May 2, 2010
The Fourth Sunday after Easter
Revelation 21 is a passage with familiar language. No more tears. No more death. No more pain. Comforting words for the grieving and tested. But the text also has rich and underexplored imagery. John is trying to give us a glimpse of paradise to come; and it isn’t necessarily fluffy clouds, angels and harps. It’s a bustling city. A New Jerusalem. But heaven can wait, or so we’re told. There’s a cultural connection to this text that’s also focused on the emerging city.
In Shanghai, the 2010 World Expo is being held, and the event theme is “Better City, Better Life.” Expo organizers didn’t realize it, but they just came up with today’s sermon idea.
According to their Web site, “In 1800, only two percent of the global population lived in cities, but by 1950, the figure had risen to 29 percent, and by 2000, almost half the world population had moved into cities. Despite all its glories, there is no denying that the city today, because of high-density living patterns, faces a series of challenges, such as spatial conflicts, cultural collisions, resource shortages and environment degeneration.”
Therefore they’ve penned an expo-gesis, if you will, that could be just as comfortable describing this week’s text as: “‘Better City, Better Life’ the common wish of the whole humankind for better living in future urban environments.” Implicit is Shanghai’s own commitment to green urban development and its status as a major economic and cultural center.
As many of you probably know, The World Expo was previously called the World Fair (or World’s Fair), the first of which was held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. This year’s Shanghai Expo runs from early May through the end of October. The Expo’s lofty goals are to attract 200 participating countries and 70 million visitors.
Host nations often create elaborate buildings as flagships to their expansive fairgrounds. Most notable and iconic of these former World Fairs include the Eiffel Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle. In turn, participating countries construct Disney-esque pavilions to host, feed and educate the thousands of daily visitors. The whole thing is like international ‘show and tell’ on steroids.
In today’s information age, Expos are all about national branding. Countries put their best foot forward to send idealistic messages about who they are and where they’re headed.
“Better City, Better Life” certainly captures that vision. And the United States pavilion is a great example of both that concept and America’s branding for the future. The pavilion is built around four themes: sustainability, teamwork, health and the Chinese community in America. Schematics for the pavilion look like an Asian-influenced, rain forest-meets-city skyline-meets-rock concert.
The Shanghai Expo and St. John both envision the city similarly: no pain, no tears, full of beauty, no enmity between peoples. But Revelation chapters 21–22 expand the image of the new heaven and earth centered on the new city.
In chapter 21, starting with verse 2, we see that the new city is holy and it’s as intentional and lavish as a wedding-day bride. In verse 3, God will sit within this new city. Verse 11 tells us it radiates with splendor as the temple used to. Verse 12 has twelve gates are named for the 12 tribes with Angels stationed therein. Verse 14 tells us that the foundation stones were inscribed with the names of the twelve Apostles. And people think the Catholic Church is nuts, by insisting on the Apostolic Succession, when it is so apparent that Christ made them so important. Verse 23 tells us that God’s glory fills it with light, so we no longer need the sun; fore we have the Son of God. (Actually, there are a great number of references throughout Revelation about God being the light. Hence, where the Church gets all the references of God as light, verses the darkness, etc. But that is for another sermon.) We move to verse 26 where we see the wealth of the nations filling the city. And finally, we have the tree of life in the center of the city, so says chapter 22 verse 2.
So, now I ask, who wants to sign up to build this Expo pavilion? Although this city is glorious, isn’t it still a weird image for heaven? It’s such a counterintuitive choice. Cities are full of busyness, noise, chaos and crime. Isn’t the city the place where we assume humanity is at its worst? We might not remember to lock our doors in the suburbs or exurbs, but we sure do in the city.
So, we might ask why would God choose a city as the picture of sinless paradise? And what does it mean for us and for the church today?
The more obvious vision God could have sent St. John would have been of a garden. It all started in a garden, and it will eventually end in a garden redeemed. We see that, from the image of the Tree of Life being referenced to being placed in the center of the city. That’s a much more poetic ending and a much more heavenly locale, right?
Maybe. In Culture Making, author Andy Crouch suggests a natural progression from the garden to the city. It’s based on the “cultural mandate” that God gives Adam and Eve: Create and cultivate. In the words of Genesis 1:28, be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, have dominion. Just as God brought order out of nothingness, humanity is to bring order out of created-ness.
Let’s look at some of Genesis which might be used to connect Eden to the Revelation City.
Genesis 1–2: God creates a world not yet tainted with sin. A paradise. A peaceful, heavenly garden. Adam and Eve are connected intimately with each other, with God and with their life purpose. They are given a mandate to expand culture; to create and cultivate.
Genesis 3: Adam and Eve give independence from God a try. The results are world-altering - literally. They’re disconnected from God. Their creation and cultivation are cursed and will now be frustrated. They’re removed from paradise and banished from the garden. They have free will. Oh my heavens, what has the world come too?! Which brings us to…..
Genesis 11: Misguided city-building. People are living out their cultural mandate but in human triumph and not divine worship; “us,” “we” and “ourselves” dominate the text. Genesis starts in a perfect garden, with connection to God, connection to each other and a call to divinely inspired culture creating. Ten chapters later, there’s aggressive independence from God and self-aggrandizing vocation in Babel.
Now a city starts to make real sense in Revelation 21. The city is the redemption of Babel and Eden. There’s dense human interconnectedness once again. The restored presence of the Lord is in its center. Created goods; “the glory and honor of the nations” are pouring into it as evidence of the goodness of human creation and cultivation. It’s a “Better City, Better Life” than Genesis 3 without a doubt.
So, now many of you are saying that this is all fine and wonderful, but so what. Okay, so let’s put it in a little perspective. Envisioning heaven as a garden would surely have honored God for his redemption and creative beauty. Everything will be restored to the way the Maker intended it.
But, envisioning heaven as a city honors us, as well. It’s God’s way of saying that the human project still is “very good”, to put it in Genesis words. God is saying that what we create can be good. Things are moving ahead to what is new and not just back to what was old. And we partner with God in ushering in that way.
Therefore, God’s “cultural mandate” still holds today. We’re still charged with creating and cultivating. Our jobs and our free-time pursuits are city-building. We’re to add to the glory and honor of the nations.
We please God by making beautiful art. Organizing complex data into understandable reports. Framing a house. Teaching our daughter to dress herself and tie her shoes. Teaching others.
As we order the world around us, we contribute to the New Jerusalem. General Maximus applied Revelation 21 well in The Gladiator: “Brothers … what we do in life echoes in eternity.”
So, if heaven looks like a redeemed city, and Christ-followers are to pursue God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, then how are we to be redeeming our cities now? Maybe we should be asking, “How could a church in your neighborhood best serve you, regardless of whether you ever wanted to visit it or not?” Given to our small congregation here, I tend to ask this question a lot. Apparently, we haven’t found the answer yet, but we plug along in faith.
Finally, we should view ourselves as the new city. We are the people that can usher the presence of God and deeper human interconnectedness into their worlds.
In The Good, Great Place, Ray Oldenburg argues that by suburbanizing, America has lost its value on locations that promote a casual, public life: cafés, bookstores, pubs, the bygone soda foundation, etc. He calls these types of environments a “third place,” meaning environments that “host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”
Think of Norm walking into Cheers, the Friends gathering at Central Perk or your grandma and the bridge club spending all day at the hair salon together; or in my case, a day in Disneyland in the theme area known as New Orleans Square.
Starbucks was so impressed with the “third place” idea that it made it a corporate mission to become a third place for us all. After home and work, each local store wants to be the place where we hang out with each other. Oldenburg says we’ll have better cities and better lives if we re-establish these types of third places. Jesus would probably agree.
We can join him in redeeming the city by more actively engaging it with our Christian values as we see them in our small denomination.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca