Sermon; Easter 6C; John 14:23-29, Rev. 21:10, 22 - 22:5
We are coming to the end of the Easter season. While we still have two more weeks, this is the last Sunday (and the last few days) with the resurrected Christ physically present on earth. This Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension where we recognize and celebrate the Son's return to the Father. So even though our time with Jesus on earth is coming to a close, we are looking forward to our own eternal time with God.
What might this look like, this eternal time with God? Jesus gives us an indication in today's gospel.
First and foremost remember, it's about love. If you claim to love Jesus, then you will keep his word. That word, basically, is to love others as he has loved us. By doing that we are upholding our end of the covenant and God the Father will love them that love others. And not only love them, but the Father and Son will make their home with them. This is an image and promise that God will dwell here with us.
Jesus reinforces this image when he says that he is going away and coming to you. He is looking forward to both his Ascension and his return. When that happens – that is, after he ascends to the Godhead and after he makes his return – the kingdom will then be realized and fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven.
All of this is reiterated in the reading from Revelation today.
John has a vision of the holy city. This is the city of peace, the city of God. The radiance of the glory of God is its light. He notes that its gates will never be shut by day, but also that there is no night. Nations and people will enter it.
Note, though, that those nations and people, the people of God, are not taken up into the city. They are not taken up into heaven. Instead it is the holy city of God that comes down to us. As in the gospel when the kingdom of God is realized/fulfilled when the Son and Father make their home with us, Revelation puts forth the same idea that the kingdom of God will be realized as the holy city of Jerusalem comes down to earth from heaven. This is the ultimate manifestation of “on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is the vision given to John of the end of the age.
If we are going to look forward to the end, though, we should probably also look back to the beginning. Think back to the beginning when God planted a garden. In that garden was the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was from the tree of knowledge that Adam and Eve ate. If you remember the ending of that story, God was worried that they would also eat from the tree of life and live forever, so they were expelled. God then protected the garden with cherubim and a flaming sword.
And now we have a vision of the end of the age. We have Jesus telling us that he and the Father will come live with us. We have a vision of the holy city of God coming down from heaven to be on earth. And within that city is the tree of life. That which was barred from us in the beginning is now made available to us at the end.
This tree of life produces a different fruit each month, and its leaves are leaves of healing. In other words, this tree will never lie fallow. This tree will produce nourishing fruit for ever and it will heal all.
These are all nice images: Father and Son coming to dwell with us and the holy city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven with its tree of life, food, and healing leaves. But is there more to this than simply a nice, peaceful image? I think there is.
Part of what we try to do with scripture is to make it relevant in our lives today. Scripture is not merely static words written on a page reflecting what life was like thousands of years ago. That's called a history book. Scripture is the living story of the relationship between humanity and God. It's the living word of God that tells the story of how we today are trying to live into a faithful relationship with God. So we need to constantly ask, “What does this story mean or look like for us today?”
With that in mind, what does this vision from Revelation look like for us today?
This vision of the holy city with the tree of life, its twelve kinds of fruit, and its healing leaves is also a vision of the holy Church.
There are a few places in scripture where both Peter and Paul reference the cross as a tree. It is that tree, the cross, in which we are given life. Christ crucified, died, and risen is the tree of life through which our hope rests. And that hope, that life, is found here, in the community of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
The tree produces a different fruit each month. John didn't specifically say it, but it is that fruit which nourishes and feeds the people of the holy city. As I pointed out earlier, this tree never lies fallow; it produces fruit year-round to nourish the people.
In the Church we are also recipients of year-round nourishment. While not exactly a one-to-one comparison, we have fruit produced every season for our nourishment. These seasons are Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the Season after Pentecost. In their own way they nourish us throughout the year. And the life giving body that is the Church never lies fallow.
The leaves that are for healing are often seen as the words of Christ or the pages of scripture. It is here, in the church, where we most often break open, dig into, and examine scripture; hopefully to our benefit and for our healing. And, because I'm an Episcopalian, this can also refer to the pages of the BCP. The words and prayers in that book have often helped heal many people over time.
Revelation gives us a vision of the holy city of God coming to earth. We don't need to wait for some future time in the sweet by-and-by to see its presence, for it is present in the here and now in the form of the holy Church.
As we come to the end of the Easter season, may we come to see this place as a place of life. May we come to see this place as a place of nourishment. May we come to see this place as a place of healing. And the more we strive to live lives that emulate the love of Christ, the more this place will indeed reflect the holy city of God, providing year-round nourishment and healing.