Sermons That Work

We Are Poised Today…, Easter 6 (C) – 2004

May 16, 2004

We are poised today on the threshold of the Ascension, with Pentecost rising on the horizon. The reading from John’s Gospel today reflects that. It is part of the long love-letter that scholars call Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in which Jesus promises his friends that although the time has come for him to depart, he will send them the Holy Spirit to be their advocate and guide. In the structure of the Gospel this long love-letter is like a prelude to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, so it pushes us back before Easter; but in the structure of the church year it is the prelude to Ascension and Pentecost, so it pushes us forward to a place we haven’t yet been. . In either case, whether we are looking backwards or forwards, what matters is that Jesus is about to go away. Everything that his friends and disciples know of him and do in his Name will shortly be done in the absence of their beloved Rabbi, and in the quite different presence of God the Holy Spirit.

The readings play out this dialogue between presence and absence for us. The passage we have from John of Patmos, towards the end of Revelation, points us forward. It shows the end-time vision of what the completion and fulfillment of God’s design for the human community will look like. He sees “a new heaven and a new earth,” [Rev. 21:1] and then gives us a quick tour of the holy city, the new Jerusalem [Rev.21:10 – 22:5 ff.] Because of the victory of Christ the Paschal Lamb, the whole creation is renewed and transformed by the glory of God. Conspicuously absent from his short but detailed picture of the New Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22 is the great Temple. “I saw no temple in this city,” he says. God the Father and Christ the Lamb are the Temple in this end-time vision. Equally conspicuous is the absence of sunlight and moonlight, because God is himself the light of the inhabitants. And there is also the notable detail that the gates of the city—which, historically, served to defend inhabitants from enemies and evil-doers—now stand forever open. In the victory of Christ on the cross over the powers of evil, sin, and death, the new Jerusalem has no enemies to defend against.

For those of us who live in unholy cities pervaded by evil, sin, and death, vulnerable to the invasions of terrorists, this is a glorious imagining of a complete and perfect safety—a safety guaranteed not by walls and gates and “homeland security,” but by the full reality of the presence of God in Christ.

In the ancient, historical city of Jerusalem, the Temple signified the core identity of the place and its inhabitants. It is perhaps too easy for us to overlook the full meaning of that Temple; if we deal with it at all in our Bible studies and sermons, it is usually to talk about the religious system of sacrificial offerings, or the political importance of its priesthood. We tend to forget the huge importance of the interior structure, the “holy of holies,” and of what Rowan Williams 1 calls “the great speaking absence” above the Ark of the Covenant. This space, which was empty, honoring Israel’s repudiation of idols, was a powerful sign of the presence of the God of Israel according to the promise given in the priestly Covenant tradition. God had promised to be present with his people, but they were to have no statues, icons, idols, or paintings to indicate that; just an empty space marking the uncontainable freedom and mercy of their God who makes himself graciously present.

In the vision of John of Patmos, the great speaking absence is the absence of the Temple itself. What God has done in the cross and resurrection of Jesus is to open up the interior “empty space” of divine presence to the whole city. In the new heaven and the new earth the promised space and place of God’s presence is everywhere, among the whole population of the city, throughout all its common life. God makes himself open and unprotected among the blessed inhabitants of Zion, just as his Son was open, unprotected, and vulnerable among the people of Galilee and Jerusalem on earth.

And, in his Gospel love-letter, John the Evangelist gives us in an entirely different way, a comparable picture of Jesus. Jesus speaks of his absence and departure but promises his disciples the gift of the Spirit. His absence will leave an empty space in their lives, but this space—like the inner sanctum of the old Temple—will be filled with the divine presence, as the Spirit will show them. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” [John 14:23] And just as John of Patmos envisions God’s open and unprotected presence throughout the city as the source of the city’s safety, so John the Evangelist sees the presence of Jesus and his Father through the work of the Spirit as the source of peace for his disciples. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” [John 14:27] Underneath both pictures, of course, is the incomparable richness of the Hebrew word shalom, resonant with the multiple meanings of peace, safety, fulfillment, and joy.

These are two wonderful pictures of what our lives will be as we grow into the fullness of Christ. It is the promise of a new kind of holiness, peace, and safety coming into our lives. The third reading today, Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14, underlines this in a way that is quite humorous. We can imagine that the two apostles are indeed full of shalom: they have come in peace to the city of Lystra, filled with the joy of the Spirit. A crippled man who has never before walked in his life, is healed by the activity of God who has made his home in them. The watching crowds recognize this, but they do not yet know who this God is. They respond in what is, for them, an entirely appropriate way: they assume Paul and Barnabas are incarnations of Zeus and Hermes, and they are ready with the ox-cart and garlands to parade the apostles around as gods… But in the very next paragraph, we discover just how vulnerable and unprotected Paul and Barnabas are: they get run out of town and stoned almost to death. It doesn’t look peaceful or safe for them. Yet as their story unfolds, we find people taking care of them, sheltering and healing them, and they pick up and carry on to the next town. Peace and safety, like holiness itself, is a different sort of thing now that God is at home in the world.

Lystra was not, and our own cities are not, the vision of the end-time City of God that John of Patmos saw. The new heaven and the new earth have not yet come into the fullness of peace and safety on this warring planet. But the Spirit brings Jesus and his Father to live with us now, even as it did with Paul and Barnabas then. Entering into Christ’s risen life means that as we grow in all the characteristics of God’s life—in love, compassion, mercy, justice, forgiveness, wisdom, honesty, faithfulness, and generosity—we too will catch glimpses of a peace and safety that passes all understanding, we will know intuitive flashes of truth and experience moments of joy when the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the hungry eat, the widows and orphans are cared for with dignity, and reconciliation comes, like resurrection itself, in fragments of historical time. It all depends on how vulnerable and open to God we are, whether we determine to hold on to the vision of a city transformed, and whether we know that our lives, in community, are the living Temple of God’s presence in a broken world.

1 “Holy Space,” in A Ray Of Darkness, (Cowley Publications, 1995) pp. 85-87

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Christopher Sikkema


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