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Heaven on earth: living in the places in-between

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at Choral Evensong at Magdalene College Cambridge, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 18 May 2014:

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I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the metropolitical Cathedral for the province of Victoria in Australia. It is a great pleasure to be back in Cambridge, and to reflect with you on the promise of tonight’s prophetic readings: the promise that we are called to be people who inhabit the in-between places between heaven and earth, and that, in the strength of that hope, we are invited to become people who share with God in the work of becoming a world where ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21.4).

Tonight’s readings both speak words of encouragement and hope to God’s people: our first lesson from the prophecy of Zechariah, speaks words of renewal and hope to the people of God exiled in Babylon where they were unsettled, far removed from their spiritual roots, with little hope of return and recovery. Our second lesson, from the Revelation of St John the Divine, speaks into a similarly unsettled context, but some six-hundred years later. Both communities—the Judean exiles settled at the banks of the meandering rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and the early Christian communities nestled on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean—shared a sense of uncertainty and volatility: whether in exile, or as a minority faith in an established Roman colony in Asia Minor. And our two prophets both speak words of incredible hope and radical change to their communities. They forsee nothing less than the coming among them of the living God: ‘I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy’, God declares to the Judean exiles through the word of Zechariah: ’my house shall be rebuilt in it’. (Zechariah 1.16). ‘The home of God is among mortals and he will dwell with them’, John speaks to the Churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 21.3). And that home for God, both our lessons assure us, is the Holy City Jerusalem.

In our first prophecy from the book Zechariah, the coming of God among his people is centred on the physical restoration of Jerusalem: God himself will rebuild his city. And in preparation for this return, God himself will measure the city and judge its people (Zechariah 1.16). God’s survey of the physical topology of Jerusalem goes hand in hand with his assessment of its people and their values. His new Jerusalem requires a new way of life altogether: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts’, Zechariah prophecies, ‘render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart’ (Zechariah 7.10). God reaches out to those in exile in Babylon and those living in the ruins of Jerusalem who ‘have been hearing the words from the mouth of the prophets’, in the knowledge that those who believe God’s promises will be the people who enable their fellows to re-enter Jerusalem and there to dwell with their God ‘in faithfulness and in righteousness’ (Zechariah 8.8-9). They will rebuild the spiritual life of God’s people in the same way in which God’s surveyors will measure out Jerusalem’s Temple sanctuary to be rebuilt by human architects (Zechariah 2.1-3).

Tonight’s first lesson, then, is not only a vision of what God’s new City and Temple will look like, but what it will be: graced by a great, golden menorah that either pours golden oil or pure gold—the Hebrew is ambiguous—and which clearly signifies God’s presence. The Temple is God’s home on earth: flanked by two olive trees, each symbolising a descendant of the House of David—Joshua, the high priest and Zerubbabel, the governor—it will be a place where spiritual and temporal rulers will act in unison to make Jerusalem a place where people ‘love truth and peace’ (Zechariah 8.10-13).

Because Joshua and Zerubbabel act unitedly and decisively they are the ‘two anointed ones’—or in Hebrew, Messiahs—‘who stand by the Lord of the whole earth’ (Zechariah 4.14). They are God’s ‘proto-Messiahs’ who will fulfil his vision until the day when God himself will reveal himself as Messiah, and give his own life for his own people.

God’s coming to dwell among his people is begun when God sends his two anointed ones to restore the sanctuary of God’s people: sends Joshua and Zerubbabel to lay the Temple’s foundation and bring out the chief corner stone in order to commence God’s work of spiritual renewal (Zechariah 4.8). God’s coming to dwell among his people is completed when God himself accomplishes the work of grace, when God witnesses, as Zechariah foretells towards the end of his prophecy, the death of the One ‘whom they have pierced’ (Zechariah 12.10). The Christ who, by ‘letting himself be pierced’, will ‘open a fountain [of grace] for … the inhabitants of Jerusalem’, as Zechariah promises (Zechariah 13.1). The Christ who, by allowing his own body to be broken on a cross, will ‘cleanse them from sin and uncleanness’ and thus complete the work of redemption (13.1). That work is completed ‘not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit’: is completed when the final high priest from the line of David, the final and greatest ruler, God’s own anointed Son, gives up his own Spirit for God’s people (Zechariah 4.6). And it is at that moment that heaven comes close to earth, is from that moment onward that God may indeed be found in Jerusalem and makes his home there (Zechariah 8.22).

SPC reredos

The cornerstone of grace which brings God close to his people, that Zechariah spoke of, for Christians surely is the bedrock of Calvary. For the threshold to God’s home on earth is found at the foot of the cross. And that is why, throughout the ages, poets and painters, church musicians and sculptors, have given expression to this hope through their artistic gifts. At the heart of the High Altar sanctuary of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne their confidence is reflected in a spectacular, golden, Venetian mosaic of Christ’s crucifixion. There Christ is depicted on the cross, not in darkness or isolation, but surrounded by sun and moon and stars on a vibrant dark blue canopy that forms, as it were, a second lapis lazuli nimbus within the larger silver and gold nimbus that already envelopes the arms of the cross. At his feet the disciples and the believing centurion, both faithful Jews and one time sceptical gentiles, gaze up in worship at the moment when God came to make his home with his people: the moment when God’s Anointed One died on the cross; the time when we, people who have come to faith through contemplating this event, were given a place on the approach to the City of the living God.

The altarpiece in Melbourne’s Cathedral does not place us in the historical city of Jerusalem—Zechariah’s ruined city where people longed for their temple to be rebuilt at the time when Joshua and Zerubbabel laid its foundation stone. Nor does it place us outside the city walls of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death, when those who lived there continued to long for liberty from Roman oppression (and would continue to yearn for freedom of faith long after Christ died). Rather, the reredos in St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne places us at the place where the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalem intersect. It places us at an envisaged place, where we stand the foot of the cross so that we may approach the heavenly Jerusalem, so that we may come close to the place where all have been set free to worship God. In our second lesson, from the Revelation to St John the Divine, that envisaged heavenly place is described as the haven of our redeemed humanity: it is the place where all is made new by the One who has accomplished all when he gave up his Spirit on the cross. For the Divine John that place is ‘the home of God among mortals … where death will be no more’ (Revelation 21.5).

As Christians, we are called to live in the hope of what is yet to come, while also inhabiting the messy realities of our here and now. As Christians we are called to inhabit that envisaged threshold space between the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem. St John’s ‘first things’ that used to enthral people may have passed away, but we can still feel the effects of those ‘first things’ today.

While you and I may never have to face exile for our faith like Joshua’s and Zerubbabel’s contemporaries, many of us will know—first hand or through media reports—people who have had to leave behind their homelands and families in order to enjoy the freedoms we tend to take for granted—I only have to think of the significant number of young Iranian Christians who worship with us at St Paul’s Cathedral. The visions of the new Jerusalems, whether Zechariah’s or John’s; the vision of the city of God where all tears will be wiped off our eyes, and death shall be no more, is not absolution from accepting the many injustices we observe in today’s society. Rather it is encouragement to us to occupy the threshold space between the here and now and the hereafter, encouragement through our action to address some of the wrongs of our own times. That is why at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne we have sent a strong message the government of Australia to protest against Australia’s inhumane and dehumanising asylum seeker policies by displaying an eight-metre-high banner urging the people of our city to ‘fully welcome refugees’. And I am certain that the same reason motivated your Master [Rowan Williams] to speak out so eloquently and prophetically about fighting poverty in this prosperous nation, promoting the work of our volunteer foodbanks.

Today’s lessons of a heavenly place redeemed by God so that his people may live life to the full, are encouragement to us to remember what has already been accomplished. Our lessons are assurance that to those who trust in the work of God, the world has already been set free. At the same time, our lessons challenge us to address the many injustices of our present age. They urge us to take action against the things that still make people ‘mourn and cry, hurt and die’ (Revelation 21.4). As Christians we are called to inhabit a difficult in-between place: not quite in the city of the living God where God will wipe away all tears; still surrounded by the things that still cause those tears; yet already fundamentally delivered from the things that separate us from God.

And because we live on the ‘not-yet-but-already-there’ threshold to the City of God, I give thanks for the prophets’ assurance that the home of God among mortals is among us even though we may often see and experience difficulty and hardship in the communities in which we live and study, worship and minister. I give thanks that, through in our ‘showing kindness and mercy to one another’, we already are, and can become, God’s fellow workers in the cause of making the good news of God’s City known to others (Zechariah 7.10). As we seek to show forth the way to God’s Heavenly City through the ministry of our Cathedrals, Collegiate chapels and parish churches—whether here in Cambridge, in Melbourne, or elsewhere—it is my prayer for you and for me, that God would continually equip us for his work of living and ministering in the ‘in-between places’: that he would give us all needful gifts for building up the body of Christ, so that we can indeed be the messengers and inhabitants of his City in our own generation (Ephesians 4.12).

‘And now him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.’ (Revelation 1.5-6).

 


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