gates of heaven would read... “From the Wonderful People who Brought You New York: The New Jerusalem”. As a resident of Manhattan, he was all too aware of the role of expressways and collector lanes to move souls from one destination or another within that earthly city. It is not a great leap of imagination that this traffic imagery could easily indicate how he would expect the inner workings of the New Jerusalem and the unfolding of the coming prolepsis at the end of time. To put this more familiar biblical imagery:  will there be different ‘off ramps’, ‘collector’ and ‘express’ lanes which will carry the ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ to their different end. (Matthew 25:31)

Meditating upon this imagery can be instructive for us in our daily lives. If we know that death is the fundamental destiny that no man, woman or child can avoid, then it is not advisable (if one believes that life is not extinguished with death’s arrival) to make sure that we are on the correct street, if not in the collector lanes reading in the proper direction? One does not want to be caught in the ‘wrong lane’ as believers and unbelievers drive off in different directions to their eternal judgment.  Just as the barriers and divisions that give direction to expressways, so too will those headed for eternal death be unable to navigate against the traffic and ‘jump the toll’ into heaven. Once that day of judgment comes; when the New Jerusalem reveals the truth of all that is in and about us before God, it will be too late to change lanes.

It is useful also to think of how the heavenly freeway would be organized. What would the name for this transportation system be? As a resident of rural Canada, I think of it as the ‘Redeemed Road‘ which will take one to eternal salvation and the ‘Condemned Causeway‘ for the damned.  Does our current direction in life reveal whether or not we are heading in the wrong direction?

Surely it is beyond dispute among Christians of all stripes that 'holy scripture' and 'creeds' teaches us all that first  there will be some who are saved and others who are not. Some people are virtuous while others are evil. Some are headed for eternal joy, others to perdition and eternal death.

The question becomes: who should be in which lane as we journey through life? Should we be speeding down the 'expressway' of self-fulfillment, or are Christians called to be people to traverse the more tortuous route through streets, neighborhoods and small towns? At the very least, should we be traveling along the collector lanes, able to exit when needed?

Is it not also true that Christians (and those who church documents call 'people of good heart') disagree on which road to travel, each stubbornly sticking to their route, trusting that it will bring them to the 'Pearly Gates' of the New Jerusalem that RJN hoped for?

Irrespective of this disagreement as to the best way to get to our goal are Catholics and Protestants at least heading to the same destination? I suggest that this imagery can be useful in understanding the true nature of ecumenism here and now in ‘Babylon’ (that collective society of earthly realms), a subject that RJN takes up in his last work,  American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, (Basic Books; 2009).

In it, he suggests that the first division of the masses streaming towards  the ‘New Jerusalem’ would be  those who believe that ‘salvation comes from the Jews’ (Jn 4:4-30). He bases this position not merely upon a literalist interpretation of this one part of scripture, but by placing this teaching of Jesus in the context of St. Paul’s teaching in the Letter to the Romans (Rm Ch 9-11). His extra-scriptural references are substantial as well, ranging from the writings of St. Augustine, the ‘Dabru Emet’ of the Jewish community, through to ‘Nostra Aetate’ of Vatican II; all of which points out that to believe that Judaism and Christianity are two separate religions is contrary to orthodox Catholic teaching. Put in the traffic metaphor, if we want to get to 'heaven', we need to follow the Jews. Catholics believe that Christianity is simply the grafting of the gentile world on to the root of the ‘Tree of Jesse’. Therefore, Christians need first travel with the Jews, perhaps to diverge further along the road, but we should be following their lead. We are headed to the same essential direction.

The next exit will surely separate those who are ‘Christian’ from those who are not. To think otherwise would be to deny the divine gift promised the 'faithful'. Thus by leading them along streets and roads heretofore cratered with the potholes that our sinfulness The road that was all but  impassible is now repaired in advance of our approach with Christ and his angels patching and paving our way! This is their promised reward for sacrifices demanded by God's in the present. It is the pay-off for keeping to our map, even when the road became narrower and demanding to navigate. The way that leads to peace in this life (and the next) demands that we ignore the tempting billboards promising 'personal fulfillment' through possessing some product or another. Eventually the claims upon our soul that materialism demands will which will eventually entangle us in the gridlock of full blown commercialism.  We will never reach a happy end on that road.

Possibly there might be an exit further along that will separate those who need some ‘car repair’ before reporting for judgment from those who kept their cars full of gas and in pristine condition. After all, even if the final destination has been determined by the first division of souls (saved/damned), there will still be some whose witness was closer to the ideal than others. Again to borrow from RJN’s life experience: once you’ve crossed a bridge on to Manhattan, you’ve still got some distance to travel before you arrived at his home on 19th Street! Could this intermediate station not be thought of as  ‘Purgatory’ which Catholics believe in? It is a core belief of the Catholic faith which asserts that every soul in purgatory will eventually be saved. Does thinking of purgatory as a ‘repair station’ on the way to God’s presence distort some element of Catholic belief in this teaching? No. Perhaps to be ‘saved’ by Christ means to be able to have your soul brought to a destination where it can be ‘repaired’ and 'detailed' prior to its personal judgment before  God...with Christ’s blood paying for the work. Is it taking the metaphor too far? I think not. If not, it becomes a way of tapping into a shared human experience to bridge the gaps between the Evangelical & Pentecostals by grounding our understanding of these eschatological realities in a common language of everyday life rather than arguing over existing misunderstandings regarding more theological language.

Here’s to praying that our guardian angels (yes, I believe in such a personal spiritual beings) keep us in the 'right lane'; and to traveling through this life with a well founded Christian hope that Christ has indeed paid the price for any needed service or repair, when the body’s lease on our soul ends.

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