Saturday, May 12, 2007

Easter 6

The other day I was having that conversation that we probably all start having around about now, and I was saying to a friend, ‘how can it be May already – that doesn’t seem right?’  and I told her it seemed to me the older I get the faster time seems to running, and she said, ‘no, it’s not just you, time really is getting faster.  Even my kids think so’.  I had to wonder about that.  I mean, what have the kids got to compare it with?

In the Church year, too, we’re in a sort of time loop, now that Easter’s cycled past, Ascension and Pentecost coming up and then the long downhill glide all the way back to Advent.  The readings these last few Sundays of Easter reflect the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.  Our readings from John’s Gospel come from Jesus’ long farewell speech before his crucifixion, so that pushes us back before Easter, with the uncomprehending disciples, trying to understand what it means that in a little while we won’t see him, but then we will.  But then, as we listen to Jesus promise us that even though he’s not going to be physically around he’ll always be with us, we start to hear the echoes of another separation and see a glimpse of what lies ahead for disciples who find they can’t hold on to the risen Lord for too long.  In any case, whether we’re looking backwards or forwards, what matters is that we need to get ready to experience Jesus through his absence.  For those first disciples, a literal going away, for us the reality that our experience of the one we call the Christ is never direct - always a look backwards, through the millennia-long memory of Christians who have gone before us, and also a look forwards, through the mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit.

The readings today emphasise this tension between presence and absence, past and future.   The passage we have from John of Patmos, right at the end of the book of Revelation, points us forward.  This strange and lurid vision that comes to us from a Christian community living under persecution simply defies logic – Revelation looks around at the reality of madness and persecution in a world where God quite clearly isn’t in control, and comes up with a vision of hope.  A vision of completion and the fulfillment of God’s design for creation - not just on an individual scale but on a cosmic one.  Not just of heaven as the arena for the fulfilment of God’s promise but of “a new heaven and a new earth,” Revelation builds on the Old Testament understanding of creation as the context of human spirituality and the realm of God’s self-disclosure, the whole creation renewed and transformed by the glory of God.  It’s a vision that sends us scurrying in imagination back to Eden, but at the same time hurtling towards the future in a bold claim that, despite all the evidence of human history, despite AIDS and global war and glue sniffing, the future belongs to God.

It’s a picture that – as I pointed out last week – is a bit curious.  The ocean is no more – according to last week’s reading there’s no room in the new creation for danger or ambiguity, none of the chaos that the ancient world associated with the uncontrollable force of the ocean.  Another glaring – or not so glaring - omission – no sun or moon – no light and shade in the city of God because the presence of God on the premises gives out all the light we need.  The gates of the city stand open for all and sundry.  No patrol boats, no missile defence shield needed in this vision of the world as it never has been, the city sleeps secure in the arms of God.  Nothing grotty, nothing shady or underhand in the city of God – even though the gates are wide open and people are bringing in gifts from all the nations John tells us that undesirables of all description are going to be kept out.  I’m not so sure about that.  I don’t know about you but I’m hoping for a city of God where they do let you in even if your behaviour isn’t 100% squeaky clean.  Actually, I’ve got the idea that God is a lot more relaxed about human imperfection than John of Patmos is, but I don’t think we need to get too concerned about the details.  The main point about John’s vision of the city of God is just this – that the everyday commerce of human community is made sacred when we recognise it as the city of God.

But here’s the biggest surprise of all in John’s remarkable vision of the new creation and the reconstituted Jerusalem – no Temple. 

In the ancient, actual Jerusalem, the Temple signified the core identity of the place and its people.  I think we often don’t realise how important it was, if as Christians we think about it at all, it’s often just to sniff at the religious system of sacrificial offerings, or the supposed hypocrisy of the priestly caste.  We forget the huge importance of the interior structure, the “holy of holies,” and what Rowan Williams calls “the great speaking absence” above the Ark of the Covenant. The space at the very heart of the Temple was empty, a paradox - the most powerful imaginable sign of the presence of the God of heaven and earth.  God in the midst of God’s people, indicated not by a proliferation of statues or icons or neon signs but by an empty space swollen with silence and mystery and the freedom of the God who is present in absence.   

In the vision of John of Patmos, the great speaking absence is the Temple itself.  In the in-between verses that we missed out this morning John tells us that the city is ‘foursquare’, the same dimensions in height and depth and width, just like the internal space of the Temple, so there’s the suggestion that the whole city is a Temple.  But the main reason is, as John tells us, that the real Temple is the crucified and risen Christ, the ‘turning Godself inside-out’ action by which the ‘empty space’ of divine presence is opened up to include creation itself.  In the new heaven and the new earth the promised space and place of God’s presence is everywhere and everywhen.  God present in absence, open, unprotected, and vulnerable to human life and commerce.  

In our Gospel reading we get the same sense of absence that speaks of presence, of future that recalls the past.  The no-longer-physically present Jesus of Nazareth becomes a great speaking absence that – in some mysterious way – is going to be filled with divine presence.  The absence of Jesus that becomes the fullness and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Just as John of Patmos imagines God’s vulnerable presence throughout the city as the source of the city’s safety, so John the Evangelist sees the presence of the risen Christ through the indwelling of the Spirit as the source of peace for his disciples.  Earlier in the same chapter Jesus speaks of going to his Father to prepare dwelling places for those who love him – here there is a new twist – those who love God will themselves be dwelling places for the Father and the Son.  In the vision of John of Patmos, God declares that God’s home is now with men and women – in the vision of John the Evangelist, God dwells in those who love God.  The city of God, in other words, is us.  In the indwelling of God we know God’s shalom, God’s peace, safety, fulfillment, and joy.

The message couldn’t be clearer.  As disciples who no longer see the physical Jesus we know the risen Christ through the great speaking absence that fills us, the darkness and the silence that points us to where God is.  This is the way of spirituality that the mystics call the via negativa, and it’s especially necessary for us living in the age of noise and information and far, far too many things.  The second thing is to recognise the bustle and the noise of the city we live in as a sacrament, TV screens and kitchen sinks and traffic lights all made holy by the indwelling presence of God.  That’s the way of spirituality that mystics call the via positiva, the spirituality of the everyday.  

In a little while you won’t see me any more, but then you will.  It’s the paradox that defines the vocation for disciples who watch the risen Christ disappear from their sight.  A vocation to be lodging places, lighthouses of divine love, by keeping Jesus’ command to love.  God’s city.