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Easter 6 C 2016
Revelation 21:10-14, 21:22-22:5
The three readings from the NT today appear to span three different time zones, before the resurrection, after the resurrection and the end times, or eschaton. And in one sense that is true but there is another sense in which time is irrelevant – we live in the now and not yet of God’s great Kingdom and so the reality of the City of God is within us as the trinity dwells with us.
Jesus speaking to his disciples in the upper room, before his crucifixion wants them to understand things that they are struggling with, and so says them over and over again in slightly different words. In today’s small section he goes over the ground of a dwelling place again. He has already promised them that they will be with him in his Father’s house, and this time he tells them that the Father and He will make their home with the disciples. Is Jesus confused? No, he is trying to convey something that is hard for them and us to understand. And that is the unity that exists within the Trinity itself and between his beloved human beings and the Godhead. Jesus’ words are all about love and it is as if love is the soup in which God and humans swim around in – except that of course the love and the humans are actually contained within God. I told you it was hard stuff to understand. There is some comfort to be found in the fact that Jesus clearly knows that they don’t really understand. He tells them that he is saying these things to them while he is there but that after he is gone the Advocate would come and help them – teach them everything.
This concept of an advocate is one borrowed from the legal world. The para clete in Greek or Ad vocate in Latin is one beside you to speak for you. Now in 1 John 2:1, John tells us that we must not sin but that, if we do, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”. So Jesus, at that moment and for all moments is the advocate for us. In this passage in John’s gospel Jesus is describing the work of the Holy Spirit. I think we struggle to understand any of this really, but we feel helped if we know precisely what role each of the members of the Trinity play. It appears to me to be an artificial demarcation as obviously both the word and the spirit advocate for us- the word that dwells within us, is the spirit or breath of life. Unfortunately demarcation disputes are some of our favourites in this human society.
Jesus’ point to his disciples is that he is not going to leave them alone but send to them someone to speak for them, someone to accompany them in all the trials that life brings. And that accompanier or advocate is peace itself. This does not mean that we will have only peaceful encounters, and completely peaceful existences but that peace should and can indwell us so that while we might be ruffled on the surface the deep peace of the knowledge of the love of God should permeate us.
This all sounds great in theory, but not long after the crucifixion and that empowerment of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, (which we will be thinking about in a fortnight), the disciples had to begin the mission that drove them out to speak to others. The first phase of the mission was to Jews beginning in Jerusalem but spreading out from there. Then Jews and Gentiles in Asia Minor. In today’s passage from Acts we see the beginning of the expansion into Europe. Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia and off they go. Incidentally, this is the point at which the narrative changed from third person to first person plural. We set sail from Troas, and so you presume that the narrator has at this point joined the journey. So they get to Philippi- which, of course, features in Paul’s letter. We know that great things are going to happen in Philippi. After a couple of days, it is the Sabbath and they go out of the city to the river to pray- you might know a song about that? Anyway, there they meet a worshipper of God, called Lydia. It is very interesting that this encounter takes place outside the city- in a liminal space. It may be that worship of the God of the Jews can only take place outside the city, or it may be that without a synagogue the river was a place that they felt they could get in touch with God, a thin place. Lydia was an outsider, it is very possible that Lydia is not so much her name but a nickname given because she came from the city, Lydia. Even though an outsider, she was wealthy and powerful and again a woman! She listens eagerly, perhaps over a period of days, or weeks and then when she and her household, do you notice that- her whole household, are baptised she urges them to stay with her, thus showing immediately the kind of hospitality that we have been talking about for weeks. She is generous in her response. In the midst of all this activity, and anxiety one would presume, Paul and his companions, Lydia and her household, are held in the peace that is the advocate going alongside them.
And of course, for most of us that journey into Europe represents the beginning of a work that results in our conversion. We are sitting here because Paul had the courage to go over to Macedonia!
When John of Patmos, and it isn’t really clear whether the writer of the Revelation is the same person as the writer of the Gospel, wrote the great vision of the Revelation or the Apocalypse, the Spirit was surely with him giving this vision. One of the things that I think is very important to remember when reading this is that the experience of a vision can only be expressed in the words and images that we have and this is an attempt to express the inexpressible. The other things to remember is that when John writes this the political climate and the conditions under which they lived provided the context, so that the vision is expressed in those terms. It is a breathtakingly beautiful picture of what the Kingdom of God looked like to John. We could go through this picture and attempt to analyse each image but I don’t know that it would be very productive. Let me pick out a few key elements. Within the city- which is extremely large with plenty of room for everyone – there is no temple. The reason for that is simple – there is no need for continued sacrifice. Human fear of God’s wrath has gone, they are living in the soup of love, don’t forget. And what’s more the veil that separated them from God has also gone. This is exemplified in the next image. There is no need of the sun or moon because all the inhabitants live in the light of God’s glory, Jesus the light of the world is their light. The gates are never shut because nobody is to be kept out. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life”. Jesus, the giver of the living water, promised to the woman at the well, is again, with God, the source and the tree of life, reminding us of our very beginnings is there too. So we can eat of the fruit in this holy city. And interestingly there are twelve different kinds of fruit, which suggests diversity rather than uniformity, doesn’t it? It’s all going to be good- nothing bad, because we will be with God, abiding, dwelling in God and God dwelling in us. The key here again, is the twin concepts of unity and relationship. The great Barn Dance of heaven with all of us taking part together, separate and unique and yet bound in relationship, bound in love and joy and peace. And the Advocate, the Holy Spirit will be the life that we share together.
But is this a picture of something that is to come? Well, yes and no. I said before that we live in the now and the not yet. We are part of God’s kingdom now. We are joined in relationship with God and with one another. But at the same time we are still living out our fragile human lives with death at the end of them. This week we have come face to face with death again but we have this new world existing for us at the same time. I don’t know how it works except to say that we are already in God and God is in us.
“See the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples and God God’s-self will be with them and will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”
What I do know is that we have to join with God, “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We have to be the people that God has made us. We need to be hospitable, people who open our arms to others, people who feed and care for others so that they might see God’s great love. And that is the thing – the single most important thing – we have to love others as Christ has loved us and that will put us firmly in the Kingdom of God, in the Holy City. And Jesus in the upper room gives us the promise of the Holy Spirit to walk with us, to speak for us. We don’t have to love in our own strength but in God’s amazing power.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.