Sunday, April 24
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
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?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
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 ultimate 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 the fixation of some Christians 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 our deep love for God and our 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, so 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.
What is the good news you share?
I always remember those visits 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 gently 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.”
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. When I was growing up, we called this book The Apocalypse, and many vivid and somewhat nightmarish images from my childhood faith come from its prophecies. 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.”
The “magnificent, concluding vision”
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 Martin Luther (who didn’t even want it to be in the New Testament at all), Ulrich Zwingli (who flat out refused to consider it Scripture), and John Calvin (who, for the most part, dismissed it). He also notes 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.” As a good Bible scholar, 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, and are facing, Borg writes, “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 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 deeply meaningful. Perhaps we can understand the author’s feelings, for the dream also expresses the longing all of us have to feel secure in a place of our own. How much more security can we imagine than being at home with God?
Where God finds a home
“While the story of the Bible begins with a garden, it ends in a city,” Michael Pasquarello III observes. Our passage’s beautiful and all-encompassing vision of a new heaven and a new earth has a very specific city, the New Jerusalem, at its center. There are scholars (both secular and religious) who portray “the city” as the place of sin and brokenness (as if the pastoral setting is where all goodness resides), but Dana Ferguson depicts urban settings very differently, as places of cooperation, interdependence, and welcome, the place we return home to, and the place “where God lives.” (As a resident of the city of Cleveland, I particularly appreciate that version.)
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 might find a home. 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, loneliness, and exile.
Destruction, loneliness, and exile, alas, were familiar to the Jewish people as well as to the author of Revelation. That’s why he could draw on the words and promises, the dream, of Isaiah and all the prophets who saw Babylon as the oppressive power in their lives, and who held fast to the hope of a new and restored Jerusalem. 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. No wonder that many 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: the power of God at work 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. (It’s intriguing to think that Creation begins with no humans at first, but New Creation is represented in a bright, shining community of people.)
Speaking of women
A note about the way Revelation uses women as images, including a line in this passage, about the New Jerusalem personified as a bride. A number of scholars note that in the ancient world cities (like ships, for example, or even cars today) were seen as feminine, but Revelation as a whole lamentably defines women solely in terms of their sexuality (which is also customary both historically and often, even today). No scholar offers a remedy, and so we encounter the text as it is, and acknowledge that the image of the “whore” of Babylon (Rome) is contrasted to the “bride” that is New Jerusalem.
As we are more and more mindful of the beautiful fragility of our environment, we may find the vision of “a new earth” 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. This “nonbiblical” belief “discounts the value of the earth”: it’s actually the new earth that will be our home, and God’s as well. They note, then, “an earthly quality to the future hope.”
Compassionate creation care
Surely that vision ought to make us more committed to caring for God’s creation not just on Earth Day but every day, including the life of the local congregation (reinterpreting the phrase “having dominion over” to mean “to be responsible for the well-being of,” rather than “lording it over”). Erik Heen reminds us that a compassionate God is deeply concerned about the earth and its welfare, longs for its healing and restoration, and is present with all of creation in its suffering. In this theology, we hear a call for the church to speak and work in partnership with God for that healing and restoration. (It is, of course, a question of stewardship as well.)
We might approach this text in several ways, perhaps focusing on the comfort of knowing — of being reminded — that God holds all of creation at the beginning and at the end, and that even that end is a whole new beginning. It seems to be part of the human condition to long for such a renewed heaven and earth, to know that there is a purpose and plan behind everything, and that the Planner has good intentions for us. In their writings, their music, and their art, great thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and John Lennon have expressed this longing in every age, Carl Holladay observes. Indeed, anyone who sees the suffering of humankind and the degradation of God’s creation, if they have a heart, must long for a whole new world, and must struggle to imagine such a thing.
Words of comfort when we’re hurting
We might also approach the text from a personal point of view, pondering our own mortality and grieving the loss of loved ones who have died. At my mother’s funeral, we read these ancient words and found comfort in them, and in the promise they hold of no more death, no more mourning, tears, or pain. In this passage, we’re reminded that the story isn’t over yet, that there is more to come, and it will be exceedingly beautiful. Perhaps things are difficult here, living between that lovely garden and that shining city, but this text provides a vision of where we’re going, and it nourishes our sometimes feeble religious imaginations, which are often inadequate to the task of picturing what God will do. Michael Pasquarello questions the many so-called 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 part of God’s own dream for all of creation? Can we even imagine such a thing? Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.” If that’s true, what is the call of the church today, to help people see this great dream, and to draw them into participating in it?
A “tale of two cities”
We return to the writing of Marcus Borg for a challenge here, at a time when our nation wrestles not very gracefully with the question of immigration and the plight of refugees. Borg suggests that “Babylon” refers not only to ancient Rome and its oppressive, destructive evils but to every system and institution based in domination and power, and empowered by violence and brute strength. If this text is indeed 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 religion often and lamentably serves to legitimate political and economic injustice, so 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 and refugees.
Our passage from Revelation, then, provides a vision, Borg writes, the “dream of God…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 (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century poet/philospher
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Dante Alighieri, 13th century
“Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.”
Joseph Campbell, 20th century
“The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. Heaven is not the place to have the experience; here is the place to have the experience.”
Vance Havner, 20th century
“If you are a Christian, you are not a citizen of this world trying to get to heaven; you are a citizen of heaven making your way through this world.”
Charles M. Schulz, Charles M. Schulz: Conversations, 20th century
“I think this is irresponsible preaching and very dangerous, and especially when it is slanted toward children, I think it’s totally irresponsible, because I see nothing biblical that points up to our being in the last days, and I just think it’s an outrageous thing to do, and a lot of people are making a living — they’ve been making a living for 2,000 years — preaching that we’re in the last days.”
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“Now comes the mystery!” (last words)
Maria Montessori, 20th century
“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”
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