Notes for a sermon on Rev. 21:1-6
Holy Trinity Edmonton, April 24, 2016
These past two Thursdays mornings, the study group discussed “This Holy Estate,” the report by a commission of the General Synod which seeks to find a theological case for the amendment of the Marriage Canon to permit same-gender weddings. I’m not going to discuss the report here, but one of the report’s questions on which the group spent time was the issue of how Anglicans use scripture. The answer is—to put it very broadly—very broadly!
Even within the group who met this week, we found a wide range of approaches to the Bible. I believe we would be fairly representative of the spectrum of Anglican practice. But even within this spectrum, none of us approached the Bible completely literally. More importantly, I believe, all of us affirmed the value of interpreting it in community.
The question of how to read and interpret Scripture is crucial; not just in the matter of same-gender marriages, but in how we frame the corporate life of the Church. We Anglicans have historically defined ourselves as a liturgical church, not simply because we “do liturgy,” but because our Scripture-filled liturgies express who we are.
Why am I spending time on this? In part because it’s a current topic in the Church’s decision-making, but also because we are in the midst of a series of readings from the Revelation to John, the book of the Bible with the most convoluted and controversial interpretational history.
It has a complex history of usage. It almost didn’t make it into the Bible. In the Orthodox Churches, which never read it in their liturgies, it functions more like an appendix. Some today tend to dismiss it as a historical relic with little relevance today. Other churches find it a rich source, constantly mining it to attempt to read the signs of our times. The central interpretational problem, I believe, is in the book’s use of symbolism, more by far than other book of the Bible.
My view of Revelation: it is a letter to seven churches experiencing oppression under the Roman Empire, probably written in the last decade of the 1st century. It uses coded language and symbols, largely drawn from Ezekiel and Daniel, telling of the tribulations that the churches will face, and exhorting them to stand firm, because, in the end – God will win! The meaning of the symbolism would be clear to anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, but unintelligible to others. Reading its message could be dangerous in the political climate of the time. Perhaps we could think of Revelation as “underground prophecy”.
One thing I am sure it is not is a book of clues about how to read contemporary events. Its roots are in the 1st-century Church, and the actions of “Babylon the Great” (read “Rome”) in the oppression of Christians who refused to bow the knee to Caesar.
For three Sundays we have selections from the book’s final chapters, presenting John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” and the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. There are great battles in the preceding chapters, but now we hear God proclaiming that he will make his dwelling place among humanity, and every tear will be wiped away. It is a vision of everlasting peace and justice, and of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation.
It is not a vision of death and destruction and the ending of time. There is no rapturing of the faithful into heaven, no wiping out of all things. Instead, we see a new creation, where God will reign among his people for ever.
But just what does this mean: a “new” earth?
A family member makes his living as a cabinet maker. He recently posted some job pictures, showing a kitchen before and after his work. It was recognizably the same space, with the same general layout, but it was clearly new – almost unrecognizable. It was the same, but renewed, freshened, given new life. It seems to me that the new creation of which John tells us is much like this: the same, but renewed and given new life and purpose. It recalls stories of resurrection appearances in which Jesus is not recognized at until some cue happens. Remember how Mary Magdalene at the tomb believes Jesus to be the gardener until he calls her by name.
The same but different is an integral part of John’s vision for the age to come.
It is a vision of a redeemed creation. We are perhaps more accustomed to thinking of redemption as pertaining to people, but we should never forget that we human beings a part of creation. We are not independent from this earth, but are radically dependent on it. God’s self-description points to this dependence:
I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the beginning and the end.
The second part could also be translated as “the origin and the fulfillment.” The end (Gk telos) is not a point beyond which nothing else is, but the fulfillment of God’s intentions for this renewed creation. From here on, everything will work together in harmony according to God’s desires—all creation singing God’s praises as the divine purposes are brought to be.
John’s final vision is of the world (creation) as it should be. It is a future vision, to be sure. It might be easy and tempting to dismiss it, but let us please not do that. Let us instead affirm that God will, in God’s own time, restore and redeem creation, and that God’s people will live in peace and justice for ever.
In the meantime—in these times—we are charged not to cede defeat to the powers, but to stand firm in the sure hope of God’s redemption, to work as we are able for the fulfillment of John’s vision, when God makes All Things New.
God’s love wins. That’s the message of Easter. We proclaim it aloud in our gatherings. Let us go forth to proclaim it even more loudly in the world we live in, through all we do and say.