The Garden City

In the symbolism of Revelation, we glimpse Christianity’s ultimate aspiration.

Italian-Renaissance-garden_design

An Italian renaissance garden.

I find Revelation 21-22 attracts me back over and over again just as a burning light bulb allures the flying moth at night. As evidence, you my readers may notice that I’ve written about these two chapters twice before in this blog (see my two postings Heaven’s Not My Home and Jerusalem–Icon of Unity).

The appeal of Revelation 21-22 is not that I take them as a literal description of what heaven will look like. I don’t take any of Revelation as a literal blueprint of God’s plans for the future, as the dispensationalists do.

Instead I read Revelation’s imagery as I do imagery in poetry. Some of the images serve a symbolic function. Others are loaded with literary associations, usually looking back to the Old Testament. All seek to convey a deeply Christian vision of life and of God’s work in the world—past, present, and future.

In Revelation 21-22, the seer John gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead after the end of history. That is, what lies ahead after what Christian theology calls the Eschaton, the End. This brings the end of the universe as we presently know it. It ends God’s creative and redemptive work, which has been the grand story of Scripture.

At the Eschaton, the universe dies. Here John’s vision agrees with modern cosmology, which says that some billions upon billions of years ahead from now the universe will die either from extreme expansion or extreme contraction.

What comes after this death is the great promise of the Christian gospel: resurrection. Revelation 21-22 foresees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. We are in a new creation, but it is not discontinuous with the previous creation. Rather it is a transformed creation, just as are the resurrected bodies that the apostle Paul looks for in 1 Corinthians 15.

The Crown Jewel of the New Creation

In John’s vision, the crown jewel of this new creation is the new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven to the earth. The fact that it descends from heaven is John’s way of bearing witness that it is ultimately the gift of God, not the capstone of human creativity through the ages. John has no time for any utopian human agendas.

It is a city of stunning beauty, for it is as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2). It is also the place where God dwells:

 ‘See, the home [Greek: tabernacle] of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

They will be his peoples,

And God himself will be with them….’ (Revelation 21:3)

In this vision the incarnation of God in his creation has expanded beyond just the man Jesus to embrace the whole of humanity. The whole community of humanity (symbolized by the city) now composes the tabernacle or dwelling place of God.*

This is a breath-taking vision. It is why the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not blasphemous when it proclaims that God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.** The Orthodox have grasped far better the full meaning of salvation than have most Protestants.

Revelation 21 then goes on to describe this city in glowing imagery. It has golden streets. Its gates are made from precious jewels. It radiates light. There is no night.

The Garden of Eden Redux

Revelation 22 continues John’s description of the city. From the heart of the city flows a river of the water of life. On each side of the river grows the tree of life, which bears fruit non-stop. Its leaves convey healing.

These verses clearly allude to the Garden of Eden described in Genesis 2. From the center of Eden also flows a river, which then divides into four branches. And in the midst of the Garden grows the tree of life.

In John’s vision of the Eschaton the Garden of Eden has not been discarded. It has been preserved or rather resurrected, but now abides as part of a city. The rural and the urban no longer form the two sides of a human conflict that has afflicted human history. Nor do primitive nature and highly evolved human culture. They have been united into one.

What strikes me so much in this Christian aspiration for the future is how it contrasts so dramatically with the aspiration for the future that we find in ancient Greek culture, especially its philosophy.

Greek culture tended to assume that human life was grounded in a deadly dualism. The material side of life and the spiritual/intellectual side of life were always in conflict. This dualism was the cause of human suffering. Salvation was escaping it. (The classic expression of this viewpoint is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.)

So life in the human body and in all the material side of life constituted a prison for the spirit and mind of human beings. The great longing was to set that mind/spirit free. This in turn fed a strong ascetical spirit in Greek philosophy. That spirit would later provide one of the springs of Christian asceticism.

God’s Home

But in John’s vision in Revelation, the material side of nature and the bodily life of human beings are not banished. Rather they come to be indwelt by divinity. God chooses to dwell in the new material creation. But this time the creation is truly in-Spirited. The material universe reaches its ultimate destiny–to be the tabernacle of God.

What we see in John’s vision is the ultimate working out of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. God’s incarnation was not to end with the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. Rather God’s incarnation makes its first entrance into the world in that birth, but does not end until I believe the whole of creation is home to God’s Spirit. Talk about a big, big story!

The implications of this understanding of the Christian aspiration are immense for Christian understandings of ministry and ethics. They provide, I contend, the foundation for the Christian sacraments and for Christian ministries of healing, of feeding the hungry, of social service, of Christian engagement in politics and in ecology, of Christian respect for sexuality and the arts, and even of Christian attitudes towards what constitutes healthy Christian asceticism.***

Why do John’s visions in Revelation make my spirit soar? Let the implications of John’s symbolism sink in and you may begin to see why.

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* As I noted above, the Greek word that the NRSV translators translate as home in Revelation 21:3 is the literal word tabernacle. This is a weighty Biblical word. It alludes back to the tabernacle in the Old Testament’s Exodus story. There God instructs Moses to construct a portable tent sanctuary that could function as the meeting place between God and Israel during its 40-year journey through the Sinai desert. In John’s vision the transient place of meeting between God and Israel has now been replaced with a permanent meeting place.

But the word tabernacle also carries us back to the opening of John’s gospel. There in John 1:14 the gospel writer summarizes the Christmas gospel in the sentence, And the Word became flesh, and lived [Greek: tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory…. When we read John in Revelation, we must carry with us these two previous uses of the word.

** They call this the doctrine of theosis.

*** One of my favorite modern Christian writers who I believed has plumbed the depths of meaning in the Christian doctrine of incarnation is the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. His view of Christian spirituality is quite distinctive in his emphasis on matter being raised to participate fully in spirit rather than in matter being abandoned in an effort to give the spirit freedom to flourish.

 

House of God: Evolution of an Idea

The Bible shows a progression in its understanding of where God dwells among humans.

Temple Mount 2

The temple mount in Jerusalem, site where the Jewish temple once stood.

Over the years I have read many scholarly books of the Bible. Most have enriched my understanding. Some have deeply influenced my teaching and preaching. But seldom does a work completely overturn my understanding of a particular text.

That has happened for me in the last couple of weeks as I read through Tamara Cohn Eskenazi’s monograph In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah.* It has stood my previous understanding of the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah on its head. I must completely revise my thinking.

Eskenazi is a professor of Biblical literature at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Although modern Bibles divide Ezra and Nehemiah into two separate books, Eskenazi regards them as being originally one unified work. She convinces me on that.

She then seeks to explore this unified work as a literary creation. This means she does not try to get tangled up in the complex issues of sorting out the historicity of Ezra-Nehemiah’s narrative. There are all kinds of displacements in the text that make for a convoluted historical record.

Instead she concentrates on trying to understand the message that the work seeks to convey in its canonical, literary form. If you have been reading my blog faithfully, you know that I favor this approach as well. I use it all the time in my own reading.

This is not to say that historical questions are not important. But it is the message of the Bible in its present canonical form that serves as an enduring message to the religious communities of Judaism and Christianity. That message is the foundation for preaching. And so it is where I like to concentrate my attention.

A New View of Ezra-Nehemiah

But back to Eskenazi’s book. Whenever I have read Ezra-Nehemiah in the past, I tended to get bogged down in the long lists of names of people that punctuate the text. These lists make for tedious reading. For one, they are long; and two, the names are generally hard-to-pronounce Hebrew names. An English speaker will stumble over the names only so long before either turning the page or abandoning the work completely.

The book also describes the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the temple after the exiles return from their deportation to Babylon. The new temple proves to be a paltry affair after the glory of Solomon’s temple. The rebuilding of the city sets the stage for that long transitional period between the end of the Old Testament and for Christians, the beginning of the New Testament era. Because Protestants ignore the Apocrypha, we tend to regard that transitional period as unrecorded history and therefore insignificant.

So like many Protestants, I have given Ezra-Nehemiah scant attention. Eskenazi convinces me how very wrong I have been. Ezra-Nehemiah is a profound work. It expresses some theological themes that help set the course of the intertestamental period in Judaism and which then in course shaped the long-term thinking of both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

Eskenazi highlights three of those themes: 1) the important role of the people (in contrast to heroic leaders) in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, 2) the expanded understanding of what constitutes the house of God, and 3) the emergence of documents in contrast to oral prophecy as the locus of authority in the community’s life.

The Challenge for the Returning Exiles: To Build a House for God

 All three of these themes play a role in reshaping my view on Ezra-Nehemiah. But in this posting I want to comment on just one of those themes, because it opened a door on the progression of an idea through the whole course of the Christian Bible. This theme is the second one Eskenazi highlights: what constitutes the house of God.

As Ezra-Nehemiah tells its story, the task of rebuilding the house of God is the major challenge the returning exiles are given when they return to the Jerusalem ruins. This comes through clearly in the edict given by the Persian king Cyrus, recorded in Ezra 1:2-4. There he says that the God of heaven has charged him with the task of building God a house at Jerusalem in Judah. And so he summons Jews from throughout his kingdom to take on this challenge.

When we read this mandate, we immediately assume that this is a charge to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem that the Babylonians had leveled. And the returning exiles make that their first priority. But Eskenazi shows that a close reading of the text suggests the completion of the temple does not constitute the completion of the mandate. For Ezra-Nehemiah does not regard the house of God as identical with the temple.

Only when the walls of the city are rebuilt under Nehemiah’s leadership is the task complete. And only then do we get the festive dedication celebrations in Nehemiah 12. For what emerges in the course of the unified book is the understanding that the house of God has expanded beyond the temple proper to include the whole city of Jerusalem. The city and its residents constitute the fulfillment of the mandate.

Jerusalem Becomes the Holy City

For this reason, we encounter in Nehemiah 11:1 an expression that was not used of Jerusalem in the centuries before. Jerusalem is called “the holy city of Jerusalem.” This explains why the temple gatekeepers (liturgical figures) are now stationed not only on the gates of the temple, but also on the gates to the city. And the dedication ceremonies celebrating the completion of the walls involve a liturgical procession of priests and people around the city on those new walls. The walls enclose the sacred space, which coincides with the city.

I found all this fascinating because it suggests that we must look to this era and its accomplishments for the rise of the perception of Jerusalem as the holy city, a perception common to Judaism and Christianity. Previous to this post-exilic restoration, the city of Jerusalem was important at the capital of the kingdom and as site of the temple. But we don’t find references to Jerusalem as a holy city in the books of Samuel and Kings and the pre-exilic prophets.

But this idea is present in Ezra-Nehemiah. And it is an idea that has come to occupy a permanent place in the religious imagination ever since.

An Evolving Understanding of the House of God

Now let me explain why I find this so fascinating beyond just a historical datum. What we see in Ezra-Nehemiah, I believe, is one stage in the evolution of the concept of the house of God as we can follow it throughout the course of the Christian Bible.

In the earliest stages of the Biblical record, the house of God is associated with the tabernacle that the Israelites build in their exodus wanderings. Under King Solomon the tabernacle is transformed into the glorious temple in Jerusalem.

King David had proposed building this temple in 2 Samuel 7, where it is referred to as a house for God. But God denies him that privilege, leaving it to Solomon. When Solomon dedicates his new temple, he does so saying:

The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.

I have built you an exalted house,

a place for you to dwell in forever. (1 Kings 8:12-13)

This makes sense to us, as it would have been a common perception of the role of temples throughout the ancient world. They are houses for the gods.

But with Ezra-Nehemiah, we begin to see this concept of the house of God expanding beyond its architectural manifestation. It is expanding to include the whole city of Jerusalem and subtly by extension, the city’s people. The architectural understanding is beginning to recede and the concept is beginning to take on an urban, social meaning.

Voices in the New Testament

Now when we get to the New Testament, we find a further progression in this evolution of meaning. In 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for its infighting and internal strife. Such behavior is destroying the church community.

We need to notice how Paul highlights the seriousness of this negativity. He writes to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

The “you” in these sentences is a plural “you.” Notice that Paul says ‘you’ (plural you) are the temple of God. The Corinthian church would have had no architectural structure in which it worshipped. (The church met in people’s homes.) The temple of God is now the community itself. The place where God dwells is now firmly within the community and its community life.**

Finally when we get to the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the elder John’s final vision is of the world as it has been remade after the coming of the End. And in this vision (Revelation 21-22), the focus of attention is the new Jerusalem, called the holy city, which descends upon earth out of heaven adorned as a bride for her husband (Revelation 21:2).

The angelic voice that speaks to John reveals the significance of this city, saying

See, the home (Greek: tabernacle) of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them. (Revelation 21:3)

Significantly, we are told this city has no temple, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22). There is no need to confine the sacred into a restricted space. In this new creation the walls enclosing the sacred are exploded. The sacred spills out and fills all of creation. This suggests the ultimate house of God will be the whole universe, but most especially the human community at its center.

Now I don’t know about you, but this is a vision that astonishes me. This is what God is up to in creating the universe, and in calling Israel to be his people, and in sending Jesus to usher in the Kingdom of God, and in pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. It is nothing less than creating a spectacular house for God, a house in which every individual being created by God can find its home. And I believe that includes not only human beings, but all forms of life.

As Jesus says in his farewell discourse to this disciples:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

 To that, I say, Amen.

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* Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988.

** I am aware that Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19 also says that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. He uses this as part of the sanction for his sexual ethics. The concept of the house of God as it evolves in the Bible never becomes totally dematerialized. It always keeps its roots in the material world, as shown in the vision of Revelation 21-22.

Photo credit: Andrew Shiva

The Beauty of Holiness

How is it that we have come to think of holiness as grim, gray, and kill-joy?

MAUI SUNSET

Sunset on the island of Maui

Now and then as I read a Bible text, a phrase grabs my attention and then haunts my thoughts for some time afterwards. I can’t quite make sense of it, and yet I can’t quite let it go. It’s like a musical tune that runs over and over again in my mind.

That happens for me when I read Psalm 29 in the translation of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It is a praise psalm. It begins:

Ascribe to the Lord, you gods,

            ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name;

            worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. [Psalm 29:1-2]*

There it is, at the end of the last line, the phrase I find so odd: the beauty of holiness. The psalmist invites us to worship God in a mode of holiness, which for him is something incredibly glorious and beautiful.

The reason why the phrase pulls me up short is that I don’t customarily link holiness with beauty. In the religious tradition I grew up in, the two are opposites to each other, like matter and anti-matter. There is always something a bit suspect about beauty. You can never quite trust it. It can seduce into sin. And so you never dare to link it to holiness.

A Legacy of the Reformation

How did the religious tradition I grew up in acquire that mindset? I think it goes back to the spirit of ascetical Christianity, but in my tradition, especially to the Puritan strand in the Reformation.

Puritans were generally appalled at all the sensual display of medieval Catholicism–its incense, its statues and stained glass, its fussy vestments, its grandiose architecture, and its elaborate music that only trained choirs could sing. Throw all that out and give us just the plain Word. We often forget, for example, that for a couple of centuries after John Calvin Presbyterians never sang hymns in church, only metrical psalms, and never accompanied by an organ.

So Protestants of the Calvinist variety tended to frown upon any efforts to inject beauty into worship services. Keep everything stark and simple.

But I think there is a deeper reason for the dichotomy, and it goes back to the Separatist strand in the Puritan effort to reform the Church of England. The Separatists took very seriously what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:17: Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing: and I will receive you. [I quote it in the King James Version, for that was the wording that was always used in the churches where I grew up.]**

Holiness meant keeping separated from anything unholy and unclean. That included anything in churches corrupted by association with ungodly Catholicism, but also anything in the wider world that smacked of sin and evil. And one of those corrupting forces in the wider, sinful world was beautiful things, whether fine fabrics and gold buttons or paintings upon their walls.

As a result, holiness came to be associated with a kind of austere life, simple, plain, and unadorned. It tended to dress in black, and avoid amusements like dancing and theatre. A fine example of this grim, kill-joy understanding of holiness is the grim, kill-joy Christian community we meet in the movie Babette’s Feast. Its austere, gray life fits perfectly into the barren, wind-and-rain-swept landscape of coastal Denmark.

This was the tradition I grew up in, and so I find it odd indeed when I hear the psalmist linking holiness with beauty. How can he do that?

In Search of the Fuller Sense of Scripture

Here’s how I have come to deal with that strange juxtaposition. It involves a practice of reading Scripture that I like to indulge in: the practice of juxtaposing one text against another. In this way I can grasp the fuller sense of Scripture.

This past Sunday, the lectionary assigned as the epistle reading portions of Revelation 21-22. These two chapters describe the elder John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth that God will create at the end of time. At its center is the city of the new holy Jerusalem that descends from heaven to settle on earth.

The descriptions of the city are glorious indeed. It shines. It shines not only in the hovering glory of God, but also with its shimmering gold streets and jewel-studded gates.

The city is built around a garden, from which flows a river of living water. Besides its streams grow the trees of life, producing fruit in all seasons. John compares the city’s beauty to that of a bride adorned in her finest for her husband.

Here in this vision beauty is indeed linked to holiness, for the city is said to be the holy Jerusalem. But what constitutes its holiness? It is that God dwells in this city fully. There is no temple because there is no need to confine God within the sacred space of a building. Instead sacred space has expanded to embrace the whole of the new creation.

What makes the city holy is God’s indwelling presence. It is also what makes the city incredibly beautiful.

Now I always read the visions of Revelation as symbolic, not literal. The city stands for the new community of humanity that will become the norm in the Kingdom of God. And in that kingdom, the promise of Christmas–Emmanuel, God with us–will be completely and ultimately fulfilled.

The Incarnation Points to the Answer

The story of the Incarnation, therefore, provides the key to how beauty and holiness become not only linked but fused together. As God comes to dwell in every human heart and in every chink of God’s world, everything comes to be absorbed into the holy. The distinction between the profane and the sacred is abolished. The holy can shine in beauty in all of creation.

What then we Christians are called upon to do is not to separate ourselves from the world in grim, kill-joy grayness, but go forth to fulfill the call that the voice in the vision speaks to Peter in Acts 10:15: What God has made clean, you must not call profane. That message comes just before messengers knock on Peter’s door with an invitation to come and meet with the Roman officer Cornelius. Peter does, preaches the gospel to Cornelius and his family, and they become the first Gentiles to enter the Christian church.

With this story, we see the momentum of the Incarnation on the move. The distinction between the Jew and the Gentile (a distinction that many Jews and Christians saw as a distinction between the sacred and the profane) was starting to be erased. And as more parts of God’s creation were brought into God’s kingdom, the holy was able to shine more and more in all things as the beauty of God.

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* The King James Version follows the translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Other modern translations translate the line differently.

**What my religious tradition also tended to ignore is that in this verse in 2 Corinthians, Paul is quoting the Old Testament. It is not his own words. That also affects, I believe, how we read and interpret this verse.

Heaven’s Not My Eternal Home

Scripture Text: Revelation 21-22

O Lord you know I have no friend like you.


If Heaven’s not my home then Lord what will I do?

The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,

and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

These lyrics from a popular gospel hymn express the hope of millions of Christians. No one questions that the belief that heaven will be our eternal home is biblical teaching.

But we ought to. For it is certainly not the vision we get in the Book of Revelation. In Chapters 21-22, we have John’s vision of the life that is coming after the Eschaton. And in his vision, our eternal home is not an ethereal heaven above, but a recreated earth. The new Jerusalem descends from heaven to a new earth. There it will be the eternal resting place of God and God’s people.

In Revelation, we do not rise to heaven, but heavens descends to us. As John says, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3). So we ought to look forward with anticipating joy to this glorious union of heaven with earth.

John’s vision is deeply incarnational, as is the theology of the whole New Testament. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is the proclamation of the Gospel of John, and of all the New Testament. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, in every sense of being.

The New Testament hope is not the Hellenic hope, the hope that at death our immortal souls will be set free from the corrupting flesh. Blessedness for Plato and many of his fellow philosophers is the liberation of the soul from its bodily prison. The soul is blessed in its nakedness.

The New Testament hope, on the other hand, looks forward to that great day when mortal flesh should put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).  Rather than standing naked before God,  the apostle Paul looks eagerly to that day when our souls are clothed with their new heavenly bodies (see 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). And our personal hope is the hope of all the material universe, which groans in longing for that  day when it will come to share the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21).

Eastern Orthodox theology puts this great hope into the maxim: God became a human being in order that human beings may become divine. I love this way of expressing God’s purpose in both creation and redemption. We human beings—bodies, mind, spirits, and social units—are destined by God to be one with God’s own life. No wonder we are encouraged to pray constantly: Thy kingdom come!