So how does all this end, in your own imagination? I don’t mean what is death like, or your own “end,” but the whole shebang: How is God going to bring this great drama of creation to a close? What does salvation or resurrection or eternal life or heaven, or whatever it is we are hoping for, look like, or feel like, when it’s finally all said and done?
Maybe we picture a gigantic family reunion around one big table, all the grandmas and aunties, cousins and parents, the friends who are like family, all gathered together. Then there’s the vision of clouds and angels, happily playing harps or leading a big parade through heaven. To tease my partner David just a bit, I wonder if he imagines something like the back country of Glacier National Park, more or less untouched wilderness, with people far enough apart not to get in each other’s way. I don’t know what my own vision is, but I am at least hoping for a big Star Trek-style tour of the universe from beginning to end, and I insist on seeing every dinosaur that ever was. What about you?
The reason I ask is that whoever wrote the book of Revelation—I’m sure that’s everyone’s favorite book—anyway, when that person got done with all the scary stuff, the seven-headed dragon, and the anti-Christ and the Armageddon to end all armageddons, we get this passage today: A vision of how it all ends, or maybe how it begins again. It is a city in a garden, or a city-and-a-garden. That’s odd to me, especially since “city in a garden” is the motto of Chicago, and as much as I love Chicago and the communities that surround it, a vision of the reign of God it ain’t, hardly a picture of the peaceable kingdom, or the justice that assures everyone has what they need, or the charity extended to all, by all, no matter our color or where we come from.
Thing is, today’s great cities are very much like those ancient ones the visionary John knew: earthly cities, brutal and broken. And still John can imagine a city of God’s design: Instead of walls, both seen and unseen, open doors that welcome everyone. Instead of temples separating what is holy from what is not, the whole city is a sanctuary, where God is unconfined, and God’s grace flows freely. Instead of the shadow of narrow alleys or the glare of advertising, God’s glory reveals what is good in both light and darkness. Instead of good food and clean water for some, and lead-laced poison and food deserts for others, one crystal stream quenches every thirst, and the tree of life rises on both its banks, with an abundance of fruit. And from that tree come leaves that heal the nations, and all of those nations are welcome in that city, and all of them bring their glory to God.
Now that’s what I call an eternal city. And it’s a long way from the sad and suffering cities of the earth to that heavenly city-and-a-garden built and planted by God and revealed in Christ. So how do we get there from here?
Well, by following Lydia, of course. Lydia, woman of Thyratira, dealer of purple goods, an unusual woman in her day, perhaps, prosperous apart from any man, a free woman. She was a successful woman of her own earthly city, but when she discovered faith in Christ in the words of Paul, and when she was bathed in the crystal waters of that other city in her baptism, and ate of its fruit, she knew just how to respond: She opened her home and began to practice the hospitality she beheld for a moment in that eternal city, and began to live now as a citizen of that city yet to come.
A few stories back it was Tabitha, who having seen that city in faith, began to make clothes to adorn those in her earthly city who didn’t have anything to wear. And don’t forget Cornelius, whose Gentile faith pushed Peter to reconsider whether those rules about clean and unclean were important enough to deny citizenship in the city to come. They weren’t.
And so the story goes: Christian after Christian who sees the city in faith, is bathed in the water, eats of the feast, then becomes part of God’s restoration crew, sharing freely of the hospitality of God in Christ, living now as citizens of the city-and-a-garden to come, as if it was already here, even though it is obviously not. There’s a list of saints a mile long, most of whose names are long forgotten. Though we all remember some, I’m sure: Miepje and Patsy and Kathie, three men named Bill. We each have our list.
What’s the distance between Chicago’s earthly city in a garden and the city-and-a-garden announced in Revelation? It’s not actually very far at all from here to there. In fact it may be right on top of us now, just waiting for us to start opening the doors. We have our own Lydia to lead us, along with a Barbara, a number of Jameses and Johns, Marthas and Marys, a Jack and an Amy and some Daniels and Claires. And don’t forget Carolyn and Kristin, Tim and Tom—this could go on for a very long time, so I’ll stop, because I wouldn’t be finished until I said all our names, all of us a part of God’s local building restoration and garden crew. And all around us, people lying on mats, waiting to be healed, to be invited into the city that never fades.
And it all starts with us remembering day by day, week by week, that we are always wading in that other city’s crystal waters, always eating of its abundant fruit, sent with leaves for the healing of nations, and that the name of the Holy One is written on our foreheads. At any moment it is within us to reveal the city to which we belong, and invite everybody, everybody, everybody to come along.