A sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Today’s second reading is the culmination of the book of Revelation, and since that is the last book of the Bible in some ways it is the culmination of the whole thing. The lectionary leaves out several verses near the beginning of the passage, so I would like to read the first part of that reading again with those verses included so you can get the full effect.
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has 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. (Rev. 21:10-24)
This is the vision of the Holy City of God, the vision of our future and the future of the universe—majestic, awe inspiring—and it makes no sense. The measurements reported, make a cube which, if superimposed on the United States, would stretch from the northern tip of Maine to Winnipeg, Manitoba, (I realize that Winnipeg isn’t in the U.S., but it just won’t fit!) to the southern tip of Texas and over to Miami, Florida, as well as reaching a thousand miles above the end of the earth’s atmosphere. A big city. It is composed of pure gemstones and is made out of transparent gold—whatever that is. The images cascade over us, images of grandeur, beauty, value, and purity, but in the end we really can’t envision or comprehend this as an actual thing. For instance, where do the people fit in? The book of Revelation envisions God triumphant over evil and destruction, and God’s people at peace and in God’s presence. And this we can accept with great confidence.
Yet what the vision of the future is really saying is that we don’t know. As wonderful as heaven will be, what it will be is inconceivable. This passage points out things that won’t be needed—the sun and the moon, the great sources of light, for God will be the source of light and there will be no night. We will somehow be transformed, with no need of sleep or darkness. And there will be no need for a temple or a church or any other place of worship for God will be directly present to be all worship and comfort for all of existence.
Think about that for a minute. If you take away that many reference points, we can’t really imagine anything at all—not as a concrete reality.
We really don’t know what the future holds. We shouldn’t confuse our imagination or our aspirations with knowing the future. Our faith assures us that God is here and will ultimately be even more present, with richness beyond all imagining. Our images of heaven, or the afterlife, or the end of this world are only metaphors for the love of God. Those who dredge through the text of the book of Revelation and claim to have discovered exact events that are going to happen are simply not reading the Bible faithfully.
We also do not know what the future holds for our country, our families, ourselves, or our church. Indeed, we plan, based on what we know about the present and likely patterns of things that will occur, like the sun coming up in the morning, and paying taxes on April 15. But with all the glorious and varied possibilities in this world, the things that we expect are going to happen, whether in national politics or here at Trinity church are guesses that almost certainly will need to be adjusted and often are totally wrong. When we build images of our future, we should be careful of which building blocks our imaginations use.
In today’s gospel this guy is lying by this pool in Bethesda where people are expecting to be healed if they can get into the water first, after some event happens that stirs up the water. Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well. The man’s response was not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but an explanation that everybody was getting in before him. His imagination was that this was the one and only way to become well. Jesus told him to rise and he became well, even though he never got to the pool and even if those religious leaders who had their own prescribed solutions were angry because Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath. The ways in which we will be healed and share in the increasing abundance of God’s life happens despite the limitation of our imagination or our understanding.
When envisioning our future, it’s important to incorporate God’s love, and the human love and good things that are there to share.
Last week, a group of Trinity parishioners met with me to talk about a process of discernment that I have been trained in. Over the next few months, they will organize an ongoing discernment process, including a special day when each of you will be invited to hear another person share their best experience of the love of God at Trinity and their wishes for the future, and for your best experience to be heard as well. But as I’ve been talking about in this sermon, really, can we know how God’s love will manifest itself among us ultimately? Like the Holy City of God, we cannot. And at times, we all feel discouraged, like the man lying by the pool where everyone else stepping over him and he couldn’t make it to the one place he thought he could get well. We may even be tempted, like many in the wider church, to talk about a dying church, to speak using metaphors of death and decay.
But what did Jesus say to the man lying by the pool in Bethesda? “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And he did.
A better image for this living congregation, right here at Trinity, might be as the Israelites traveling through the sea and the desert to a new place. Or perhaps, that inconceivable, indescribable holy city that our lesson from Revelation describes.
We can’t know the future of Trinity any more than we know which days it will rain two years from now. We can’t describe what decisions anyone might make, to be here or elsewhere, to give money here or to some other organization. We can’t say, exactly how we will encounter Jesus on the road. But what we do know is that God’s healing love is here—among you. There may not be somebody to carry us over to the water, but Jesus is here to make us well. The future of God’s glory is greater than any of us can ask or imagine, and God’s glory is here, among us, in the Bronx.
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” … (Rev.21:22)
‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.’ (Rev. 22:17)