Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 1 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 16:9-15; Ps 67; Rev 21:10,22-22:5; Jn 14:23-29
It starts with a tree, and it ends with a tree. There is no doubt in my mind that the writer of Revelation did this deliberately, ending the text with this vision of the tree of life at the centre of the city at the end of time, and probably at least some of the people who gradually put together the canon of scripture recognized it too, when they came to place this strange book last of all. We go back to the Genesis story which started the whole complicated, terrible, beautiful narrative of humanity struggling and straying in this broken world, and take from it the image of the tree of life, that tree which we lost in the dark mists of our imagining; that it is this image which comes back at the end, the living tree restored to us, the nations healed by its leaves, the lost rivers reclaimed. The garden where we began, and the cities in which we have struggled towards God, towards understanding, towards some vision of what we might be, the garden and the city come together now, and it is all redeemed, and the world is not abandoned or condemned, but made new.
Strange and problematic as Revelation can be—as it mostly is, even here, with that glancing but unfortunate mention of the “unclean” being left outside—this final vision, this tree restored to us, this union of city and garden in one place of water and healing and holiness, is a literary masterstroke, and a theological one as well, the only place where someone dares to give us an image of the great reconciliation of all things; Paul speaks of it over and over, alludes to change and mystery and transformation, but only John of Patmos has the sheer daring to try to describe it. And it is perhaps not entirely his fault if later readers insisted on taking that description literally, rather than as a sweeping work of poetry. A tree at the start of it all, and a tree at the end. And, of course, there is a tree at the centre of the story too—the tree of the cross, the wood which is death and from which life comes, symbol of God’s self-offering, the source of the rivers of living water.
This is important not only because it is a strikingly elegant piece of literary structure which was created, not by a single individual, but by a community over time, and perhaps also simple accident—that alone would make it interesting to me, but not necessarily so much to everyone else. It is important because it reminds us that the story isn’t over yet, that we are living in the midst of it. That we live, as it were, between trees. Between times. In a narrative unfolding, of which we are called to be a part.
And this is part of what Jesus is telling his disciples in today’s Gospel. This reading is a short excerpt from the very long “farewell discourse” in John, in which Jesus returns to a few major themes in different variations, but one of those themes is the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the role of the Spirit in continuing to unfold truth over time. It is the balance between the understanding that God’s work was in some sense completed at Easter, but in another sense must still be worked out in history, and that we are not alone in that working out, but guided by the ongoing presence of God in the Spirit; that what we are and what we mean has to be gradually understood, gradually taught to us, that we are reading, and re-interpreting, and even to some degree writing the story still.
We saw some of that in the reading from Acts last week, as Peter’s dream led to the revolutionary inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant. This week Peter has another dream—and then discovers that the “man from Macedonia” is actually a woman, something which probably surprised and possibly disturbed him, but which was another part of our slow growth in understanding, the dreams and hopes and visions we read through our own cultural lenses, and must then check against the real people who come and respond in the real moment.
And as Peter’s dreams and the Council of Jerusalem struggled towards the shape of the new entity that would be the church; as most of the books of our scriptures were stitched together by editors out of bits and pieces, and the final canon worked out in communities of interpretation over several centuries; so we work now, with our hopes and dreams and lived experiences, talking—we hope—to each other, putting together the scattered fragments of revelation and scholarship, working it out in what we say and what we do together, towards that final reconciliation.
The church has often been tempted to suppose that we are in a closed process, that things have pretty much been sorted and settled permanently, at the crucifixion, or the resurrection, or when the canon of scripture was fixed, or when the last truly ecumenical council met in 787, or whenever seems most right to us. But the structure of Revelation to John reminds us, as Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit reminds us, that this is far from our real case, that we are still in the middle of an unfolding of the truth, that the Spirit is always teaching us, guiding us, bringing new meanings we had not anticipated out of the old visions.
There are some obvious ways in which this is happening in the church right now—we can think especially of our developing understandings of gender and sexuality, the painfully slow struggles towards the recognition of the potential sacramentality of same-sex and same-gender relationships, the undoing of our reliance on strict categories labelled “male” and “female” and the restrictions they have placed on our lives—an expansion, in a way, of Peter’s discovery that the man from Macedonia was a woman named Lydia. Or we can think of our relationship with the Indigenous people of Turtle Island, our realization that the residential school system, for all the church’s good intentions, was a system of corporate sin for which we must repent and take responsibility, the work of bringing together Indigenous spirituality and the Gospel and the ways that this changes, deepens, our understanding of what the Gospel in its fullness means. Struggling with the difficult knowledge of good and evil, knowing how often, even without intending, we incline towards evil, still we hold that memory, that vision, of the tree of life at the centre of the redeemed city.
And as with the church as a body, so for each of us as individuals. Over and over, as we make our way through our lives, we discover that those things which had seemed to be fixed and certain truths are partial at best, that our understandings must change, that the foundations are always being shaken, that our carefully constructed frameworks must be abandoned or renewed. The story is not finished, and we do not know in advance where it may take us. The only certainty is that we are not alone. If we call the Holy Spirit the comforter, we should think not the comfort of stability, for there is no real stability in this world; but the comfort of presence on the road, the energy that draws us always onwards, the source of visions, and the provocation that forces new readings of those visions, the unfolding of truth and justice and love. It is a comfort that is not always very comfortable. A peace that is not the peace of this world, but, like it or not, the only kind of peace we are offered.
So we try to live in that peace, and build that peace, the peace that does not live in certainty but in movement and hope. The hope that the garden and the city, our half-dreamed past and our difficult present, may come together, that there will be those rivers, that final tree restored to us, its leaves for all our healing—and that there will be nothing unclean not because God has excluded the people we happen not to get on with, but because, as Peter learned, the boundary between clean and unclean is always being broken down. Do not let your hearts be troubled, we are told, and do not let them be afraid—although they will, inevitably they will, the trouble and the fear will come, and come again.
But we must try, at least, to hold them lightly, to believe that the love which is greater than all things has not abandoned this poor world. That there is still, there is always, something new to come, for us and for all things, and a great newness at the far horizon, like a vision descending at dawn.