Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 24 April 2016
Preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
5 EASTER, 2016 HIGH MASS
Readings: Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-38
After mass last Sunday a worshipper thanked me for including the Book of Revelation in my sermon: the Church is reading extracts from it instead of the epistle during this Eastertide. Last Sunday’s passage gave a picture of the worship of heaven which embraced people from every nation together with heavenly creatures in adoration of God and the Lamb. It focused, too, on the martyrs, clothed in white robes and holding palm branches.
This morning, we have heard a passage from the closing section of the book: the vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
With its message of hope and comfort in the face of death, this is a passage often read at funerals:
Behold, the dwelling of God is among men.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things had passed away.
In that brief conversation at the church gate, we touched on the fact that without hymns inspired by the Book of Revelation, the New English Hymnal would be a much slimmer volume. The architecture, iconography and worship of this church would be much the poorer too.
None of this is to deny that the Book of Revelation has dark passages which present us with real problems. With its Four Horsemen bringing war, famine, pestilence and death, Armageddon and the destruction of Babylon, (a thinly disguised portrait of imperial Rome), it is strong stuff and not for the faint-hearted.
Its bewildering imagery and timescales, have made it a happy-hunting ground for those who have sought in it a timetable for the end of the world. Some have looked forward eagerly to conflict in the Middle East and even nuclear war as the signs of the coming of the kingdom. So, It is important that we see that the only things destroyed in Revelation are those which are themselves dedicated to the destruction of others.
We tend to see heaven and earth as separate and very different. This clear distinction between the eternal realm and an imperfect earth, is not how Revelation sees things. Far from being separate realities, heaven and earth have an open door between them in the present age. This is clearest in the liturgy of the church on earth. In its worship, the Church participates in the high liturgy of heaven before the divine throne (4.6b-11; 7.9-10).
What distinguishes the new heaven and new earth from the old? Why is it necessary for God to create anew? At the beginning of today’s passage, we are given a hint: “The sea was no more.” This is not the ordinary sea but the primordial chaos of Genesis, out of which evil (Leviathan: the dragon) continually threatens to undo the goodness of God’s creation (e.g. Psalm 74.13-14; Isa. 27.1).
Here, in the last book of the canon of scripture, the ancient story of creation in the first book returns. The ending of all is prefigured in the beginning of all. Like Paul’s notion that through our baptism into Christ (the new Adam) the old Adam is destroyed so that we might enjoy the “newness of life” (Rom. 6.4; cf. 1 Cor .15.21-22), so, too, the Apocalypse returns to Genesis to indicate how in Christ all of creation, that creation which God had declared to be good, has been radically renewed (cf. Rom, 8.18-23)
Until now, the sea for Revelation. has been the site of intense struggle between God and Satan. Its disruptive influence extends into heaven itself, as the sea of glass before the throne of God ; a sea subdued, but still potentially destructive. In the first heaven, then, the saints enjoy no more than a foretaste of the end. Even in heaven, the kingdom of God and of the Lamb – though already present – is not yet fully realized. Only after God’s word spoken anew brings about the creation of the new heaven and the new earth is the threat of evil removed from the very heart of heaven itself.
Revelation’s use of Genesis shows that earth, creation, has been and will continue to be the focus of God’s ultimate concern. One of the misuses of the Book of Revelation, propagated by a brand of fundamentalist Christianity, has been to say that we need not care for the environment, because it is will be destroyed shortly. Those who are to be saved, among whom the proponents of this view clearly number themselves, will be swept up to heaven in what is known as the “rapture.” This has been convenient for those who profit from exploitation of the world’s resources with no thought for the morrow. The dominion over the creation entrusted to us is one of care and stewardship, not of the rapacious exploitation symbolized by Babylon.
It is important to recognize how God desires the healing of all creation. The atonement brought about through the death of Jesus – and the power for reconciliation that flows from it – is intended by God to extend through a restored humanity to all creation. As the vision of the new creation continues to unfold in Revelation, the distinction between heaven and earth falls away. Heaven descends to earth, radically renewing it (21.2). in the process, all life on earth is restored to God’s intent for it.
Heaven and earth are not the only things to be renewed. Revelation echoes Isaiah in linking the new heavens and new earth with the re-creation of Jerusalem (Isaiah 65.17-18). This is not a totally new city, but one renewed and purged of anything that might threaten its purity.
This city is seen “descending out of heaven from God.” In contrast to proud human attempts to build the tower of Babel up to heaven, this city is God’s gift. Humanity cannot create it of itself; its architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11.10).
Nevertheless, it is not unrelated to human efforts to prepare for it and live the principles on which it is built. The bride’s shining clothing is made up of the righteous deeds of the saints (19.8); those who have sought to obey the Lord’s new commandment in today’s Gospel: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, of you have love for one another.
The voice from the throne, evoking Isaiah and Ezekiel, tells what the descent of the new Jerusalem means for humanity. It obliterates the one division in creation remaining now that the chaotic sea has disappeared: the division between heaven and earth, God and humanity. God’s tabernacle, that heavenly location of the divine Presence, which the wandering people of God approached through their earthly tabernacle, is now among human beings. From now on, God will pitch his tent with them; a statement of God’s ultimate presence which echoes the beginning of John’s Gospel, in which the Word made flesh pitches his tent among us. They will be his peoples and he will be their God.
That is the truth which Peter is brought to recognize in his vision of the great sheet let down from heaven filled with all sorts of creatures – not a vegetarian-friendly dream, I’m afraid – and in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household.
As a reminder that the beast’s days are over and that Babylon no longer holds sway, Isaiah’s promise of the final banquet is also evoked: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or grief, no more crying or pain.” The judgement of Babylon had brought grief and weeping. The plagues inflicted on those associated with the monster brought pain and death held sway. But now, in the holy city such tragedy belongs to the former things, the old order which has now given way to God’s new one.
The voice from the throne confirms what has already been said: I am making all things new. These words, which echo Isaiah 43, 19, and which are trustworthy and true, speak of the renewal of all things rather than their replacement.
God reveals himself as the Alpha and the O, the beginning and the end; the God through whom order was brought out of chaos in the first creation is also the one who see his plan to its completion.
In this new creation, the thirsty are given permission to drink without charge from the spring of the water of life. This is the promise first made in Isaiah (55.1-5) which draws upon the imagery of water as both literally and symbolically life-giving. It contrasts with the earth dominated by the beast, where people are forced to buy and sell in an idolatrous economic system, the new creation offers the fullness of life without charge.
The other evening, a group of American visitors came to mass. After the service, I gave them a talk about the church. One of the things, I like to point out when I am in tour guide mode, is the fossils to be found in the marble steps of the font, the chancel and the altar. And here in the pulpit too. At the time when this church was built was one of intense controversy generated by scientific discoveries about the age of the universe and the way creatures had evolved, which called into question accepted understandings. I like to think that in including these fossils in God’s house, Butterfield was making a quiet statement that, however old they were, God had made them, so they had a place in his house as a symbol of a creation renewed.
The Alpha and Omega of the One who is the beginning and the end are on the chancel arch of this church above us. Beyond them, Christ sits enthroned in majesty above the altar and the tabernacle of his sacramental presence with his people hangs above it. In the Eucharist a door is opened in heaven and we are drawn into its worship. In worship and work, we are called by the One whose words and trustworthy and true to share in heaven and earth being made new; transformed and transfigured by love.