If I’m honest, I wish I could have spent more time preparing this. I think I could have distilled my thoughts better. However, this is the best I could do in the time available. I hope it helps you and others.
So, it’s Church Anniversary today – a time when it’s natural to look back with thankfulness to God for his faithfulness in the past. As the hymn says,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
But sometimes looking back degenerates from gratitude to complaint. In one of my previous churches, one woman had a regular refrain in her conversation. It was about the time when the Sunday School had a hundred children, and it was run by a particular man who must have been a strong personality. It felt like it was my fault when the only children present at Junior Church were my own two children.
So there is a healthy looking back and an unhealthy looking back. What we often forget to do on occasions like this is look forward. It may be that in times of declining and aging church congregations we find it easier to opt for the warm duvet of nostalgia, because we think that if we look forward we might not see a church.
But the hymn doesn’t just say, ‘We’ll praise him for all that is past’, it also says, ‘And trust him for all that’s to come.’ How can we look forward with hope for the church? I believe we can do that by feasting our eyes on God’s vision for the future of the church, and letting that future destination affect the way we are church today.
Our reading from Revelation does just that. In the picture language of that book, its vision of the Holy City gives us images of God’s perfected new society in his new creation. This is where we are going! So let us use this future vision to check where we are now and look at the direction we are taking.
Just to give you extra value I am going to pick out six elements of the Holy City, the new Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean a double-length sermon, but I hope it does mean we get a rounded picture of the community of which we are a part, and of which we shall be a part.
Firstly, let us look at the gates.
It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites (21:12).
Angels and the twelve tribes. Let’s take the angels first. When do we first hear of angels at the gates? Is it not when the first humans are expelled from Eden, and an angelic guard is set at the gate of the garden to prevent further access? But what about here? The great story of God and humankind that begins in a garden ends in this city, and angels are at the gates again. However, this time it cannot be to keep all comers out. They might be there to keep certain people out, but they are definitely not on guard duty to keep all and sundry out of the new Jerusalem. For the power of sin which led to that initial expulsion of the first humans from Eden has now been reversed. The curse has been neutralised. Now there is only blessing for those who will walk with the Son of God. Where sin broke relationships between humans and God, between humans and each other, between humans and creation and even within humans themselves, all that is now healed and restored. Eden is back, but with such a large community it can no longer be a mere garden. Now it is a city.
And note that word ‘community’. It is no accident that ‘the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites’ are on the twelve gates. For what God has done in his project of salvation is to take fractured relationships and build a new, healed community by his grace. Salvation has never been just something that individuals receive. It has always been about reconciliation, not only with God but also with each other. We express this by working on our relationships, to make sure we are at one with each other. We speak the truth in love. We build each other up. We forgive one another. We share The Peace as a sign of this.
Secondly, we have the foundations.
And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (21:14)
The twelve apostles then locate this redeemed community specifically around Jesus. They are ‘the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ – the Lamb of God, Jesus. It is not just any group: it is a body of people united as disciples of Jesus. He it is who brought God’s work with Israel to a climax. The twelve apostles witness to this, since a requirement of apostleship at the beginning of the church was to be a witness to the Resurrection.
So here is what our community life is centred on: the birth, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. The church is the gathering that sits forgiven and forgiving at the Cross. We rejoice in new hope at the empty tomb. By the power of the Holy Spirit we seek to imitate Jesus together.
Now if that’s true, what does it do to our priorities? Much as we need to discuss property and finance, the heart of our conversation and action together should surely be centred on Jesus himself. We find it easier to talk about the weather or our aches and pains. Some of us don’t read our Bibles from one Sunday to another, and along with other signs of lukewarm behaviour it’s no wonder our churches are not magnetic to those interested in spiritual questions.
There can be all sorts of reasons why this is so. But perhaps it therefore becomes us to have a conversation about why we struggle to make Jesus explicitly central to our church life – let alone the rest of life. There is no foundation other than the New Testament Gospel of Jesus Christ for the church. From her beginning through eternity it is the basis of her existence. We need to be renewed in that Gospel.
Thirdly, we look at the walls. We have a vivid description of the holy city’s walls being made out of previous stones and metals (21:18-21). No expense has been spared in making the new Jerusalem a place of dazzling beauty.
God is intent on making his new community beautiful. He expects the church to become stunningly attractive, if at the same time also perhaps terrifyingly so. At the cost of the Cross, he has not only seen to it that people are forgiven through his Son’s offering, but also the transforming power is there to make people new. The Easter events lead not only to forgiveness, but also to holiness. There is a perfection in the measurements of the holy city, too, and I think this is all imagery that points us to the holiness of the church.
It is worth remembering how people responded to the early church. There was something wonderfully attractive about those first disciples, but there was also something quite unnerving about the white heat of holiness they displayed. Do you think today’s world sees anything like that in us? The Christian life is not simply one of gaining a ticket to heaven through the forgiveness of sins and then waiting until we die for our arrival at heaven’s station. It is about being the new community, as a sign of God’s future to the world, and therefore calling others to hear the challenge to follow Jesus. As such, our lifestyle is as important as our message.
Fourthly, there is a temple – or is there?
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. (21:22)
The temple is the place of worship. Specifically to Jewish religion, it was the location for the major festivals and the authorised place for sacrifices. The devout became attached to the temple. They admired its architecture, as did Jesus’ own disciples.
But we can become too attached to a building, even one that has been set aside for holy purposes. Jesus knew that. His new community does not finally gather in a bricks and mortar location, it gathers around ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb’. In the holy city we foreswear our idolatry of buildings and concentrate our worship precisely where it belongs: on the God who made and redeemed us. In the new Jerusalem there will be no rivals for our affections: there will only be the Lord our God and his Son. The Holy Spirit will direct our eyes to them.
So what else goes from our worship, along with our buildings? All the other idols of our age and any age. Money, status, possessions, fame, celebrity and power: we cannot chase any of these in the new creation, because only God will be the object of our devotion. It therefore seems sensible to start getting our focus right now. What do we set our hearts on more than God? Is it time to reorder our priorities as we prepare for eternity?
Fifthly, a city needs light. And just as there is no temple but the Lord God and the Lamb, so the Almighty is the light and the Lamb is the lamp (21:23). There will be no darkness (21:25), not even moral darkness (21:27). Rather, the nations will walk by God’s light (21:24) and the glory of the nations will be brought into the city (21:24, 26).
What does this mean? For one thing, it means that we shall live by God’s light – Jesus is, after all, the light of the world. Nothing else will compete to steer our lives. Fear will not speak to us, nor will hatred or greed. Only the pure light of God in Christ will guide our steps. And so again, that is something where we can get used to that at least in part now. How committed are we to wanting God to show us our path in life? We do not stand still if we want that. Just as it is easier to steer a moving vehicle than a stationary one, so we get moving by following Jesus in whatever ways we know how, while at the same time asking him to shed his light upon our ways.
The light of God in Christ also means something else. If the glory of the nations are brought into a city that basks in that light, then this says something positive about all that is good and worthy in human culture. The new Jerusalem is a place to celebrate the fact that we are made in God’s image and likeness, and so we can produce things of great beauty, value and wonder. I think it is no accident that over the centuries, the Christian church has sponsored and promoted the best of the arts, for example. And while much of that has historically been used in the explicit service of worship, I am sure this does not mean that heaven will be littered with the worst in kitsch religious trinkets. What it does mean is that the best of human achievement will be laid at the feet of Christ in adoration. Do we bring our best to him now? Do we deploy our gifts and talents to praise his name?
Sixthly and finally, there is a river in the city. I don’t know about you, but I like that. When we were living in Chelmsford, Debbie and I sometimes liked to go to a sandwich bar in town, buy lunch and sit outside on tables by the River Chelmer. Even if the river seemed dirty, somehow it was still refreshing. We did something similar in Guildford a couple of months ago.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to discover in the new Jerusalem a river whose functions are life and healing. It flows from – guess where? – ‘the throne of God and the Lamb’ (those two again), through the centre of the city (22:1-2). The ‘tree of life’ (echoes of Eden again) grows on both banks ‘and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’ (22:2). All accursed things will be gone (22:3).
There were rivers in Eden and there is a river in Ezekiel 47 that runs from the temple out to the land, and healing springs up on both banks. This is similar. Christians have sometimes imagined Ezekiel’s river to be a picture of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God brings healing to the world. But surely the people of God are sent out from the temple with the Spirit of God. We are sent by God with a healing message to the world, the healing that only Jesus Christ can bring. If we have been at the throne or the temple, the natural thing to do afterwards is to go into the world with the good news of healing in Jesus Christ. It is good news for individuals, and it is good news for whole societies. One day, that mission will be complete. But until that time, we anticipate that glorious fulfilment of all God’s purposes by going out from our worship gatherings proclaiming with our words and demonstrating with our deeds and our lives that God in Christ has the cure for a broken and wounded world.
Perhaps the best act of devotion we could offer in gratitude for God’s faithfulness to his church here would be a renewed commitment to showing his healing love outside our fellowship in the wider world.
Well, it’s been a full six days since I’ve blogged. Life has been manic. We are busy selling possessions bit by bit on eBay (if you want to see what we’re currently selling, I pasted some code into the home page of my main website). Then there is all the protracted negotiations over work to the manse where we shall be moving in August. I might do some real minister’s work some day soon.
But last Sunday was a highlight. I had been invited back to the church where I grew up to take their Church Anniversary. It has changed so much, and for the better. Only the ‘old guard’ remember me from thirteen years ago. It was great to catch up with them, embarrassing when I’d forgotten someone’s name or didn’t recognise them, of course, but also thrilling that there were so many people there who didn’t know me from Adam. A church that had between sixty and eighty adults on a Sunday morning when I left now has about one hundred and seventy, plus fifty to sixty children and teenagers.
The most heartening change was this, though: even by the time I left the majority of the congregation had become majority African-Caribbean (and woe betide you if you mixed up the Ghanaians with the Nigerians, or assumed that somebody from Montserrat was Jamaican!). However it was still in many ways a ‘white’ church. I remember when the first West Indian became a church steward. All the usual comments came out about not understanding what he said when he gave out the notices in a service. But now all the stewards are black and it was apparent that the lady on duty on Sunday morning could comfortably do her duties in the vestry and in the worship gathering in a way appropriate to her culture, and it was now the norm. Her greeting was very West Indian in style, the choir sang a few pieces before the service that would have been known back home in the islands, and so on. No longer were they marginalised, now their culture was at last central to the way the church functioned.
So you can never go back home and find it just as you remembered it, and my sermon took up that theme, with reference to postmodern culture. Too many churches behave like that: a yearning for ‘how it used to be’ when we actually have to live in a different world. Even the West Indians and Africans at my old church, although they bring their customs into worship now and do not suffer the stigma of the past, cannot simply recreate how it once was back home. And for the younger generations, ‘back home’ never was their home: this place is.
It would be interesting to see what shape that church takes if Methodism ever sends them a black minister. That hasn’t happened yet, although I’d hate that to be read in any way as casting an aspersion on the current minister, because he was wonderful in facilitating things for me, and he seems to be regarded very warmly. I just hope he isn’t treated with the old colonial-style deference.