Reflecting on today’s three readings, it struck me that the first is about faith, the second about hope, and the last (the Gospel), about charity / love.
As bishop, I often wonder: when the Lord looks at us, looks at our diocese, what does he see? What makes him smile? The answer is: faith, hope and charity in us. That’s our beauty. And here today is this holy trio.
In the 1st reading, faith was mentioned twice. Paul and Barnabas were encouraging the new converts to persevere in the faith. In the Gospel we heard Jesus saying: ‘I give you a new commandment, love one another; just as I have loved you, you too must love one another.’ And in the middle, in the 2nd reading, came hope. The word wasn’t used, but what’s described there is exactly what we hope for.
It’s hope that drives us. And here is hope in the middle of our three readings. A French poet once imagined Faith and Charity as two elder, rather stately sisters walking along, and in the middle, between them, tugging at their hands, is their little sister, Hope. She is jumping and skipping and hopping, pushing ahead. And it’s she, the little one, who’s really leading the other two. Or think of how dogs take people for walks. There is the dog, sniffing, listening, excited, spotting a rabbit, pulling at the leash. Yes, it’s our hope that keeps us believing and loving. It’s hope that keeps us young, that stops us being cynical and miserable, ‘moaning for Scotland’.
So let’s explore this 2nd reading.
‘I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth; the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared and there was no more sea. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband.’
Here’s a first thought: how big our hope is. Often we think of heaven too narrowly: heaven is where I’ll be OK, I’ll be happy, and see my friends again. But God’s horizon is broader.
There will be ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ The whole of creation, universe, nature will be transformed. We will have a whole new environment. ‘There will be no more sea.’ That sounds strange. Many people love the sea. The language is symbolic, of course. In fact, the ancient Israelites, the Jews, generally didn’t like the sea. It seemed to them huge, chaotic, destructive. Think of a tsunami. So, ‘no more sea’ means creation no longer at war with itself, no longer undermined or threatened by the enemy within, creation at peace. It’s another version of Isaiah’s vision of the lamb and the lion lying down together.
‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem.’ Here’s another dimension: a whole new way of living together, humanity at peace. I know a 13 month old baby who smiles at everyone he meets. And sadly you think, how long will that last? When will that be knocked out of him? We don’t smile at everyone we meet. But in the heavenly city we will. We will because each of us will be a bringer of joy to everyone else. We will simply delight in each other.
And this city, this new human world, will be ‘as beautiful as a bride all dressed for husband’. We will correspond completely to God’s hope for us. In the beginning, we were made in his image and likeness, reflecting him. We’re always in his image, but not always in his likeness. We live in ‘the land of unlikeness’. But in the new Jerusalem, the likeness will be restored to the image. Sin will be no more. God will delight in us and we will delight in him.
And so it goes on: ‘You see this city? Here God lives among men. He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them.’ Yes, there will be a new world, there will be new relations among ourselves, because God will be with us. At the heart of Jerusalem was the Temple, the house of the living God, who had pitched his tent among his people and made a covenant with them. We will be unbreakably, indissolubly bonded, married to God: he with us, we with him. He in us, we in him.
Then there comes one of the most wonderful line in all Scripture: ‘He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or crying or sadness. The world of the past has gone.’
‘He will wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ That’s what a mother does to her child often enough. Don’t you think that behind the eyes of each of us, there’s a kind of build-up of tears, a great sack of them? Isn’t there, in the heart of each of us, a great bag of sorrow? Every one of us has lost something precious, everyone of us has been disappointed and hurt. Every one of us is secretly grieving over something. Every one of us knows that the people we love are going to die, and we will too. And the picture in my mind is this: when we do die and meet Christ, this sack inside us will burst, and the tears, the accumulated tears, will all pour out. And God will wipe away every one of them. How I don’t know. How the terrible evils of human history, of what we’ve done to each other over the centuries, how that’s put right, I don’t know. But the word is: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ God’s tender touch can do even that. ‘And death will be no more, and there will be no more mourning or crying or pain – for the former things have passed away.’
That’s our hope. This is why the little child in us still skips along, keeping our faith and love fresh. This is why the dog is straining at the leash.
So when a loved one dies, don’t just grieve. Think of what God is doing for them. Think of them entering, being added to, that city above. Generation after generation, God is at work, secretly building the new Jerusalem out of us. And one day He will reveal it to the eyes of all of us.
‘Behold, I make all things new.’ That’s how the reading ends. It’s the voice from the Throne that says this, that is God the Father. In the whole of the Bible, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, this is the last direct word of God (the Father) to humanity, to us. ‘Behold, I make all things new.’