The Gospel of GothamMay 16, 2004, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Sixth Sunday in Easter
Gotham--it is my favorite name for this wonderful, sometimes crazy, mixed up and always challenging city. Shortly after I had been called here in 1992, a well known pastor in this city wrote me a note of congratulations and welcome saying, "Welcome to Gotham--the adrenaline capital of the world." Those of us who live here and love it--warts and all--know precisely what he was saying. This city has everything, both good and bad, the beautiful and the vile--it is Gotham, the city of all cities. That is what today's lesson from the Book of Revelation is about--the city of all cities. But it is unlike any city you or I can imagine. It is the city of God, the new Jerusalem, the city of God's peace; it is God's Gotham.
As the pastor of a city church, I have always taken great comfort and pleasure in knowing that, though the Bible begins in a pristine garden called Paradise it ends in a city that includes that garden. But God's Gotham is very different than the Gothams of our day. The new has broken in--a new heaven and earth coming down out of heaven from God--with the sea, that ancient symbol of chaos, no more. Chaos is gone in God's Gotham. Can you imagine this city--any city--without chaos, without Byzantine structures of bureaucracy, without the din of special interests wrestling for political control? Not so in God's Gotham: "the sea is no more."1 Yet, there is continuity between this new heaven and earth and the old. As one commentator has pointed out, the text does not say "Behold, I make all new things." Rather, it says, "See, I am making all things new."2 It is not that the saints of God are snatched up into heaven, as the Left Behind series so falsely predicts, so that an evil world can be destroyed and a whole new cosmos fashioned. Rather, God, who is the maker of both heaven and earth, who loves the world with an everlasting love, has come to redeem the old, to destroy the evil infecting this good world and make it new.
Even now, God is making all things new and beyond the ultimate reach of that deadly infection. That act of redemption began on Good Friday; it was declared with all its glory by an empty tomb three days later. It was seen by Jesus' disciples as they encountered him crucified but risen, and has continued to be at work in and among Jesus' people ever since. All this goes on daily while the cosmos continues to move to its Omega Point. What was begun in the empty tomb, God's work of redemption, transformation and restoration, is taking place in human lives right now. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: "If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, the old is gone, the new has come."3 This is not our doing. It doesn't happen as a matter of our will or our discipline--even our spiritual disciplines. It is God who brings this to be, the new creation in you and me, "coming down," if you will, "out of heaven from God."4
So it is too for the holy city; the new Jerusalem is not our doing. Regardless of how hard we work in this city for justice, mercy, compassion and peace--and, as God's people we are called to do precisely that--we must always remember that the work is God's doing. We can protest. We can witness. We can speak out against injustice in all its forms, lending our lives and resources to that cause, but the work is always God's. The fallacy of the old social gospel movement of the early 20th century, of which this congregation was a leader, was its unsustainable notion of moral progress. That collapsed under the weight of the horrors of World War I, as Christians took up rifle, gun, airplane and chemical weapons against one another in service to a higher loyalty--their nation. It further collapsed under the depression. But the notion reemerged in the liberal mainline Protestant churches following the euphoria of what we called an American victory in World War II, with the emergence of the phrase "The Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man," itself insensitive to the chauvinism of its language usage. In this country, we spoke of the American Century,5 convinced not only of the ultimate triumph of progress, but of our own moral superiority, portraying ourselves as the model of government and human rights for the rest of the world. That too has suddenly collapsed.
For most in this country, it has been within the last two weeks, as images-- of what the old Adam can cause us to do to one another when we forget who we are--have been portrayed across newspapers and television screens. For others of us--African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and especially those of us who, in the military during the Viet Nam War, were taught what to expect in the way of interrogation should we be captured--I must tell you we have seen nothing new. In Survival School and its prisoner of war training camp, I and my fellow trainees were subjected to the stress postures, the physical humiliations, the sleep deprivations and other forms of psychological torture thought to walk a thin but conforming line to the Geneva convention, the very treatment we have all been reading about. The difference is, we knew they would not physically harm us--they had too much invested in us--and it only lasted twenty-four hours, for they knew that any longer a period of such treatment would do serious if not permanent damage. So this is not new or a surprise to me. What is new is that, whereas we were taught to expect such treatment from our enemies, we have gone over to the enemy's side. It is as Senator John McCain--who knows more about this than any of us--has said, we have suddenly adopted the behavior of those we saw as the enemy.6 Abandoning principle for pragmatism, faith for a practical real-politic, we allow the end to justify the means and end up adopting the practices of those we seek to defeat. And so we now discover ourselves being disabused of our notions of moral superiority, though our politicians desperately try to recoup it. Someone said to me that we had lost the moral high ground in this. No, we did not lose it; we abandoned it. That is what happens when the lordship of the nation takes priority over the lordship of Christ--we trust other means than those that lead to God's ends.
But the gospel of Gotham proclaims an alternative. God has acted, and is acting, to make all things new. You and I can make a conscious choice about the city in which we live--a Gotham of this world or the Gotham of God. For whenever and wherever you and I follow Jesus Christ in acts of obedience, God's Gotham breaks in, God's reign "comes down out of heaven," and is present, for God is present. This is why there is no temple in God's Gotham; there simply is no need for one. We no longer need a church, synagogue, mosque or temple in which to seek God's presence. God has become all in all and is known by all "face to face."
Jesus had predicted the destruction of the temple, saying that in three days it would be replaced by his risen body.7 This is precisely what our lesson today reveals. There is no need for a temple in God's Gotham because God is not only present to, but present in all who dwell there. Now, as I said several weeks ago, if you read the book of Revelation only as prophecy about the future, you are not only frequently frightened rather than comforted by what you read there, but are also quickly spiritually malnourished and poverty stricken. But read it as a revelation, a description of what is doing among us now, and you discover enormous hope. For you and I are already temples of the Holy Spirit. You and I have already been marked with God's name on our foreheads. God is already dwelling in us.
As we baptize Mac this morning, we will wash him into the citizenship of God's Gotham. We will say "Mac, you are a child of the covenant, marked as Christ's own forever." And he will not only join us on the life-long journey to the new Jerusalem, but will also discover himself a dwelling place of God in this world until that final city descends from God. There is no longer a need for temple nor priest to mediate to us the presence of God, because in the waters of baptism you and I have put on Christ, we have been invaded by God's presence, given the Spirit, and been made into a priesthood of believers called to live and walk by the light of God among the people as God continues to be at work to redeem them.
Did you notice who those people are? They are not just Christians. The city is not just for a "faithful few," but is incomprehensibly large8 and astoundingly inclusive--the nations and kings of the earth are present. They have finally learned to walk by the light of God's presence, rather than the light of their ethnocentric, chauvinistic, nationalistic agenda. All of that has been set aside to serve God rather than themselves or their nation. It is finally a city worthy of the motto on our currency--"In God We Trust"--a city less interested in pleading for the blessing of God than in working to worship and serve God. The nations in this new Jerusalem, this new city of God's peace, will finally walk by the light of God and that light will be always present--day and night--in order that they can conduct their affairs illumined by God's light.9
This is a city of eternal welcome; its doors are never closed. The nations and their just rulers shall enter and be welcome. The only ones barred from the city's precincts are those who have willfully chosen to serve evil and its purposes. "Nothing unclean will enter through those gates, nor anyone who practices idolatry, or who lies." Notice the insistence on moral purity--not just sexual purity, but all of those areas of idolatry that draw us away from our singular devotion and obedience to God and God's ways. The Gospel of Gotham declares that the tools of evil that have seduced, infected and corrupted creation are eternally barred from the city.10 They will never again be our tempter or nemesis. We will have entered into that third stage of human existence that John Calvin described as sinner redeemed, never ever again able to sin.11 Those who live in this city are they whose names have been found written in the Lamb's book of life. And notice, they come from every tribe and nation under heaven.
The ancient problem of nation against nation is solved. For that tree that was in the midst of the garden--the tree of life--is now an entire grove of trees. Envision the long line of trees of life, planted on either side of the river that flows from the throne of God--the river of the water of life. The leaf of these trees is for the healing of nations. The carnage of warfare has become ancient history. And notice, each tree has twelve kinds of fruit. Unlike other fruit trees, this one is never out of season, but produces fruit necessary for every season of life. There is no want in this city.
Is this revelation only a future promise, or is it as I have suggested, also a vision of the power of God at work in those who live in this world by faith, who trust not only in the grace of God, but the power of God to be present in our moments of faithfulness? Jesus says, in this morning's gospel lesson, "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."12 He then promises the gift of God's Spirit as advocate, teacher and guide--the light of God's presence for our decision making, the power of God's presence to live into God's ways, here and now. This is not only the Gospel of God's Gotham, it is the gospel for all who live in the Gothams of today. In the admixture of good and evil, truth and falsehood, beauty and baseness, we who bear God's name on our foreheads are called to live in this city as citizens of the heavenly city, living into the garment of Christ in which we have been clothed, bearing witness to his power to make all things new--even the most broken, corrupt and despised--entrusting ourselves to the work of God's Spirit, who promises to give us power and bring us comfort and peace.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- Revelation 21:1
- M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), fn 21:1-22:5, p. 2239
- 2 Corinthians 75:17. The translation is my own, and avoids the difficulty of the NRSV "everything has become new" for, in fact, it has not, as anyone who struggles to live in this new reality in Christ well knows--the old Adam is still very present in us. But the new--the power of Christ--is present to lead us into the new.
- Revelation 21:2
- The phrase was actually coined by one of our trustees, Henry Robinson Luce II, publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines.
- This is what I have been trying to say to us about the war as the devil's game: those who play it end up being co-opted by it, finding themselves doing the devil's bidding.
- John 2:19f; 4:21
- John 21:16f
- Beverly R. Gaventa, et al., Texts for Preaching--Year C, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 318
- In fact, they have already been destroyed in the lake of fire, along with the devil, the beast, the false prophet, death and hell. Rev. 20:7-10, 13-15
- Calvin spoke of three stages of human life: before the fall, innocent yet able to sin; after the fall, guilty, unable not to sin; and after the consummation, guilty but pardoned (forgiven) unable ever to sin again.
- John 14:23
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