The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 6—Year C; Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29. Video
Can we just start by admitting that the Revelation to John is just weird? However, it’s been a really weird week in our house, a week that started with witnessing a tragic crash and ended with the death of our beloved dog, Luke. Ever had a week like that? Where you are aware of the fragility and preciousness of life, where our utter vulnerability as human beings is absolutely inescapable? Throw into that mix this year’s political process that feels completely chaotic, and often disheartening in its lack of civility. And the crush of world events that feel so completely out of control and intractable. The ground beneath our feet is shifting, and it’s disorienting when that happens. So, from this weird space, this passage from Revelation feels oddly comforting.
A vision is given, and from the get-go, for one who was used to seeing God “in a certain way” and “in a certain place,” the vision itself disorients, “I saw no temple in the city…” What? The city is Jerusalem. Everything in Jerusalem was built around the temple. That would be like saying, “I saw no White House, no Capitol, no Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.” Some things just go together. Jerusalem was the holy city, and holiness was most especially located in the holy of holies, which was located in the heart of the temple. The presence of God was to be found most intensely there.
But not any more.
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. No need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Holiness was not to be contained in the temple, only to be viewed by the elite of the elite, but holiness, glory, would radiate throughout everything. God’s presence will fill all places of the city—the political places, the economic places, the religious places, the despised and broken places, the vulnerable places, the forgotten places, the back alleys and places that never see the light of day—God’s glory shines there. Nations are caught up in this light. This glory even pulls glory out of kings. It calls forth the best from the people—people bringing the honor of the nations—the honor of the nations, can you imagine? Seriously, take that in. Imagine it.
The last line of that section sounds so exclusive—only those will enter it who are written in the Lamb’s book of life—but I don’t think exclusion is at the heart of it. Let’s pull out and view this from that high mountain where that angel has carried John to see all of this. And remember—visions are like dreams, they are not linear, but circular; not left-brained, but right-brained.
Nothing unclean will enter. The greek for unclean simply means common. Nothing common here. All is holy, all is deserving of respect and honor and dignity. And the practice of abomination—that’s the practice of idolatry. Oh my goodness, idols. What are the idols holding power over our religious, political and economic common life?
(pause) Power, control, success, greed, security, prestige, status, etc. Can you imagine the heartbeat of our religious, political, and economic life being free of these idols? Practicing these idolatries has no place in this “city” filled with the glory of the Lord.
And those practicing falsehood—deceit, lies, duplicitous words and deeds—not here.
The only people who can live in this “city” are those who are committed to the abundant life. It’s not that the Lamb wants to exclude others; it’s just anything short of the abundant life—life in its fullest, most whole form—anything short of that isn’t worthy of the vision. Not worthy as in deserving, but worthy as in “this is what God in the fullness of God’s presence and light and glory longs for us to have and know and live.”
And the vision gets richer.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.
The water of life flowing as a river. Trees producing a rich variety of fruit, all year long. Creation lavishly flourishing. And the trees, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. And oh, how the nations, all the nations, long for healing. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. Back in Genesis, back at the very beginning of the story, the tree of life was out of reach, but now, it is the source of healing. Whatever curses we were under before hold no sway now.
Have you ever felt like some event or experience or some unfulfilled dream defined you? How would you live differently if that story, that narrative thread, was no longer your chief plotline? How would you live differently if you could see in the very thing you perceived as curse, the source of your healing? And what would this look like if we extrapolated this out to our nations? What if we saw all the things that feel like curses among the nations, what if we saw all of those things as vessels of healing? How might interactions between nations change?
It is so clear in this passage from Revelation that God is not interested only in individual salvation, individual wholeness, but God desires salvation, wholeness, for the whole world. God desires that our nations experience wholeness. God desires this wholeness for our leaders and for the peoples of the nations of the world. God will not rest until everything is transformed and healed and made new. God will not rest until everyone is participating in this glory and walking in this light.
Is this a pipe dream? Well, of course it is, but dreams and visions have a way of reorienting us. And I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling disoriented, a vision gives me some place to fix hope, and hope has a way of helping us find our way home.
A vision helps us see what is possible, helps us claim our deepest longings, helps us connect to God’s deepest yearnings. We need that thing out there to aim for.
And we need something in here to ground us. And that’s what Jesus promises us today. He knows the time is coming when he won’t be physically present to his disciples, but they won’t be abandoned. As he is gathered around the table with them on that last night before his death, he tells his disciples this: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Jesus is saying, “The God who creates all that is, the God who has lived in me, the God who blows as the Spirit—this God makes a divine home in you.” Jesus gives us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit continues to teach us. That Spirit reminds us of all that Jesus has said to us. That Spirit reminds us that a peace lives within us, Jesus’ peace, and this peace is the peace that surpasses all understanding. This peace is not the peace of unanimity or agreement or the peace that comes when we don’t make too many waves—this peace is the peace that allowed Jesus to stand still in the swirl, to hold fast to Love while at the same time extending his arms wide-open to embrace the whole world, this is the peace that can hold space when everything else wants that space collapsed, this is the peace that can live in the tension of paradox and know that Love is the only ground that is firm beneath our feet. And when we stand in that place, our hearts are not troubled, nor are they afraid.
No matter how weird and disorienting our lives get, no matter how out of control the world feels—we have a place to stand. We have an Advocate to guide us. We have a Spirit to sustain us. We have a peace that fills us, and a Love that grounds us. We have a vision to move towards, and the inner provisions to make the journey.
We might yearn for more; we might long for a 10-point plan, but I don’t know, from that high mountain, alongside John, from that seat across the supper table from our Lord, this week— a weird vision, the promise of an Advocate, the indwelling Spirit, an unshakeable peace, a Love that holds fast—I think these are enough. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 1, 2016