Revelation 21.10, 21.22 — 22.5
…if one reads this text with an ear for its ecclesiological significance—taking the new Jerusalem (as did the early Christians) as a metaphor for the church—then one is immediately struck by the fact that the community of the faithful is not regarded as trapped in the fallen, corrupt world of human experience. Rather, it is already part of the new heaven and earth that God will bring to completion at the end of time—the new creation that brings the first creation to its perfection. — Joseph H Britton, Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 2
Instead of solitary individuals judging other human souls to damnation, I believe God would prefer a much different path: mutuality. The desire to go on such a journey is no delusion; instead, it is the proper desire of every human being to realise what it means to be mutually human in the presence of the living God. — Michael Battle, Heaven on Earth
Today’s reading from Revelation speaks of a holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down to earth. What do you imagine when you think of that? I imagine lots of office blocks and streets with shopping precincts.
But remember: the Book of Revelation is a vision and not a prophecy. It doesn’t tell us what is going to happen in the future, but it calls us to ‘imagine’. The imagined city of John’s vision is unlike any you’ve ever seen. For a start, it’s a cube, not an office block in sight. It’s a cube 2400 km long, 2400 km wide, and 2400 km high. It has walls; the ancients couldn’t imagine a city without a wall. The walls of this city rise 66 metres, over twice the height of the Story Bridge.
Walls are commonplace, aren’t they? We see walls everywhere, though perhaps not walls quite so high.
Australia continues to have high walls that prevent refugees from settling here. Since last weekend’s election, around fourteen men have attempted suicide on Manus Island and there is no end in sight to their horrible situation. And on Sorry Day, we must also acknowledge that indigenous people are prevented from joining the common wealth of this nation. It’s hard, perhaps getting harder, for our nation to face itself and look at who we have become.
Does God like walls? Some Christians seem to think so. Israel Folau has erected a wall high enough to exclude anyone who isn’t straight, a wall that condemns them to hell. People have tried to make this a ‘freedom of speech’ issue. A neighbour of mine recently went to a conservative church conference where he heard that freedom of speech would be a major issue in the election last weekend. He was very keen on this; I asked him what responsibility these churches would take for young people who ended their lives because of the teaching that God has rejected them. To his credit, he just looked thoughtful and didn’t argue.
Yet disputes on sexuality continue to prop up some very high walls. I had lunch with another Uniting Church minister during the week. A gay couple came to her service last Sunday, where they were welcomed. Sadly, the reason they were there was that their previous church had asked them to leave because they were in a same-sex relationship.
Not only are these walls high, but people are thrown over them.
I admire this couple for trying a new door and seeing if it will open. But I’m angry that they had a door slammed in their faces.
I’ve mentioned before that a few months after I’d given my life to Christ I started going to my best friend’s church. It was an Open Brethren group. ‘Open’ is quite a relative word.
I went to my first service, and when it was time for Communion I received the bread and the wine. I unwittingly caused a scandal by doing this.
After the service, my friend told me ‘the elders’ wanted to talk to me. He looked worried. It seemed I hadn’t seen a wall right in front of me; I shouldn’t have received Holy Communion without their permission.
It was quite intimidating for a shy lad of fifteen to front up to this group of men (the Brethren didn’t have women elders). They wanted to know if I was a Christian. They didn’t want to know whether I loved God, or my neighbour as myself; but they were happy to hear that I could tell of having accepted Christ.
Once I’d told them that, the door to this group was opened to me. (However, I did decide that I needed to wear a tie to fit in back there in the late 60s; I bought my first one before the next service.)
Walls come in different forms. Walls can be hidden rules: this is how we do things here; this is what we believe here; this is what we wear here; this is the kind of person who fits in here. The doors are opened to you once you’ve ticked the right boxes.
Let’s go back to that holy city, even now coming to earth. It has walls too—but what about its gates? A good wall needs strong gates, otherwise it’s pointless. Anyone could get in if the gates aren’t well defended.
So it comes as a surprise to hear
The gates of the city will stand open all day; they will never be closed, because there will be no night there.
The holy city is defenceless. It’s open to anyone to enter, and indeed, anyone to leave.
Ancient Christian writers saw a picture of the church of Jesus Christ in this heavenly city coming to earth. Not that the church is heaven, or even heavenly all the time; and not that we can’t have very mixed feelings about the church.
But this city, this New Jerusalem, is an ideal that the church may aspire towards. It’s a model for us, to reimagine our life together. How can it inspire us?
Well, it’s a city. It’s a place where people live and work and need each other. The Apostle Paul calls the church a body; John helps us see it in a city. Just as in a city, no one exists alone in God’s church. Everyone is needed, everyone has a place in the life of the church.
But of course, cities don’t really do that, do they? We see people begging on city streets. Homeless people sell The Big Issue. The rich drive by dilapidated neighbourhoods without noticing the people living there. Indigenous people live hidden in plain sight.
When this kind of inequality enters a church, we have a problem. We read a lovely story earlier, A Church for All. It’s based on a real place, Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.
One part of the storybook I had some qualms about was the bit where it said, ‘Poor and wealthy…’ Poor and wealthy is a fact in the church, as in any city—but would it be a fact in the New Jerusalem? I think not. So, the wealthy need to notice the poor in the church and (let’s be frank!) give accordingly.
This holy city is a coming city, a place where we continue to need one another. A place of relationships, and of mutual service.
It’s also a place that
has no need of the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God shines on it, and the Lamb is its lamp.
All this is a warning not to be literal in the way we read John’s vision, and who’d read a vision literally anyway?
But ‘the Lamb is its lamp’. The Lamb, newly slain yet standing; the lamb, with all power and authority, and bringing the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
Surely the Lamb is the church’s lamp too. The way of Jesus, the way of service, is the church’s way. West End has shown that way in establishing the Blue Nursing Service through the work of the Rev Arthur Preston in the 1950s. We show it still today, though in smaller ways.
Jesus tells us (John 13.34–35)
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.
The Way of the Lamb is ever the way of love and service.
There are two ways a city could have its gates open all the time in the ancient world in safety. One is the way of the world, the other the Way of the Lamb.
The way of the world would be to have a huge standing army and amass weapons of mass destruction so that no one dares to attack. It was the way of the Cold War, where the standard doctrine was mad, M.A.D.—MutuallyAssured Destruction.
The Way of the Lamb is to love in vulnerability, and to serve unto death. The Way of the Lamb is to win over the hearts of former enemies.
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that is God’s proof of [God’s] love towards us. (Romans 5.8, REB)
The Way of the Lamb, the Way of Jesus, has rarely been tried. We can glimpse it in people like Rev Dr Martin Luther King, who struggled nonviolently for civil rights in the USA of the 1950s and 60s; or in Mahatma Gandhi, who loved Jesus while keeping his distance from the religion that claims his name—from Christianity, our religion.
There’s a lot more that can be said; but for today, we read this Scripture as challenging us in two ways:
Are our doors open? And secondly, Is the Lamb our lamp?
It’s not just the doors of the building. Open doors in this building are no good if we aren’t open. Are the doors of our hearts open? Do we see the marginalised who are all around us? Do we welcome people of diverse colour and status and sexuality? Are our hearts open to one another—do we forgive the hurts that inevitably come our way? Do we rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep? Do we serve the community in which we are placed?
You will see that these questions are related. They can’t really be separated.
Next week, we’re welcoming people who have joined us in the last twelve months. Perhaps it is they who most clearly see if the walls here are too high, or the doors too hard to open. When you’ve been in a church for years, you tend not to notice.
And maybe we need to check how they feel a welcome here. What do we need to keep doing, and what do we need to do better?
John’s vision calls us to imagine. So do the times in which we live. Amen.