Posted by on May 15, 2022

Sermon by Kenneth Padley for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

based on Revelation 21.1-6

St Michael’s church 15th May 2022

History is repeating itself in eastern Europe. Countries which thought that war was a thing of the past are finding it again an everyday reality or threat. Speaking from Krakow a few weeks ago, the 90-year old mother of my half-sister said how much the images from Ukraine remind her of the ruined Polish cities of her childhood.

Given then that humanity seems trapped in a cycle of renewal and failure, what are we to make of the perfect Jerusalem envisaged by Saint John in today’s reading from the Book Revelation?

It is not as if Saint John was detached from reality. He wrote Revelation in cryptic code-language as a protest against imperial persecution. And lurking in the background of his thought was the catastrophe of 70AD when the Romans had razed Jerusalem after a siege of Mariupol-proportions.

So how could John possibly believe in the radiant vision about which he wrote, a city in which

Death shall be no more,

neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more,

for the former things have passed away.

John imagined the new Jerusalem because he was part of an Easter community, part of a Church which experienced radical otherness in the resurrection of Jesus. If God can raise one person from the dead might he not also shatter the wheel of brokenness which characterises earthly existence?

I want to suggest that John imagined something as amazing as the new Jerusalem not just because of his experience of Easter but also because of his experience of Christmas, the truth of the incarnation that God took flesh in Jesus. Let me explain why I think this. When Saint John’s community celebrated the birth of Jesus they sang the words which we know as the Christmas gospel, John 1.14, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. ‘Dwelling’ in this clause literally means ‘tenting’. It is a specific verb which recalled the experience of God’s people in the wilderness when God’s presence was thought to inhabit their sacred tent of meeting.

That same verb ‘to tent’, the word which describes the presence of God in the wilderness and was embodied in the person of Jesus, is foreseen by John in the new Jerusalem. Quote,

Behold, the tenting / tabernacle of God is with men.

He will tent with them,

and they shall be his people, 

and God himself will be with them;

Indeed, St John thought that the entire new Jerusalem would be marked by God’s tenting.  We know this because of the striking dimensions he gives of the city later in Revelation 21. New Jerusalem, we read, will be as wide as it is long. Now a square makes good sense in terms of urban planning. But then John insists that city will be as high as it is wide – a cube. That is much more peculiar. St John was not setting a challenge to civil engineers nor our imaginations. He was alluding to the Holy of Holies – the inner sanctum of the tent in the wilderness and the later Temple in Jerusalem because this was shaped like a cube.

The Holy of Holies in the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD. But because John knew the truth of Christmas, he was not downcast. He knew that if God could tent / dwell in the person of Jesus, then God could also build a perfect city where his presence is not locked in a secretive room in a building for an elite but becomes a reality for everyone because it pervades the whole city.

The new Jerusalem remains some way off. What are we going to do in the meantime with the frustration of broken earthly communities? To answer that question I want to take us to one more city. Back in the year AD410, Rome was overrun by Goths, (that is Germanic invaders, not grungy teenagers). The events of AD410 challenged the foundational rhetoric of Rome: the self-proclaimed Eternal City had fallen.   

The defeat of Rome posed a particular propaganda problem for Imperial Christians. Since the conversion to their faith of the Emperor Constantine a hundred years earlier, Christians had promoted the cosy assumption that a close union of Church and State would ensure mutual prosperity. However, in AD410, despite offering fervent prayers to the city’s patrons, saints Peter and Paul, Rome had been conquered. Not only was the invader a foreigner, worse still, he was Arian, a Christian heretic who didn’t believe that Jesus is God. Why on earth would the Almighty allow such a thing to happen?! Traditional aristocratic pagans suggested that the problem might in fact be Jesus and wouldn’t it be better if everyone got back to sacrificing to the city’s former deities?

Against this febrile backdrop, the greatest writer of the early Church wrote the greatest Christian apology of the age. It took him 13 years to complete. The man was a Bishop from North Africa, Augustine of Hippo. And his book was called the City of God.

At its heart, Augustine’s City of God is an exploration of the problem of evil, an enquiry into why life on earth is characterised by the cyclical patterns of rise and fall which we have been exploring. Augustine argued that evil is not an active force but a privation, an absence of goodness. And Augustine concluded that this privation is found in every realm on earth. The world, he insisted, is a mixed society of vice and virtue. And this entanglement permeates even the Church: Augustine could not accept a naïve division between those who claimed allegiance to Jesus on the one hand versus everyone else on the other. Augustine understood all society to be characterised by this commingling of good and evil. And he likened this division to two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem, an earthly ‘city’ which glories in itself and a heavenly ‘city’ which glories in the Lord.  These two cities live alongside one another until that day when God ushers in that new and perfect Jerusalem.

Augustine’s City of God is a healthy antidote to unrealistic optimism in the human capacity for progress. It turned the critique of the pagans because it explained why even an ostensibly Christian Rome might have fallen. In addition, it asserts that we must still strive for the best on earth while simultaneously lifting our horizons through faith to that new and perfect city which is to come, Jerusalem the Golden, that end time realm where the God of Christmas and Easter will dwell fully with all his people.


Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons