Sermon For Sunday, April 28, 2013

Revelation 21:1-6

“Why Wait? Rehearsing The Beloved Community”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ)

www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, pastor & preacher

To watch this sermon videocast, go to: http://youtu.be/zlKyKy-OTQ0

As the New Visioning Team gets deeper and deeper into looking at the current state of our congregation and the community around it, we have been doing a lot of reading as to the nature, purpose, and viability of the church in the 21st century, as well as what it means to be community.  So when today’s scripture was presented to the worship planning group as one of the options of the lectionary, I jumped on it.  Well… that’s not being honest.  I actually threw up my hands in bewilderment and Richard jumped on it.

The Vision of Saint John, Dyson Perrins Apocalypse, Unknown English, 1255. Getty Museum.

The Vision of Saint John, Dyson Perrins Apocalypse, Unknown English, 1255. Getty Museum.

But once he lifted up Revelation 21 I began to see in it a great image of what we are ultimately seeking in our long-range, strategic planning process.  It’s like looking at the last page of a very long novel and reading how it ends.  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I saw the holy city… coming down out of heaven from God… And I heard a… voice.. saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. [God] will dwell with them, they will be [God’s} peoples, and [God’s very self] will be with them… See, I am making all things new.’”

WOW!!! What an incredible image of how things turn out!!!  It really presents us with a reassuring and empowering understanding of the goal of human existence.  And there are several facets of this vision that, knowing a bit about the circumstances of it’s writing, help to make it even more amazing for us today.

The first thing to note is that in this final and decisive picture of the end of times we must acknowledge the directional preferences of the divine.  Much has been made since “millennialism” burst onto the theological scene in the late 19th century about the rapture, that is, those who are faithful being “taken up” into heaven.(1)  And there is solid biblical ground for some of this directional preference.  But clearly, unmistakably, and thankfully (in my humble opinion) this description of paradise has it “coming down out of heaven.”  There is a crucial decision at this end-point for God to come down and dwell with us, be present with us.  This one scripture radically transforms my understanding of heaven.

Biblical Scholar Barbara Rossing reminds us that,

“Belief in a heavenly Jerusalem was widespread in biblical times (see Galatians 4:26, “Jerusalem above . . . is our mother”).  What is so striking in Revelation — unlike any other Jewish apocalypse — is that this heavenly city descends from heaven down to earth.” (2)

There is a new direction to God’s gift of presence and grace. (See also 3)

Cleveland Skyline by Allen V. Harris

Cleveland Skyline by Allen V. Harris

The second thing to notice is that the final place for God to dwell with us is in a city.  Now, if you know me at all you know me to have a penchant for all things urban.  I acknowledge – and gladly so – that the city does not have a corner on all things divine.  God is as present in rural locales as much as suburban, exurban, and urban settings.  Period.  End of discussion.  But we also note that biblically there is an ongoing dialogue about rural and urban spirituality.  Some say that here, in Revelation 21, there is a final resolution to the conflict first noted in the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, seen as the earliest city gone bad, with a sense of relief and grace being offered to urban dwellers in the “Holy City” come down in Revelation.

Again, Rossing brings a wondrous historical context to this:

The vision of the city with the gleaming golden streets and pearly gates, where death and tears are no more, has given form and voice to the dreams of God’s people through the ages.  African-American spirituals and gospel songs invoke imagery of the golden holy city and its river of life.  From Augustine’s “City of God” through William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” Revelation’s holy city has promised life and healing, reconciliation and justice. (4)

The Augustus of Prima Porta (early 1st century AD)

The Augustus of Prima Porta (early 1st century AD)

The third thing to notice is that there is a new and very different way we mortals will interact with one another here, but not just on an interpersonal level, but systemically.  One of the most critical facets of the book of Revelation that gets lost in the vast majority of commentaries, novels, and movies that are made about this vision is the direct and scathing rebuttal it makes to the Roman Empire, and thus to all the empires of this world.  Revelation is far more about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely (to quote Lord Acton) than it is about a hyper-individualistic sense of sin and immorality that is so often touted.

Rossing notes this exceptionally well:

The repeated phrase “no more” (ouk eti) in Revelation 21:1 and 21:4 underscores all the ways God’s mystical city of beauty is the very opposite of the toxic city of Babylon/Rome (Revelation 17-18).  Mourning, pain and death — all found in Babylon — come to an end in God’s holy city.  John’s declaration that “the sea was no more” in 21:1 does not mean he is anti-ocean.  The Mediterranean Sea was the location of Rome’s unjust trade, including slave trade condemned in the cargo list of Revelation 18:12-13.  In the political economy of God’s New Jerusalem there will be no more sea-trade. (5)

My favorite scholar, Walter Brueggemann, makes the point that the entirety of scripture is a stinging criticism of the injustice all empires end up generating and the complacency to which almost all the citizens of those empires end up submitting.

So if we are willing to allow that Revelation 21 offers a new direction (God coming down to dwell with us), a new location (God redeeming the city from chaos to peace), as well as a new way of interaction (God demanding justice) then what does this really mean for us, for, after all, isn’t this a long, long way off?  Aren’t we talking about the ultimate end of existence and not just our own personal demise?

Well, this is where our New Visioning Team efforts come in.  What if we didn’t have to wait until the end of time to live in the “holy city?”  What if the reason this vision was given to John on the Isle of Patmos wasn’t so that we could spend our lives trashing this earth and treating each other like the enemy, but rather to give us the model upon which we should be basing our lives in the here and now!

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

Dr. Jacqui Lewis is Senior Minister of Middle Collegiate Church, a multicultural, multiracial congregation in New York City’s East Village where I spent part of my sabbatical time five years ago.  She talks about this in theatrical terms, of us “rehearsing the reign of God.”  She talks about it in terms of the hard work it takes to be a multiracial and multicultural congregation, but I think she would easily transfer that to the demanding effort it takes to be an Open & Affirming, accessible, and economically diverse congregation, also.  She preaches,

“It is work!  But, if the church does not rehearse the Reign of God in our congregations, who will?  If those of us who say we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength do not celebrate God’s creation in all of its diversity, who will?” (6)

This, then, is our job as individual people of faith in a world in need of a new way of doing things, and this is our job as Franklin Circle Christian Church as we envision a renewed future for this historic and faithful church on Cleveland’s Near West Side.  We are to rehearse the reign of God as envisioned in Revelation 21 as if it were here now!  We are to rehearse like God has taken up residence right here, right now!  We are to rehearse like this city is the very city of God where every tear is wiped from our eyes and death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more right here, right now!  We are to rehearse like the powers and principalities and empires of this world have no say and every child is a child of God and treated as such right here, right now!

And I will conclude as Dr. Lewis concludes,

“If not us, who?  If not now, when?  Every time we embrace the other, every time we join together in our differences, we witness to God’s goodness… The Reign of God breaks in as we rehearse it, one relationship at a time, one church at a time, one community at a time.”

May It Be So!  Amen!

(1) For a really helpful article on “The Rapture,” go online to: http://christianity.about.com/od/faqhelpdesk/a/whatisrapture.htm

(2) Commentary, Revelation 21:1-6, Barbara Rossing, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013. Online at:

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1696

(3) Please read also a marvelous reflection on this text, “Heaven is Descent” by Clint Schnekloth, The Hardest Question, 2013. “It condescends by descending to us.”  At http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter5cnt/

(4) Rossing

(5) Ibid

(6) On Earth as It is in Heaven: Rehearsing the Reign of God 
by Jacqui Lewis, Program 5116
First air date February 3, 2008.  Found online at

http://www.csec.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/148-jacqui-lewis-program-5116

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