After years of teaching about the Bible, I'm convinced that one of the most difficult concepts for Christians to understand is the prevalent belief in the Hebrew Scriptures about the afterlife.
The insight that we're able to go on developing a loving relationship with Yahweh after our physical deaths entered Jewish thought and theology shortly before the time of Jesus. Since most writings of the Hebrew Scriptures were composed long before that period, almost all authors of the Hebrew Scriptures knew nothing about an afterlife as such. This life was the only life they knew.
Because most of us were raised with the promise of heaven or the threat of hell lurking over all our actions, it's tough for us to understand passages like Sunday's first reading (Neh 8:2-4, 5-6, 8-10). The Israelites listening to Ezra read the law after their return from the Babylonian Exile aren't weeping because they're afraid of going to hell. They're crying because they've already "blown it."
Wasted life
The law which they're hearing proclaimed tells them how to achieve a good life right here and now. Had they both known about these regulations and kept them, they would be experiencing a much more rewarding and fulfilling existence. Listening to the law for the first time, they realize they've already wasted a good part of their lives.
It's easy for us Christians to overlook that fact that even Jesus doesn't speak about the afterlife as often as we presume. As a good Jew, He's rooted and grounded in those traditional Hebrew Scriptures which stress the importance of achieving a meaningful existence in this life. Though Jesus certainly believes and teaches eternal reward and punishment, at no point does He renounce His Jewish belief in the rewards and punishments woven into our everyday lives.
Listen carefully to Sunday's Gospel (Lk 1:1-4; 14-21). Here Jesus doesn't seem concerned with showing people the way to eternal happiness. Instead, quoting from Isaiah, a prophet who knew nothing about a heaven or hell, He describes His ministry in "this world" terms. "Yahweh," He announces, "has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners to announce a year of favor from the Lord."
Then He makes the astounding statement: "Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." In other words, "I'm not setting up a program for future happiness. I'm pointing out something that can already be part of the way you live your day-by-day lives, something which will make your lives fulfilling and happy."
Heaven and earth
Perhaps our single goal of "getting into heaven" has kept us from seeing and understanding the insights which Jesus' first followers received about improving the life we're already living. Because of our centuries-old tunnel vision, it's been easy to ignore important apostolic teachings like the second reading (I Cor 12:12-30). We believe that as long as each of us makes it into heaven, it really shouldn't matter what sort of community we form. But for Paul, the body of Christ isn't something we'll see and touch only after we cross heaven's threshold; it's a living entity in our midst right here and now, an entity which we must recognize, mold, and cherish.
"You [the Corinthian church] are the body of Christ!" Paul proclaims. Yet because of what the Apostle speaks about before and after our liturgical selection, we know he's dealing with many in the Corinthian community who neither recognize, mold or cherish the body of Christ among them.
Getting down to basics, Paul first reminds them, "The body is not one member, it is many." Then resorting to humor, he asks what kind of a body consists only of an ear or an eye. "If all the members were alike," he demands to know, "where would the body be?"
Paul presumes there's a connectedness among all the body's members, a closeness which ties each together with all the others. "If one member suffers," he writes, "all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members share its joy." Nothing which happens to one part of the body can be ignored by the rest of the body.
Perhaps if, in our haste to meet Jesus in heaven, we stopped ignoring people around us, and started to work at recognizing and building Jesus' body already in our midst, a lot more of us might actually make it into heaven someday.