How Theology Affects Church Membership
As Dante approaches the second sphere of heaven in the Paradiso, the poet is greeted by thousands of glorified saints, sparkling with joy so real and palpable that it manifests itself in visible light and beauty Dante can barely tolerate. With one accord, each of these saints proclaims as they wheel and dive around Dante, “Look! Here comes one more to increase our love!” These words are remarkable as they stand; they become more so when we grasp what “love” these saints have in mind. It’s not a sentimental, subjective attachment to Dante; it’s an objective, transcendent encounter with “Love” Himself. In the final lines of the Paradiso, as Dante’s mental muse fails him, his will and heart become fully alive, keeping up with his last vision of the Triune God set before him: “High phantasy lost power and here broke off …my will and my desire were tuned by love, the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”
The glorified saints’ overwhelming response to the arrival of Dante into the heavenly spheres is inspired, not by Dante’s personal and individual uniqueness, but by his uniquely created capacity to reveal some new vista and aspect of the Divine. God’s infinitude precludes our finite capacities to reflect that glory in anything that approaches what it deserves or objectively is. But gathered in the light of a thousand mirrors, the saints become an observatory for magnifying the expanse of God’s glory. The more mirrors are placed in the concave domes and spheres of heaven, the more God is revealed, and with greater ardor all the stars and souls dance toward, with increasing speed, the gravitational center of the cosmos, whose weight of glory, moves all things not by the laws of physics but by the law of Love.
Dante composed his imaginative vision of heaven for the sake of all the saints still toiling here on the earth. As still unattainable as this purified joy may be, the very contemplation of it, and desire for it, should begin a sanctifying process in our minds, hearts, and wills that moves us ever closer, with each faltering step of repentance and faith, toward the present experience of it. Dante’s epic poem that sought heaven’s eternal influence on our earthly pilgrimage is but an imaginative reflection of what our Lord provides in his more vernacular, and more tantalizing final prayer in John 17. Among the variety of things the Lord is doing in this prayer, the central request that permeates the whole is clearly his desire that his people would be one even as the Father and Son are One, as expressed in v. 20-21: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Simply put, Jesus prays that a rich theology of the “church triumphant” above, and the triune God at the center of it, would inform and reorient our theology of the “church militant” here below. Jesus is praying that we will experience now, at least in small measure, something of the unity of God’s family that we will experience fully and completely in the Father’s house. The church ought to be a small, miniature replica of heaven’s unity on earth as we anticipate becoming the church gathered in the Father’s House, basking in the glory of the Son, and empowered by his Spirit.
When we approach this goal, translating and refracting something of the glory and beauty of the eternal kingdom into our conversations and experiences on earth, we offer people who don’t know Christ or don’t want Christ a reason to reconsider, stirring that hope for a family that they’ve lost or ruined. Yes, we are the church militant, but unlike any army in history, we should be filled with the hope that we’ve already won, that we are already home, already seated in heavenly places, and we are free to come out of our bunkers and invite the skeptical and wary who stand outside wondering why it sounds like there’s a party going on down there. Like Paul and Silas, we may be imprisoned and backed into a corner, but what the enemy should hear when they close in is not knocking knees but voices raised in thanksgiving and arms linked in hope, a ray of heaven’s sunshine in the blackness of a dungeon cell.
What makes this possible is the future prospect that envy, jealousy, and posturing will dry up, and only joy in the unique reflections of God found each of the redeemed will fill our hearts. Our Lord does not put it quite like this in so many words, but the thrust of his whole prayer requires it. The visible unity of the church should demonstrate the invisible unity of the Godhead. What does this unity consist in?
Without going too deep into the deep things of God, this unity without envy is rooted in the eternal, mutual love of the Father and the Son (with the Spirit). Jesus opens his prayer with describing his coming death on the cross as his hour of “glorification.” Clearly, Jesus is not speaking in a literal sense, because on the face of it, this was an hour of great shame and humiliation. But seen from the inside, the cross is the greatest demonstration of the Son’s love and orientation toward his Father. Before the cross means anything for us, it first demonstrated the supreme delight and love the Son has for the Father. As Jesus says at the end of ch. 14:31—“but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” The very depth of tribulation the cross represents is the very thing that reveals the supreme height of glory the Father inspires in the Son. His supreme sacrifice demonstrates his supreme delight in loving and being loved by the Father. Our Lord did not resent this role, he did not fight it, cursing his bad luck. He embraced the cross, and the lowly, servile, unjust role it involved because in it he was also showing how great the love of the Father was worth to him. It is this first love for his worthy Father above that enables Jesus to also turn toward loving unworthy deplorables like us here below.
At the end of his prayer in v. 24, Jesus makes one final request which, I believe, contains one of the most charged and pregnant statements in all Scripture, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” Much could be said about this request. Yet something often missed, even though it is present through the entire prayer, is that this gaze on the Son, which will preoccupy us for all eternity, is a glory seen through the church. We will not see the Son apart from his bride, having united himself to her by Spirit and blood. Our love and experience of Christ’s glory will not come at the expense of others, but precisely through all others united in him.
Should this vision of the heavenly assembly radically alter our perspective and behavior in the local assembly? Most certainly. In every Christian brother or sister, we ought to see someone supremely and unceasingly loved by God who was created by God and redeemed by God for the very purpose of reflecting the glory of God. We are called then, to love each other for who they are, not for what they can contribute. We love them for what God is making them to be, and in hope of what they one day will be.
True, the people we encounter in the church may not necessarily be the people we would have chosen for ourselves, as our friends and neighbors. They may not be the people we want, whose successes leaves us feeling small or whose failures leave us felling exhausted. But they are the people we need. Let us not forget that on the final day, the Lord will identify himself with the very ones we served, loved, or not here below, “what you did to the least of these, you have done unto me.” Yet this fact, far from being something that condemns us, encourages us to look for God’s grace in all his children, a grace that will only get brighter when we behold the glory of Christ in ages to come. As C.S. Lewis says, no doubt picking up on Dante, “Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any creature can … Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell all the others—fresh and ever fresh news of the ‘My God’ whom each finds in Him whom all praise as ‘Our God.’”
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.