River of Life

Sixth Sunday of Easter
9 May 2010
Easter 6C (RCL)

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5
John 13:23-29

In the RCL during Easter, we are reading sort of sequentially from Acts, as a continuation of the telling of salvation history. During regular time, we read some of the great stories from the Old Testament in a narrative ark. During Easter, we read Acts. This story is a winning picture of Paul’s mode of evangelism (at least Luke’s portrayal of it): sitting by the riverside, talking to whomever shows up.

But I am most interested in the passage from Revelation. I am sure that the author of Revelation intended his vision of the Holy City as a counterpoise to the creation story, but it is fascinating to me that the people who put the canon together put Revelation at the end of the canon. The Bible opens, after creation from the chaotic waters, with the primordial humans in a garden, with a tree at the center of the garden, and a river flowing out from the garden. As it stands now, the canon closes with the Heavenly City, with a throne at the center of the city, a river flowing from the throne, and the tree of life growing along the river.

Sandwiched between that opening and closing, we have the history of the nations. Israel, Judah, Assyria, Babylon, the Hellenistic Empires, Rome. That history, of course, involves war, intrigue, oppression, victory, and all the stuff of human history. Isaiah had a vision of the peaceable kingdom, which involved a return to the garden: the wolf and lamb lie down together, and the lion eats hay like the ox. Revelation shows no such return to the garden, but a city, and in the city, a tree which gives fruit twelve months of the year, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, for the repair of that whole tawdry history that lies between the covers of the book.

There are no animals in this city, which means also no sacrifice. We are told there is no temple in the city, which comes to the same thing: no sacrifice. Humans no longer need to take the lives of animals in order to eat. The trees provide fruit all twelve months. And the throne of God is right there in the city, no longer screened off by a veil inside the Temple. We have direct access to God, no longer mediated by sacrifice. We eat in the presence of God, without bloodshed.

Put that image alongside the oil slick in the gulf or the floods in Tennessee. We are told that the river flowing from the throne of God runs right down main street, and it is a pure and bright as crystal. What a difference from the water that runs through our streets. But, it is not a return to the garden, a life without human ingenuity or effort. It is a city. Human creativity has its place in the vision of the Apocalypse. We have at last found a way to be part of God’s creation.

The reading from John summarizes the Johannine community’s anxiety about Jesus’ departure. Judas (not Isacriot) has asked how, if Jesus does not appear to the world, will the community recognize him. The advocate will come and dwell with them, and remind them of everything Jesus has said. Jesus will come and make his home with them. It is in telling the story of Jesus that Jesus is present to us and with us. The community has its role in telling the story of Jesus, just as humankind has its role in making the heavenly city. God’s revelation comes to us as we gather in community, as we mediate Jesus to one another. When we have figured out how not to lord it over each other, but participate in God’s creation of a healed human community, we will have arrived at the heavenly city. Of course, the revealer sees that city coming down from heaven — it is not something that we can accomplish on our own.

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