by Kenneth Padley; St Albans Cathedral 17th October 2021
Psalm 126; Proverbs 8.12-21; Revelation 21.1-5a
Martin’s Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York depicts gratuitous blood-letting between Protestants and Catholics in the late nineteenth-century American metropolis. The message of the film is that violence begets violence and that religion might have a significant role in the process. The movie ends, however, with a ray of hope as the graves of the chief protagonists decay away against a backdrop of New York seeming to ‘grow up’ through successive scenes of development in the city’s built environment. The implication is that things have moved on and that we are dealing with a tale of two cities, a flawed past and a progressive present.
However, in a twist of irony, the very last shot of Gangs of New York, portrays the World Trade Centre standing proud against the skyline. The film was recorded prior to 9/11 but released afterwards. If that final scene had been planned as an assertion of optimistic progress, viewed in retrospect it implies the exact opposite. This unintended conclusion to the film displaces the myth of progress with a more cyclical pattern of growth and decline, catastrophe and revitalisation.
Twenty years on, we are still exploring these themes. Last month’s anniversary of 9/11 included bold claims of recovery – while in the wings the city of Kabul was succumbing to an insurgent takeover. Less dramatic but nearer to home, our great city has been cautiously reopening after coronavirus. What might revitalisation for St Albans look like? And might it ever be permanent or will it always be cyclical?
Revitalisation is a theme which resonates with many religious traditions, Judaism and Christianity among them. The Hebrew Scriptures are stuffed with examples of decline and failure followed by hope and restoration.
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion :
then were we like unto them that dream.
Turn our captivity, O Lord : as the rivers in the south.
They that sow in tears : shall reap in joy.
For Christians, these Old Testament narratives of revitalisation find supreme and personified expression in the life of Jesus. In Jesus we meet a jobbing carpenter from an obscure village who met a gruesome death. However, he was vindicated at Easter in the ultimate reversal by God of all that tarnishes and destroys.
The resurrection of Jesus is Biblical revitalisation par excellence. It is a motif which projects towards the last days and that passage which The Right Worshipful Mayor read to us. His text was taken from a vision of the end times from the book Revelation, in fact from the penultimate chapter of the entire Bible. We heard how in those end times God’s renewal will be like a new and perfect Jerusalem replacing the flawed cities of earth.
Subsequent verses share more information about what this renewed city will be like. New Jerusalem will be a reality which excludes evil and whose superiority is likened to gold and gems. It will be a city where the gates are never shut; this is because there is no threat – it will be a realm of constant peace and harmony. And it will be a city which is completely filled by God’s presence. One of the weird details given in Revelation is that the new Jerusalem will be cubic, a space as long as it is wide as it is high. This is not a challenge to civil engineers so much as a theological allusion. It is an allusion to the one space in ancient Jerusalem which was famously cubic. That space was the inner sanctum of the Temple, the holy of holies, the place where God’s presence was thought to be most fully known on earth. It was a space where only the High Priest could go and then but once a year. By contrast, in the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21, the holy cube is not a secretive room in a building for an elite; rather it will be a reality which pervades the whole city.
It may come as a disappointment to some here today that the character in Revelation 21 who sits on the throne and says ‘I am making all things new’ does not wear the splendid insignia of the city of St Albans. Rather he is an even higher authority, God himself. Nonetheless, biblical narratives of revitalisation (including Revelation 21) are stories which can fund earthly hope and our very human efforts at rebuilding. They are visions which inspire and exhort us with what might be possible here and now. They call us back to the godly values on which good government should be based (as in the first lesson from Proverbs), and they point us towards the need to do the right thing for the common good. Biblical visions of revitalisation encourage plans which transcend party politics and which invite projects that will stand the test of time and not evaporate like the sound and fury of a passing festival.
Biblical narratives of revitalisation can fund earthly hope and reconstruction. Nonetheless we need to heed the warnings of history, including that arresting image of the twin towers at the end of Gangs of New York, and the cyclical patterns of decline and rebirth seen in Holy Scripture. Contrary to the belief of some singers and politicians, things do not always get better. And this, friends, is where the Christian metaphor of the city takes one final turn.
Back in the year AD410, the inhabitants of Rome experienced a disaster greater than anything we have known in our own day. The city was overrun by Goths, (that is Germanic invaders, not the grungy teenagers who hang around the back of St Albans Civic Centre). The events of AD410 threw the whole Empire into tumult because they challenged foundational rhetoric of Rome: the Eternal City had fallen.
The defeat of Rome posed a particular propaganda problem for Imperial Christians. For close to a century since the conversion to their faith of the Emperor Constantine, 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 worshipping the city’s former deities?
Against this backdrop of political and polemical catastrophe, 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 these cyclical patterns of decline and recovery 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 to be 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 evil and good. 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.
Augustine’s City of God is a healthy dose of scepticism against unrealistic over-optimism. It turned the critique of the pagans because it explained why even an ostensibly Christian Rome might have fallen. And, in addition, it asserts that we must still strive for the best on earth, including revitalisation, while simultaneously inviting us to lift our horizons through faith to that new and perfect city which is to come, Jerusalem the Golden, the end time realm where God will dwell with his people and in which all things will truly and fully be made new.