Sunday, May 2
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Alpha and Omega, First and Last, glory outshining all the lights of heaven: pour out upon us your Spirit of faithful love and abundant compassion, so that we may rejoice in the splendor of your works while we wait in expectation for the new heaven and the new earth you promise when Christ shall come again. Amen.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."
All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 11:1-18 with Psalm 148 and
Revelation 21:1-6 and
Reflection and Focus Questions
by Kate Huey
1. What should be the priorities of Christians today?
2. How would you express the good news of Jesus Christ in this Easter season?
3. Why do you think the image of a city is prominent in the vision of Revelation?
4. What provides you with a sense of security?
5. How does this text connect to social justice?
Text for Meditation
God will be with us, / will wipe away every tear.
For ideas on how to meditate with the Bible, read our article on Praying With the Bible
What really matters to Christians today? What should matter to Christians today? What does it mean to be a person of faith, a follower of Jesus who trusts in the goodness of God and seeks to participate in God's plan for the world? What should we Christians be thinking about, planning for, dreaming of, hoping for? What should our priorities be? What's the big picture, and where are we heading with all this? We may claim that God, of course, is in charge, but what is God's plan for us and for all creation? What is the point of it all?
An impartial observer of the religious debates raging in our society might conclude that Christians' fixation on terrifying, apocalyptic scenarios of the end of the world, along with a pressing need to convert people in time to avoid those terrors, is much more powerful--much more central to our faith--than a deep love for God and commitment to justice, compassion, and healing for all people and for the earth itself. Bookstores have shelves of bestsellers describing the end of the world, door-to-door evangelists bring the message of doom right to our homes, and television preachers get high ratings for their predictions of a coming, all-encompassing disaster. If we think that kind of talk doesn't affect our priorities, consider the attitude of some (certainly not all) evangelical Christians who minimize concerns about the environment because Jesus Christ is returning soon and we won't be needing this earth much longer: go ahead and use up all the resources, including clean air and water, because none of that will matter once God brings history to a close. I also remember a visit from door-to-door evangelists years ago who offered literature on the end of the world and asked if I understood that that terrible day was coming soon. I suggested as kindly as I could that the people on my street (including me) needed to hear that God loved us, and that they might consider bringing that message from the Bible to my neighbors. They said, matter-of-factly, that no, they had their gospel to preach, and this was it: Jesus was going to return soon and God was going to destroy the earth, so it was urgent that we prepare by repenting and joining them in their efforts to spread that message. (Also, a cash donation for the pamphlet would be appreciated, although it wasn't necessary.) Looking back now, I can only say, "Bless their hearts."
A vision of the deepest longing of our hearts, yet....
This week's passage is one of the few that are familiar to many Christians, perhaps because it's often read at funerals, when we're consoled to think of a future time with no more tears, no more pain, no more death. Such a lovely vision of the deepest longing of our hearts, and yet it is surrounded in Revelation by many passages that we would rather avoid. However, it's important step back and take a longer, wider look at this last book in the Bible. Marcus Borg has written an entire chapter on Revelation in his excellent book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, that's helpful for those who are studying the Bible in order to take it, as Borg has said, "seriously, but not literally."
Borg first paints the larger picture of Revelation, not only about its writing and origin but also the reaction of those in the church who really didn't see (or at least appreciate) it as Holy Scripture, including several leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Borg also tells us that Revelation was "not the last document of the New Testament to be written, not did its author know it would someday conclude the Christian Bible." Like all great Bible scholars, Borg studies the historical setting of the letter, written to seven specific churches that are about one generation old and perhaps already straying from their original vision. "The issues facing the communities," he writes, "are persecution, false teaching, and accommodation to the larger culture." Other scholars focus on the writer himself, probably a Jewish Christian, Beverly Gaventa writes, who may have survived and fled the disaster of the Jewish-Roman war in 66-70 that left Jerusalem in ruins and the temple destroyed. Gaventa suggests that, for the writer, exiled and cut off from his people, the vision in this week's text (what Borg calls the "magnificent concluding vision") is filled with "highly charged meaning"; however, we too can understand his feelings to some extent, for the dream also expresses the "deepest yearnings of human beings for a sense of place, for sheer physical security." How much more security can we imagine than being at home with God?
From the garden to the city
While our passage today starts off with a beautiful and all-encompassing vision of a new heaven and a new earth, there is a very specific city, the New Jerusalem, at its center. "While the story of the Bible begins with a garden, it ends in a city," writes Michael Pasquarello III. And Dana Ferguson develops this further: "Why a city? Because cities are places where people live together in dependence upon one another. A city works when everyone in it does something to contribute to its welfare. It is the welcome place where people arrive home at the end of a long and confusing journey. It is where God lives." What an intriguing way to spur our religious imaginations about our own cities and communities (no matter how large or small), as places "where God lives." Imagine what it might look like for our cities to be places where we live not in competition and anxiety but in graceful community, welcoming people home and inviting them in. Such a vision is the opposite of destruction, separation, loneliness, and exile.
All of those experiences, alas, were familiar to the Jewish people as well as the author of Revelation. That's why he could draw on the words and promises, the dream, of Isaiah the prophet and all those who saw Babylon as the oppressive power in their lives. That's why he could go even farther back, to the creation narratives, where the sea was first seen as threatening and chaotic (and one might imagine, even in the first century C.E., that the sea was still profoundly intimidating), and a beautiful garden represented the way things were supposed to be. That's why readers of Revelation, at the end of our Christian Bible, see it as a bookend to Genesis: Creation and New Creation. That's the point of it all: God in charge from beginning to end (alpha and omega), and God with us, in our midst, in our "neighborhood," as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message. We are not alone or exiled or separated from those we love, especially the One who made us in love and loves us still.
A New Earth Day
I write this reflection on Earth Day, so the vision of "a new earth" is particularly poignant. Catherine Gunsalas González and Justo L. González question the common view of Christians who think that the earth is destined for destruction, and "an unchanged heaven" is our goal and our hope, because this belief is "based on a nonbiblical view that discounts the value of the earth": it's actually the new earth that will be our home, and God's as well. They note "an earthly quality to the future hope." Surely that vision might make us more committed to caring for God's creation (someone has said, after all, that "having dominion over" means "to be responsible for the well-being of"), not just on Earth Day but every day. Erik Heen writes most eloquently that the "earth has been and will continue to be the focus of God's ultimate concern. Given the current environmental crisis, it is important to reflect upon how passionately God desires the healing of all creation," this God who "continues to stand in solidarity with us in the midst of the suffering experienced by all of creation."
We might approach this text by focusing on the comfort of knowing that God is in charge at the beginning and at the end, and that even that end is a whole new beginning. Carl Holladay writes, "Only those with anemic imaginations can fail to be gripped by this vision of the new heaven and new earth. There has never been a human soul steeped in the human condition who has not pined for a radically new world. Whether it is Marx sketching the ideal economic state or Lennon crying for us to 'imagine' a peaceful world, the hope is always for something different--and better." Indeed, anyone who sees the suffering of humankind and the degradation of God's creation, if they have a heart, must long for whole new world, and must struggle to imagine such a thing.
We might also approach the text from a personal point of view, wondering about our own mortality and grieving the loss of our loved ones who have died. According to Dana Ferguson, "John offers us a vision we can sit down in front of, taking in all that he shows us about it. That way, when it is time for us to stand up again, we may be able to move on from whatever devastating place we have been, strengthened with the knowledge that something new lies ahead." When Michael Pasquarello describes us as living "somewhere in the middle, between the beginning and the end of the story," we wonder how strong our religious imaginations are, here, "in the middle," not yet seeing the end of the story but longing to live our lives in faithfulness to the vision of God. Pasquarello questions the many "gospels" that get preached around us, which compete with the good news of God's creation reconciled and whole, rather than ultimately and utterly destroyed. Are we clear about the dream that we hold in our hearts, and is it God's own dream for all of creation?
Shining the light of the gospel on our questions
We return to the writing of Marcus Borg for a challenge here, on Immigrant Rights Sunday, when our nation wrestles not very gracefully with the question of immigration. If Borg is right that "Babylon" refers not only to ancient Rome and its oppressive, destructive evils but to "all domination systems organized around power, wealth, seduction, intimidation, and violence," and if this is, in a sense, a "tale of two cities"--Rome and the New Jerusalem, and all that they represent in the human heart--aren't we anxious to find ourselves in the right city, a city where God would want to dwell? Borg reminds us that "political oppression" and "economic exploitation" often go hand-in-hand with "religious legitimation," so it would seem that people of faith are particularly pressed to shine the light of the gospel on our decisions in the public square, including issues such as justice for immigrants.
Our passage from Revelation, then, provides a vision, Borg writes, that "is perhaps best understood as 'the dream of God,'" and it is "a dream for this earth, and not for another world. For John, it is the only dream worth dreaming." In "Jerusalem the Golden," Borg says, "every tear shall be wiped away," and "we will see God. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful ending to the Bible." Amen!
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For further reflection
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century poet/philospher
Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.
Confucius, 6th century B.C.E. philosopher/teacher
Heaven means to be one with God.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century poet/essayist
People only see what they are prepared to see.
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