St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
May 26, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
We’ve been working through John’s fantastical vision in the book of Revelation, and today we hear the end of the vision. Last week, John told us that he saw from afar the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. And now, we get to hear at least a bit about what he saw when the Spirit carried him away to show him this city. It’s a pity that the lectionary authors cut out most of chapter 21, for it is in these missing verses that John describes the city itself. Beyond the sheer beauty of it, this city is chock-full of symbolism. The city shone with the radiance of a very rare jewel and had a great, high wall with 12 gates, and at the gates 12 angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. This wall has 12 foundations, and on them are the 12 names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb. The number 12 represents wholeness or completeness. Then, John describes the measurements of the city which are also symbolic. It is a perfect, symmetrical cube, lined by walls built of jasper, with the city being pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the walls are adorned with every jewel (12 of them, of course), with streets of gold. This four-walled, perfectly symmetrical city in all of its beauty – this New Jerusalem represents the Church.
Then John commented that there was no temple in the city. Whether Revelation was written before or after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD is a matter of debate, but in any case, the idea that the New Jerusalem had no Temple had to be mind boggling for the original audience, especially for Jewish Christians. For the Temple was necessary for the priests to offer up sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people, and this most holy rite could only be done in the Temple. The measurements of the city specifically symbolize the Holy of Holies, the part of the Temple where only the high priest could enter, and even then, only once per year. In the New Jerusalem, this atoning work is no longer necessary, for the Lamb that was slain has atoned for our sins once and for all. The city itself is a new temple, the Church, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. No longer are the deepest parts of the faith reserved for the 1%. No longer are people excluded from the inner sanctum of holiness. In this new temple, the prophets and the apostles point us toward Jesus, and each of us is a living stone that makes up a part of the temple.
Finally, we hear John describe this beautiful scene of the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God through the middle of the street. This water brings life – the “tree of life”, in fact, which takes us back to the Garden of Eden. If you remember, the inhabitants of Eden – Adam and Eve – were created to live eternally, but they were told, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” We know how that turned out for them, and for us. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate a piece of fruit from that tree –traditionally depicted as an apple – and they became subject to evil and death and everything that comes with that. Because they chose to eat it, Adam and Eve lived lives full of suffering and pain. And they died. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
John sees a new tree in this vision. In the New Jerusalem, the tree of life has all kinds of fruit growing on it, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. There are no restrictions on what we can eat. The fruit of the first tree didn’t fulfill humanity’s hunger, but the fruit of the new one certainly does.
Many of you choristers, and perhaps a few other liturgical music nerds, know the choral piece from Lessons and Carols called Jesus Christ the Apple Tree . We are so used to hearing the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge sing it year after year at Christmas, typically beginning with the boys of the choir singing the first verse in unison. But it is verse three of this carol that comes to mind:
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all: but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.
I’ve looked for happiness in all sorts of things. I’ve looked for happiness in my banking career, in academic success, and in several different types of sin, some of which are inappropriate for the pulpit. I’ve eaten of the forbidden fruit. It doesn’t satisfy. John is telling us that in the new Jerusalem, the river of life will feed the tree of life which will give us fruit that will not only sustain us, it will bring perfect and complete healing. Despite knowing that the fruit from the new tree will satisfy my every longing, I sometimes choose to eat the apple from the first tree. When I choose the apple – when I choose to disregard God’s will and seek my own pleasure – I am not satisfied. Maybe for a while, but not in the end. When I instead turn to Jesus, I find what I’ve been seeking. Happiness, yes. But not happy as in “bliss.” A better word is “wholeness.” Completeness.
Now that I’ve eaten something that satisfies my hunger, I have to admit, I get sad when I see my co-workers, and friends, and family eating the proverbial apple. I want to tell them that it’s a trick…that eating the apple won’t make them full. They won’t get what they expected. I want to tell them that there’s another option. There’s another tree that is like the one they see. But this tree is renewed and restored. Eating the fruit of this tree unfortunately won’t take away the deceiving power the first tree has over them, for that apple will still seem luscious and tasty and satisfying. But in the words of that 18th century carol, this new fruit “makes my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive. Which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the apple tree.”
It’s no accident that the lectionary authors paired the end of John’s vision with the first lesson from Acts when we heard of Paul’s vision that led him to Philippi to a river to share the Good News with a woman named Lydia. When we hear about Paul’s missionary journeys, it’s easy to think, “But Paul was extraordinary. He was called to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, and no one has been called in such a way since. I wasn’t called to be a missionary! I work for a local bank. Paul’s missionary stories don’t relate much to my everyday life.”
The story of Paul sharing the Good News with Lydia is just as applicable to you and me as it is to someone called to be a full-time missionary. Before he encountered Jesus Christ, Paul hated Christianity and all it stood for. Upon encountering Christ on that road to Damascus, he realized that his entire understanding of God was wrong. Paul realized that the apple from the old tree didn’t satisfy. He tasted of the fruit of the tree of life in the New Jerusalem and was satisfied, and he felt compelled to share that Good News with everyone.
As is always the case, it wasn’t Paul’s convincing arguments that won Lydia over. Luke tells us that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to what Paul said. You and I can describe the new Jerusalem in all its beauty, and the new tree, and the new fruit, and all that it has meant to us. We can do all of that, but unless the Lord opens the other person’s heart, it’s all for naught. The call to share the love of God in Christ with those around us is first a call to pray for them, and then it’s a call to share our story in word and deed.
Friends, the city of God is no longer reserved for a particular race or tribe or language or culture. The city of God is for all people, and by the power of the Spirit, we are called to invite all who would hear to drink from the springs of the water of life and eat of the fruit of the tree of life.
 Same Old Song podcast, Mockingbird ministries. https://www.mbird.com/podcasts/
 Genesis 2:16-17
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!