Revelation's Image of the New Jerusalem
By Reverend Teri Daily
Walking by a River
There are trees on both sides of the river that produce fruit year-round; their leaves provide healing for all the nations. As it’s been said, what we see here is “diversity and abundance without division and limitation.”
Reverend Teri Daily
Response to Teri Daily by Jay McDaniel
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and my parents would sometimes take me downtown to see the San Antonio river. There are trees on both sides of the river, just like in the book of Revelation. And because San Antonio is a tourist town, you can see people from many nations walking the streets. On a festive night people of many nations are happy to be together on the riverwalk amid our delightful differences. We feel "diversity and abundance without division and limitation." There are angels everywhere.
I don't mean the ethereal angels that you can see only in your imagination, but I know these angels are real, too. Whoever said reality is limited to three dimensions? But here I have in mind the concrete angels with lines on their fleshly faces, some of them hobbling on crutches, some running along the sidewalk ahead of their parents, some sitting on benches snuggling as if no one else exists. There are policeman angels and con-artist angels and family-minded angels and street-smart angels. Jewish angels and Muslim angels and Buddhist angels, too. Also some Christian angels, I am sure. One time I saw some Hell's Angels.
I think of these many angels when I read Teri Daily's reflection on Revelation 21:22-22:5. I have friends who tell me that it is primarily a document about resistance against imperial powers in ancient Rome, written from the point of view of the poor and powerless. They are pretty angry at Rome and want it to get its due. "Things are good now," they say, "but they're going to be much better later, when we go to the New Jerusalem and you get your just deserts in hell."
I am told that the writer of the book got his vision by going to a mountaintop, carried by an angel. It is while on the mountaintop that he sees the New Jerusalem coming down to earth. The New Jerusalem is a pretty wonderful place, a home of God among the mortals, with gates that are never shut. It is very accessible -- to all who deserve it. A river runs through it.
For my part, I'd like to stroll along the river of this New Jerusalem and I'd like for everyone, not just the so-called deserving, to stroll, too. I want it to be a little more like the San Antonio Riverwalk. No violence, of course. And maybe the con-artists will have done a little repenting. But I don't see any reason to exclude sinners from the New Jerusalem. I am one myself.
I am sorry that the New Testament ends on such a vengeful note. I see the meanness of the Book of Revelation as contradicting the good shepherd it seeks to celebrate. But the shepherd commands me to forgive others, and I forgive the writer of the book for being vindictive. I might be vindictive, too, if I suffered from so much oppression.
But what I like is the hope the author carried in his heart for "diversity and abundance without division and limitation." It is a hope that I feel when I am in a place filled with divine aliveness, with what the Hindus call jagrita, like the San Antonio Riverwalk.
We process theologians believe that the living God of the universe finds a home in our hearts through such hopes. God is inside each of us -- and between us, too-- when we feel drawn toward diversity and abundance without division and limitation. It is this hope that takes people to riverwalks and rock concerts and shopping malls and marathons. Sometimes the hope is shattered, but it always returns, like a second coming of sorts. The hope is stubborn and persistent, like a savior -- a bodhisattva -- who refuses to give up on anybody.
How shall we name the hope? In a time filled with violence, we might call it reconciliation. Christians like Teri Daily see reconciliation as the work of a superbly natural spirit who was en-fleshed but not exhausted in a carpenter from Nazareth. What a dreamer he was; always in search of angels.
Teri Daily writes:
When we recognize and internalize these truths, then we can begin to truly participate in Christ’s work of reconciliation, in Christ’s ministry of healing. And we do so not because it’s required of us or because we want a future reward; instead, we do that work of reconciliation and healing simply because we know it to be true.
I was walking on the San Antonio River one night and I saw a young couple arguing about something. Not a bad argument, but a serious one. Then something happened -- I don't know what it was -- I saw them reach out toward each other and both say, at the same time, "I am sorry." They kissed and walked down the river, arm in arm.
Is that something of what Teri Daily means by Christ's work? I think they were thinking what God was thinking and God's thinking came into their hearts. In the language of process theology, they were feelings God's feelings, prehending God's prehensions, sharing in God's prayers.
How long did they keep their peace? We would like for our New Jerusalem's to last forever. I would like that. But even a moment of reconciliation is not so bad. Doesn't everything die at last and often too soon? Isn't life too short to be resentful all the time. When they kissed they were exchanging God's breath. Is this your work, Christ of the nations? Is it to help people to turn their swords into plowshares, their anger into kisses? I'll help. Let's go find some angels.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.
Standing on a Mountaintop
Mountains have always held a special place in our religious imagination—from Mount Olympus (believed to be the home of the Greek gods) to the active volcano Mount Agung in Bali (where a Hindu temple sits part-way up to its peak) to Mount Shasta in California (which, according to some Native American legends, was the center of creation). And that’s just scratching the surface of the world’s sacred mountains.
In the Old Testament, Israel’s own story boasts of several. The most well-known is Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb). It’s where Moses saw the burning bush, received his call, and later received the Law. It’s also where, in 1 Kings, God reveals Godself to Elijah. It was on a mountain in the land of Moriah that Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac. The temple itself was built on a mount, more of a hill maybe than a mountain. Christians believe that the transfiguration of Jesus took place on a mountain—tradition has identified the mountain as Mount Tabor, although some advocate Mount Hermon as a more likely location. For many Arkansas Episcopalians, Camp Mitchell on Petit Jean Mountain is a sacred place.
Mountains are often seen as “thin places”—places where the boundary between heaven and earth seems particularly thin, places where we experience God’s presence more easily. Maybe what makes a mountain a good candidate for a thin place is that we feel physically closer to the heavens when on top of a mountain. Maybe it’s because going to a mountain involves, for many of us, leaving the distractions of our busy lives behind. Or maybe it’s because being on a mountain lets us step back and see things in a larger perspective, to survey the world and see how things stand in relation to one another. Whatever the reason, throughout time people have sought out connection with God, and mountains are often the location where that holy connection is most felt.
So it’s not surprising that the angel in today’s reading from Revelation carries the writer of that book (traditionally known as John) to a great high mountain where he sees the holy city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven. Because what we see in John’s vision is a thin place so stretched out that the accessibility of God, the intimacy between creation and God, surpasses anything we’ve experienced. The holy city actually resides on earth, shattering the boundary between the eternal and the historical, the heavenly and the earthly. There is no temple in the New Jerusalem—that which is holy is not set apart. God isn’t set apart. Instead, as we read earlier in the 21st chapter of Revelation, the “home of God is among mortals. He dwells with them.” According to Hebrew tradition, no one could see the face of God and live. But here, in the New Jerusalem, those who worship God do so face to face. And the gates of the city are never shut—God and the city are always accessible.
Not only does the intimacy between God and all creation speak of a beautiful oneness, but that oneness also extends horizontally—to relationships between nations and peoples. We see in John’s vision that the glory of God and of Christ provides continuous light, and by this light all the nations find their way. All kings of the earth add their glory to it. There are trees on both sides of the river that produce fruit year-round; their leaves provide healing for all the nations. As it’s been said, what we see here is “diversity and abundance without division and limitation.” The profound communion and inclusivity of this vision is striking, especially compared to what we so often experience in our own world.
I want to be sure, though, not to give the impression that the early Church was more inclusive or found God more accessible than what we see in Hebrew scripture. Everything in John’s vision finds its roots in the Jewish tradition. In Isaiah we hear these words from the Lord: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” And we see in Jeremiah a beautiful description of intimacy with God: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” So intimacy with God and the inclusion of all nations are part of the Jewish tradition, and that’s exactly what John’s vision captures.
But too often we see this vision of the New Jerusalem as just a dream for the future, with no basis in our current reality. That’s a mistake, and the reason why it’s a mistake has to do with how we come to know who we are at the very core of our being. See, each of us has parts of ourselves that we don’t know, that we don’t understand, that are buried deep within us. We only come to know those hidden or shadow parts of ourselves by projecting them onto the world outside us, where we can see them. Once we can see them in the world around us, if we’re self-aware, we then come to know them in ourselves. That’s why sacred places and particular ways that we encounter the holy are so important. We need churches, temples, mosques, mountaintops, beaches, and other ways to see the holy outside ourselves. But healthy religions give us chances to draw those projections back into ourselves; healthy religions allow us to recognize that the same holiness we see outside ourselves also dwells within us. That’s why Eucharist is so very powerful. As we take in the bread and the wine, we bear witness to the reality that Christ, who is present in the bread and the wine, also dwells in each of us—and if in us, then in all creation. We come to know in a real and concrete way that “the home of God is among mortals.”
In the same way, John’s vision of the New Jerusalem isn’t something that resides outside of us in some distant time. Instead, we are meant to internalize that vision—to see it as the deepest truth about who we are in the here and now, a truth that we’ve forgotten and left buried deep inside. It’s only then that we begin to see the world as it really is, through God’s eyes. Just as when we stand on a mountaintop, our whole perspective changes.
The New Jerusalem speaks to the deepest truth of who we are in relation to God and to one another—it tells us that our differences don’t imply separation, that our manyness doesn’t preclude unity, that the abundance of God doesn’t function on a competitive market model, and that the transcendence of God is precisely what allows God to dwell with and in us, closer to us than our own breath. When we recognize and internalize these truths, then we can begin to truly participate in Christ’s work of reconciliation, in Christ’s ministry of healing. And we do so not because it’s required of us or because we want a future reward; instead, we do that work of reconciliation and healing simply because we know it to be true.
So here are some questions: How would we live our lives if we knew that the New Jerusalem was the deepest truth about who God is and about who we are? Would we have less fear, give more freely, love the earth more, or simply live more joyfully? How would we participate in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation? What would we contribute to heaven on earth? The particularities of our answers will be different for each one of us. But it all starts with living out of our truest selves; it all starts by seeing the world through God’s eyes.
Finally, there is a beautiful Celtic prayer that’s adapted from a passage in a George MacDonald book. The prayer is titled Where Heaven and Earth Meet:
Allow more and more thoughts
of Your thinking to come into our hearts,day by day,
till there shall at last be an open road
between You and us,
and Your angels may go up and down amongst us,
so that we may be Your heaven,
even while we are upon Your earth.
 Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2. Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Commentary on this passage from Revelation by Paul “Skip” Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2009, page 490.
 I owe many of the thoughts in this paragraph to a workshop on Jungian spirituality (There’s More to You than You Think) given by Larry Maze in February 2012.
 From Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.