“Book Work” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! This is it! An exciting day for me. It’s a day I have been anticipating, and maybe you have, too. This is the day you get to listen to and I get to preach a sermon from Revelation 22! It should not be a surprise to anyone who has taken even a cursory glance in my office or around the Gathering Area that I am a big fan of trees, especially the Tree of Life. What was less obvious to me was how deeply this imagery is embedded in the Bible, and what I see as its relevance to our lives and to the witness of the Church.
I want to start with a question: it’s the first, but possibly not the last question I will ask during the sermon. Ready? What does the sign at the end of the church driveway say? Tim Morphew is not allowed to answer, because he’s the one who told me what to put on the sign. Sun Worship 9:30 am is only partially correct; that stays up there all the time. It says: Living God’s Kingdom Here and Now. This will be a relevant phrase as you study the Sermon on the Mount during the coming months, but it is really what the entire New Testament is pointing toward. Revelation 22 is not only a vision of the end of time, it’s a prescription for here and now.
I mentioned in the May newsletter the book I’ve been reading called Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. There is a lot in that book which I can’t address today, but it has pulled together some themes which resonate with me. The authors begin by wondering about the Roman Church’s focus on the crucified Jesus, dead or dying on the cross, as the central symbol of our faith: how does putting violence and death at the center of our identity effect how we view who we are and what we do as followers of Jesus? The two authors go on a search through the art of the early church to see when an image of Jesus on the cross first appears. It is not until 900AD, in what is now Germany, where folks at that time were compelled at the end of a sword to convert to Christianity and become part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Of course, there were other images of Christianity and the kingdom of God before and since. If you have ever been in a Greek Orthodox Church, or churches from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the worship space is probably topped by a dome which is painted deep blue on the inside with gold stars and surrounded with images of the saints. Jesus might be represented there, too, often in the form of a shepherd, surrounded by sheep and green pastures, or as Christus Victor, the resurrected Christ. The Church represented Creation (the sky and stars) as the earthly embodiment of God’s kingdom: not only in its physical location, but in the way it interacted in the world. Imperfectly, for sure, but the place which sought to model God’s love for the world and God’s vision and mission for the world.
The kingdom of God is not about destroying what is now, or turning ourselves and the world into something different; it is about returning to what and whom God created us to be. I have mentioned previously that the Celtic cross — like the one on the chancel table here — represents Christ emerging from the light of Creation; that Christ saves us by removing the sin which has obscured the image of God which is our deepest identity, and restoring us to whom we were created to be so we can do what we were created to do. Brock and Nakashima write, “the [early] church responded to Creation with praise and joy, and sought to yield fruits of love, justice, and compassion.”[i]
Our Bibles begin with the story of Creation, and how God declared it to be good. A man and a woman are part of that creation, and God places them in a garden — a place where Creation is celebrated and there is enough for all. This passage from the end of the last book in our Bibles brings that narrative and that vision full circle. Of course, a lot has happened between the beginning of Creation and the end of time. Right from the get go, Adam and Eve, the first people in the garden, decided that they wanted more than God had given them, and they disobeyed God’s orders regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We’ve been coming down on the evil side of that knowledge of ever since — not just in our personal interactions, but in systems which privilege some and oppress others: rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile, black and white, war and peace — we have created human systems which were never intended to be part of God’s kingdom.
Jesus Christ came as the Word made Flesh: God’s gift of love to the world. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, but Jesus also lived God’s kingdom — on earth, in the present. Jesus taught his disciples — and that includes us — to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Revelation 22 tells us what God’s kingdom is going to look like at the end of time, because Who wins? Christ wins. And when Christ wins, Creation is restored to its proper alignment and humanity to its proper allegiance. Verse 3 says, “Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.” The tree of the knowledge of good and evil from the garden of Eden has been renewed: it is now the tree of life, growing in the center of the city of God, with a variety of fruit for all people, and leaves which are for the healing of the nations. Jesus, our Shepherd and Savior, is also the Lamb upon the throne: sacrificed and resurrected for our sake, and worthy of all blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever. Amen! Who wins? Christ wins.
I believe, with all my heart, that this is the biblical vision of the kingdom of God. Worshipping the Lamb and seeking the healing of the nations with justice and compassion are not two different things — they are two aspects of the same thing. They are what we are supposed to be doing here and now. This is the witness of the Bible, and the teaching of Jesus Christ. I shared with some folks out in the garden this week a story about St. Francis of Assisi, renowned for his piety, his poverty, and his love of Creation. He was at work in the monastery garden, hoeing cabbages. Some novices came to him and asked, Father Francis, what would you be doing if you knew that Christ was coming back today? And Francis straightened up and leaned on his hoe and said, I’d be hoeing cabbages. There’s nothing particularly saintly about hoeing cabbages; maybe your work is different and equally ordinary. But if everything we do is working toward the kingdom of God, then there’s never a bad time to do what we’re doing, even if it is seemingly small or modest. Jesus says, “See, I am coming soon! Blessed be the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” That is our summer book work: yours and mine. Blessings to you and to Pastor Tim as you study and live the kingdom of God here and now. Amen.
[i] Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire Beacon Press, 2008 p104.