The Heavenly City
May 26, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Revelation 21:1-22:6
Oh to have been John the Elder and to have experienced this vision first hand. The holy city laid out before me. Soaring walls, sparkling with jewels made worthless by their quantity. Streets paved with gold transparent in its purity. The presence of God so overwhelming, so ubiquitous, designated holy spaces like the temple are no longer needed and all light comes from the divine presence, radiating from the city, streaming through the gates.
And what gates. Twelve of them, three in each wall, each made from a single pearl, attended by an angel. Gates never shut by day and there will be no night. Gates through which flow people from all nations, all tribes, seeking intimacy and renewal with God. Gates through which no one unclean, no one practicing abomination or falsehood, shall pass.
Every time I read this beautiful section of scripture, a little voice in my brain speaks up with a little annoying question: If the gates are wide open, why don’t all the unclean people, all those practicing abomination or falsehood, just waltz in?
When God closes the garden of Eden – and yes, there are parallels between Revelation’s holy city and Genesis’ holy garden – he places cherubim, mystical half man, half beast, winged creatures, with swords flaming and turning to guard the tree of life from a fallen creation. Yet the angels at the gates of the heavenly city seem to bear no weapons nor have any sort of enforcement role. In addition, John’s vision lacks any of our own popular culture additions. St. Peter doesn’t sit at a desk with a big book or long list, a giant key, sorting people one by one and letting only those on the list pass through. His vision lacks giant scales where God weighs our sins against our good deeds, or a one-on-one interview with Jesus where we’re called to account for what we’ve done. Some of these images do appear elsewhere in scripture, but not here. To me it appears pretty much anyone could join the incoming throng, just walk through the gates, and bask in the healing, renewing, eternal presence of the Risen Christ.
Something else also bothers me. What if I’m among the unclean? What if somewhere along the line I’ve practiced abomination. What if somewhere along the line I’ve practiced falsehood. Or, to back up to the beginning of chapter 21, what if I’m among the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters and the liars? Upon deeper reflection, if I’m honest with myself, if I’m honest in my understanding of the teachings of Jesus, there is no what if. If even thinking violence out of anger is murder, than I am a murderer. If having dreams about Gwyneth Paltrow in her pre Goop days makes me an adulterer, than I’m an adulterer. If participating in the American self centered, consumeristic, image focused economy makes me an idolater, then I’m an idolater. If not willing to stand up for my faith at any cost makes me a coward, then I’m a coward. If all the times I’ve stretched or spun the truth to my advantage makes me a liar, then I’m a liar. The apostle Paul reminds us, after presenting similar lists of his own, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and I’m no exception.
A holy city promising completeness, healing, security, love, new life. A fallen humanity. Unguarded gates. Millions, billions, of people streaming in. A prohibition against those who are unclean. How can this work? How can this be?
In New York City, a place of high tech alarm systems, security cameras, private guard services, and six deadbolts on your apartment door, one doorway is never locked. In fact it doesn’t even have a lock. It also doesn’t have a guard, or a security system or even a camera. Any time, day or night, anyone – without telling who they are, without presenting identification, without signing in, can walk through that door. Inside is a reasonably clean public bathroom – something so valuable in downtown New York City they’re listed in guidebooks and on web sites. Free food if you’re hungry. A warm, safe place to sit if you’re weary. Someone to talk to if you’re lonely. A place to sleep if you’re in need of one. Access to medical care if you’re hurting. Help finding a job if you’re unemployed. Help taming personal demons if such help is needed. Inside those doors exists a feeble, sometimes misguided, always well intentioned, divinely inspired attempt to create a little piece of God’s kingdom, God’s heavenly city (minus the jewels, gold and perfect symmetry) here on earth.
Anyone can walk in, any time. But I’ve known people, starving to death people, freezing cold people, tortured by personal demons people, in need of lifesaving medicine people, to sit outside those doors, for days, for weeks, for years and refuse to come in.
They’d rather freeze than follow some basic rule or limit their freedom. They’d rather starve than admit they needed help. Their personal demons might be their mortal enemies but our demons also become our friends so we resist change, resist healing, resist the possibility for a new life. Our personal demons can even convince us we don’t deserve God’s freely offered love. We don’t deserve to be healed, renewed, restored, to be celebrated as children of God. So we stay outside. We turn our backs. We walk away.
Or maybe we get up our courage and walk in. I don’t think those from every nation, from every tribe who stream in through the heavenly gates are all that different from the rest of us. If so heaven would be a lonely, limited space. Dozens, thousands, hundreds of thousands would be gathered around the throne – maybe millions, but certainly not uncountable multitudes. I think, in fact I know, something happens when we see the light streaming through the gates, become aware of our own darkness, our hunger, our hurt, our pain, our demons and idols, our lies and abominations and seek out the lamb upon the throne. Something happens as we enter the gates, as we’re greeted by the angel, as we’re bathed in light. Something happens as our tears are wiped away, as our pain is relieved, as we’re accepted at the great feast. We’re no longer who we were. We become new. New because of the grace of an all loving, all healing God. New because in all our brokenness we chose to walk through the gates. The gates no one unclean may enter because as we walk through, as we accept Christ’s invitation, we’re washed clean by the blood of the lamb.