Saturday, May 4, 2013

No Churches in the New City

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Easter 6
May 5, 2013
William G. Carter

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God . . . I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 

We continue on our Easter journey through the book of Revelation, and are drawing closer to the end. Our guide is the prophet John, who has a series of visions on the little, rocky island of Patmos. It is the Lord’s Day, the day of worship. If he had been worshiping with his congregation in the great city of Ephesus, they would be gathering to sing the hymns and offer the prayers, patterned after the Jewish synagogue of gathering, hearing God’s Words, responding, and departing in joy. John recalls all of this until heaven interrupts.

Visions come. John sees the great conflict between good and evil, not as a once-and-done battle, but as a cycle of maneuvers and responses. He does not avoid the painfulness of life as we know it, where famine happens somewhere in the world, where brutality all too frequently breaks out. But he sees also the splendor of God’s throne in the center of all things. The door to heaven has opened, the truth is fully known, and there is One seated upon the throne.

As we move toward the end of the book, we begin to see the destination of where all life is heading, at least the life that remains with God. God triumphs over evil, even if we cannot see totally how God sifts everything out.

Then John looks, and he sees a city fall out of the sky. It is the New Jerusalem. It’s not the Old Jerusalem. It resembles it, but it is infinitely new, polished and gleaming. It is far more glorious than any city on earth. No garbage blowing down the street, no dark alleys, no homeless poor looking for hope. John goes to great lengths to describe this city full of precious jewels, some so precious that the words don’t translate well from Greek into English.

The prophet strains to describe what he sees in his vision. It is an extraordinary vision. As John sees this, takes it all in, as he sees the shining city coming down from heaven, the New Jerusalem, he discovers there is no temple in the heart of the city. How curious! For Jerusalem was always defined by its temple. Surely John would know that, particularly given how much of the Jewish scripture he quotes as he describes his visions. Revelation is full of lines from the Psalms and the prophets, all woven into a fresh tapestry of praise. The praises of God spoken through the centuries are revisited and claimed, the same praises that Israel sang in its temple. But there is no temple to generate the music, no temple to employ the priesthood, no temple to officiate over sacrifices that might bring people closer to God. There is no temple as the meeting place of God and humanity. No temple at all.

This may seem a curious omission. It will take imaginative energy for some of us church folk to chew on this and digest it. Ever since our birth, and a good time before it, churches have their structures. Congregations have their buildings. The buildings require care and attention. They become the means by which people gather, whether in simplicity as in this Calvinistic meeting house or in high cathedrals filled with art, incense, and precious metals.

“We must have a temple,” isn’t that right? That has long been the mantra for the Presbyterian establishment. As our forebears proliferated across the continent, moving slowly as Presbyterians usually do, they established a temple of sorts in every town they could. Some of these temples are quite impressive. Think of some of the great congregations you have known. They have enormous buildings. I love every time I go to 55th and 5th in New York, and wander into Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, right across the street from Donald Trump’s tower. I love the smell and feel of the wooden pews, or the high lofty pulpit which stands ten steps above reproach. It all reeks of permanence and presence. Songs from the saints have circled toward the ceiling like incense.

But there will be no such structure in the New Jerusalem. No temple at all. May I say that is a bit strange, particularly in situations that a lot of churches are in? The congregation has dwindled to a precious few, but at least they have their building. They will hang on as long as they can as long as they have that patch of real estate. Go up and down Main Avenue in Scranton, there are lots and lots of temples, in some neighborhoods one on every corner. Each temple grounds them, situates them, declares they are somewhere, and the mission field is right there, all around them. But we can also guess what it takes to keep those structures going. It’s an enormous amount of work, and then there are the utility bills.

It used to be that Presbyterian churches had a separate group of trustees. They governed alongside the elders. If the elders focused on heaven and its riches, the trustees tended to earth and its liabilities: patching the roof, replacing the boiler, re-striping the parking lot. Over the years, as elders and trustees consolidated in many congregations, the church building and its needs have continued to demand attention and resources.

I recall the day that I first saw this building. The walls needed a coat of paint, the sanctuary floor had harvest gold carpeting nearly thirty years old. We had a building and grounds committee back then. It was one guy, and he had stopped coming to church, because every time he came, somebody hit him with some complaints. We had a sexton, a wonderful man, except that he couldn’t see well enough to drive a car and his cardiologist had told to stay off ladders. And we had a junk room back in the corner where Room 210 is now located. It was filled chest-high with old curriculum, broken lampshades, filmstrips that we had stopped using (anybody remember filmstrips?). When the day came when the dumpster was brought in to clear out the junk room, one of the people responsible for Christian Education was caught climbing into the dumpster to pull things out.

I’m talking about a temple. A temple takes a lot of effort, requires a lot of money. One of our neighboring congregations, smaller than this one, is spending five hundred thousand dollars on its building and another five hundred thousand dollars on its pipe organ. They tell me it is going to be really, really impressive. Maybe that will help to bring people in. Who can say?

But there is no temple in God’s future. Isn’t that an unusual declaration? The Building and Grounds committee would say, “Hallelujah! We don’t have to have any more meetings!” The funding people would say, “Hooray! We don’t have to raise any more money for the temple.”

So what is John saying to us? What is he pointing to? Those of you who are racing ahead in your minds know exactly what he can see. There will be no more temple because a temple is the meeting ground between people and God, and God’s presence is mediated to the people. The temple is where people congregate, where they gather together to worship and learn, where they embody Christian faith as a communal faith. Yet when all is said and done, when God comes close to God’s own people, there will be no need for a temple. God in Christ is that temple.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus said as much. In the Gospel of John, he points to himself and says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Christian people hear him say “three days,” and they know he is speaking about the temple of his body. But when he said it, he had just gone into the Old Jerusalem temple, turned over the tables of the money-changers and swept out the merchants. All the religious enterprises and rummage sales are not the reasons we come to church any way. We come to church to encounter the Living God. Church is what points us to God. Temple is what points us to God. And if it does not point us to God, it is taking up valuable real estate.

John sees a day when there is no temple. He does not say that to declare the temple is unimportant; oh no, we would not know about God without it! But he does see the day coming when God and people will be in complete peace and harmony with one another. And it will come, not because the people have worked at it, but because God will step over everything that separates his people from himself.

Now perhaps there are some people who are so ready for this day to come that they have stopped coming to church, especially when the weather is nice. “I don’t need to worship God indoors; I can worship God by the trout stream or on the fourteenth fairway or in the park.” Fair enough; and churches can spend far too much time inside when there is a beautiful world to enjoy and a hurting world to serve.

But John points us beyond all this, when there is no intermediary between heaven and earth. In God’s future, there is no Bible for God’s will is completely revealed; the Bible we have points us to that future. In God’s future, there are no more mission projects, because all of God’s work will be accomplished. There will be no more church structures, whether buildings or organizations or budgets or worship bulletins, for they won’t be necessary any more. They will be revealed for what they always were: provisional demonstrations of God’s Kingdom, signs of what will really truly come.

Imagine a church-less temple or a temple-less church. In the meantime, there are some experiments here and there. Our national Presbyterian family is trying to ignite a 1001 new worshiping communities, communities of people who gather around Jesus Christ as it once was, before it was structure, building, and big business. They bring people together to worship and learn in the invisible presence of God. One of my favorites is a small creative community in Pittsburgh. It began in a tattoo parlor, where people who are heavily pierced come to hear about the One who was pierced on the cross for them.

I don’t know how I fit in, with my button-down shirt and suit jacket, in the midst of all that ink. But they believe God is real, right there with them in the grit of daily life. And after the worship songs die down, they welcome everybody to a taco bar in the back of the room.

Imagine a congregation that is not bound by walls, a group of Christian people who gather for Someone greater than bricks and mortar. For them, the cornerstone is not 1912, but Jesus Christ, alive again since 33 A.D. We live in the promise that we will see him face-to-face, just as we come around his table this day. God will be completely with us, and we will be completely with God. And every faithful act we do here and now is a rehearsal of what is to come.

Some time back, our church had a deacon named Mark. He was a faithful man, going every couple of weeks to visit an older woman named Elsie. She had outlived her family, so Mark became her family. She could not get out of her home, so Mark took her whatever she needed. She could not get out to church, so Mark took church to her.

One day he phoned and said, “It’s time for Elsie to have communion. Her health has been a little shaky, and I think we need to go.” We put a date on the calendar. The day came, we met in the parking lot and drove over to the facility where she now lived. When we arrived, however, we were met at the door by someone who told us Elsie had just died. It was completely unexpected. I’m standing there at a loss for words, the tray of bread and grape juice in my hands. I was in shock. About all I could stammer out in my awkwardness was, “But we have come to give her communion.”

Mark turned with a smile and said, “Bill, it’s OK. Right now she is tasting the Real Thing.”

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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