A little while ago I saw a documentary on TV about the detective work done by art historians. In this case there was a very old painting - I think by Caravaggio - and at first the challenge was to establish that it was genuine, that it was actually by Caravaggio and not the work of an ancient forger. And the art historian - more of a scientist than a historian - analysed the themes and moods and the use of light and dark, the direction of the brush-strokes and so on, comparing them to undisputed works by Caravaggio. And then they turned to the real forensic stuff, X-Rays, spectrographic analysis, and we entered a whole new dimension. Because clearly revealed under the richly painted surface of the canvas was a trail of tentative beginnings, sketches, erasures, false starts painted over, in short - as the art historian painstakingly unravelled and explained it, what we were seeing was the whole creative process laid bare. The groundwork of establishing the basic perspective and balance, quick sketches - an arm might be drawn twice, three times until the artist gets it in exactly the right balance to everything else. Experimentation with colour and light and perspective to add depth and create a sense of psychological tension. The fascinating thing - for me especially, since I can’t draw for nuts - was the insight into how a painter paints, the fact that a masterpiece doesn’t just happen but needs to grow and gradually achieve the shape that its creator intended from the beginning, and the fact that the process of creation is incremental, continuous, built up as the artist interacts with and transforms what is already in existence.
Because this, you see, is the picture of creation that we get this morning from both our Johns, the gospel-writer, and John of Patmos, the writer of the Book of Revelation. You might not think our Gospel reading was even about creation but Bible scholars tell us one of the keys to reading John is to recognise that what he is doing is reflecting on the Book of Genesis. We see it really clearly in the Prologue, the first 14 verses of the first chapter that starts, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life.’ And immediately as we hear these words, if we are steeped in the Torah, if we have grown up with the words of the Hebrew Bible ringing in our ears, we also hear the echo from Genesis: ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters’. The Gospel writer takes us all the way back to the big picture, the primal creative work of God, the primal commandments of creation: - let there be light. Let there be order and life and fertility - and connects us with the reality that the whole of creation came into being through the Word and breath of God. And this key to understanding the Gospel of John - of course there are other keys, other prisms to look through, but this key is to recognise John making a huge claim - that the human person Jesus of Nazareth in some mysterious sense is a force of the universe itself, that Jesus is in fact none other than the creative Word of God that brings creation into being - and that in taking on human flesh, becoming embedded so to speak in his own creation, the Word of God is continuing to transform and complete and bring creation to life. Like the Caravaggio painting, we suddenly see the depth dimension of creation, we glimpse the ancient foundations beneath the stunning new layers of depth and colour that reveal the meaning of what was there all along.
John drops us another hint in his story of the evening of the first day - in the Genesis creation story it is in the evening, you remember, when God comes strolling in the garden. For the Evangelist it is in the evening on the first day of resurrection when the risen Christ appears amongst his disciples. Like the breath of God that warms and infuses life into the first human beings, Jesus breathes on his disciples to fill them with the life of the Holy Spirit. The point is pretty clear - resurrection is re-creation, new creation, the completion of what creation was always intended to be.
The 13th century Franciscan theologian, Bonaventure, tells us that creation itself is an expression of the character of God, an outpouring from the Word of God as the creative template of everything that can possibly be, and he claims the world around us is nothing less than a book of life, a book which - if we could only read it - would reveal its creator. Because, he says, it is the character of love to communicate and to give of itself, and so in the act of creation the divine goodness is poured out into the world. But there is a problem, because we are so bent over by self-obsessiveness, by the sin of putting ourselves in the middle of our own moral universe, that we have forgotten how to read the Word of God that is all around us in creation. We can’t do it unless we are reminded, unless our human-ness is transformed and made holy - which God does by becoming human, by inhabiting the whole spectrum of human sin and failure and suffering and death, and by turning us back toward our true origin in resurrection, recreating us and revealing what human existence was always intended to be.
So in today’s reading what we are hearing, the new commandment, is not just good advice. Not just, ‘children, I’m going away for a bit. Play nicely.’ It’s a creational commandment, one of the primal creative words by which God brings us and all things into existence. In the light of the key we have to reading John’s Gospel, Jesus’ command for a new kind of love, a love which connects us centre to centre by connecting us to what is at the heart of the Trinity itself, the command to love needs to be understood as the completion of the creational commandments. Why? Because the command to love is the command to be co-creative partners with God, the command to recognise and live towards transformation. We are being urged to move beyond our self-interest and self-obsession, beyond our tribal loyalties, to live out of the true centre of who we are as creatures made in the image of our creator. As God is love, so we are commanded to love. As God’s love is revealed in the act of creation, so our love needs to find expression in activities that break through the cultural, ethnic, political and religious limitations of our lives. We are being commanded to think outwards, beyond ourselves, to think forwards, to the future in which God continues to create and re-create us.
We see the same picture in our reading from Revelation, the same message that links the personal to the cosmic. In the resurrection of Jesus everything gets made new, everything is re-created, including us. Including the earth itself. These are not small, timid claims from a tentative, timid disciple, are they? I wonder what it would take for us to talk like this, for us to be so convinced of the power of the resurrection to reshape the whole of reality. We need to ask ourselves, quite seriously, whether we believe it. Whether we mightn’t be better off doing something else on a Sunday morning. Or whether in fact we believe that there is nothing else that’s even a fraction as earth-shatteringly important and life-changing as resurrection. And if that is what we believe, what are we doing about it?
John of Patmos announces a new heaven and a new earth. The old ones have passed away, the old metaphors of creation, who we are and what we think we are about, are no longer adequate. Creation itself is transformed.
The Anglican Bishop of Durham, Bishop Tom Wright, makes a fundamentally important point about this. He says the new earth, the transformed earth, isn’t somewhere else. For John of Patmos, the new heaven and new earth doesn’t have a new address, what’s made new is what is already here, including us. New heaven and new earth doesn’t mean the old heaven and old earth are destroyed, it means that what is, is transformed. Jesus’ resurrection body - though different to be sure, as St Paul insists, from what was before - startlingly, even at times unrecognisably different, because transformed - is still to be identified with the body that was crucified. The wounds are still there. He still eats and talks with his friends. It’s the same with the new Jerusalem, the transformed earth. It still bears the wounds of our neglect, and it is still identifiable as the ecology which sustains our human lives and within which they find their true meaning. The wounds of human injustice, of disease and pain are still there. But fundamentally the meaning of this vision is that to be Christian is to be committed to a world in which suffering and injustice are remembered through tears of joy.
Bill Loader, my New Testament professor, cautions us not to get too carried away with literal interpretations. Ancient peoples, for example, saw a new earth without any oceans as a very good thing indeed - nothing to drown in, no place for monsters or fearsome storms. Our 21st century perspective understands the oceans more in terms of depth and mystery and beauty, more of a good thing. We can relate more easily to the poetic image of a new Jerusalem - after all it’s the city not the bush that is the true context of our lives - but the point is that what we hope for in our human environments only God can bring us. The point is that creation isn’t done and dusted. To be Christian is to believe that God is still creating us.
Resurrection recreates and transforms not only us but the world we live in. Resurrection transforms the boundaries of what is possible, it makes us co-creative partners with God, oriented toward the future, powered by the Holy Spirit of love. We forget this, and we need to be reminded. The new creation needs us to live into it, to hope for it, to dare to act as though it were already the reality of our lives. What would it take to believe this? How might our world change if we did?