Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Acts 16:9-15; Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29; Psalm 67
This past week Baltimore went to the polls to elect its nominees for the next mayor and city council. Perhaps more so than in past years, election season has been a time of intense reflection on the state of our city. It has involved wrestling with past failures and the enormous challenges that stand before us. It has meant exchanging ideas on concrete measures for improving the life of our city: how to create jobs, strengthen our schools, reform our police, and lift the spirits of our young people. For many of us, the election has renewed some fundamental questions about the very nature of a city: What should a city look like? What obligations do its citizens owe one another? What activities should animate its common life?
Amidst the final pitches and campaign promises of the past few weeks, you may have noticed another vision of a city being articulated, not from a debate podium or television ad, but from our lectionary. John, the author of Revelation, has swept aside the advice of his political advisers and gone for broke, laying out a vision of a city so vast, so majestic, it still leaves us breathless today. Three Sundays ago we heard these words: “I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands and thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered’” (Rev. 5:11-12). Two Sundays ago, John extended his vision this way: “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (7:9). He tells us those gathered will “hunger no more, and thirst no more” (7:16), and that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17). We learned last week that in this city, death itself will be conquered, and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4). Now, this morning, John pulls back and gives us the full panoramic view: “In the spirit, the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal” (21:11). The foundation of its wall, John tells us, is adorned in sapphire, emerald, topaz, and pearl, and its streets are of “pure gold, transparent as glass” (21:21). Through the middle of its street flows “the river of the water of life,” and on either side is “the tree of life” whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations” (22:2). The nations will enter its gates, and “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24). And here “there will be no more night,” the citizens of this city will “need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (22:5).
How’s that for a campaign promise? John would not have been unlike you or me. He was a citizen of an earthly city just as we are citizens of Baltimore, but he was a dual citizen, a member of a future city, and his urban imagination was set by the terms of that heavenly city. By no means an otherworldly escape, his vision of the future city became his lens, his optic for understanding and inhabiting his earthly city. And so John learned to see the world not in one dimension, but two. We don’t know exactly where John lived, but there are plenty of clues in the text that suggest Rome was the earthly city most on his mind. Rome had a way of absorbing the energies and captivating the hearts of its citizens. In trade, politics, and war, it did not get any bigger than Rome. But John’s bold reach into the future humbled its pretenses and laid its penultimate status bare. Rome did not, in fact, occupy the position of the ultimate; it was not our final destination. It was not the only city on the block. There was another city, another vantage point from which to assess its claims and check its ambitions. From such a distance, Rome’s excesses could come into the light of day. One revelation made the other revelation possible. Rome could be seen in its true light, exposed as something closer to Babylon than Holy Empire. Like its great historical antecedent, Rome was engaged in the same kind of greed, the same kind of promiscuity, the same kind of drunkenness, and the same kind of injustice (Rev. 18). And while it may have seen itself as eternal and invulnerable, the optic of the heavenly city revealed it to be another finite city, liable to change and answerable for its misdeeds.
John, of course, was not the first to think of the world in terms of two cities. He borrows the imagery of Babylon and Jerusalem from the Hebrew prophets, for whom exile was a literal experience of being forced to live in one city as if in another. Along the waters of Babylon, the prophets not only longed for their earthly home of Jerusalem, but began to look ahead to a heavenly Jerusalem, one quite unlike the Jerusalem they had known, one that would eventually gather all the nations of the earth into its courts (Isa. 65:17). This heavenly Jerusalem would remain the standard against which life in the earthly Jerusalem would be measured, a guard against moral complacency and a destination towards which to venture.
If John wasn’t the first to invoke the imagery of the two cities, neither was he the last. Throughout the Church’s history, we find Christians making sense of their existence in terms of dual citizenship. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul declares, “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). In the second century Epistle to Diognetus, the author describes Christians this way: “They do not live in cities of their own… They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Ever foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land… They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require… They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance.”
The theologian most famous for thinking of Christian existence in terms of two cities was Augustine. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” he says at the beginning of his Confessions, and such words capture the complex political psychology of a man educated to be Rome’s greatest citizen but whose unquenchable desires made him pang for a deeper experience of citizenship that he believed could only be fulfilled in the City of God. Poor Augustine, he seems to have suffered the fate of many who have adopted the language of the two cities: they tend to be taken to encourage an otherworldly flight from the world, or a militant, sectarian-style opposition between the two cities. You’re either committed to one city or the other. To be sure, there is much in Augustine that encourages such an oppositional outlook. The earthly city, he says, is defined by the love of self; its chief vice is pride. The city of God, on the other hand, is defined by the love of God and neighbor; its chief virtue is charity. Yet as Augustine insists, the two cities remain inextricably tied together on earth. In his lovely words, they “commingle” with one another. They will not be separated until the end of the age, and so for the time being, they are stuck with each other. The lines dividing the two cities often run right down the middle of the church, indeed, down the middle of the human heart. So for Augustine, to talk of two cities is really to talk about what it means to be entangled with one another, and how to bring a vision of a heavenly city to bear upon our experience of earthly citizenship.
In Revelation, John tells us that the heavenly 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” (Rev. 21:23). It is extraordinary to contemplate the possibility of a city illuminated not by sunlight or streetlight, but the glory of God. This is a kind of light that exposes apparent truth as falsehood, and renders visible what social convention has shrouded in darkness. For John, it is a light that humbles the ambitions of Babylon and brings its corrupt practices out into the open air of prophetic scrutiny. For Augustine, it is the light that reveals the injustice of Rome’s wars, the harshness of its treatment of prisoners, and its flagrant disregard for the needs of the neighbor. It seems the first way that the vision of the heavenly city has a bearing upon the cities in which we live is to provide us with this light. Although the heavenly city is a future reality, we are already its citizens, and as such, we can see our cities by its light now. Our task is to see the present in light of the future, and this means drawing attention to all the ways in which these two tenses of time are currently misaligned. In the present, the nations are divided; in the future, they shall gather together to worship as one (Rev. 21:24). In the present, there is mourning for the deaths of our youth; in the future, there will be more mourning and no more pain (21:4). In the present our cities are full of pollution and littered with debris; in the future, there will be a city from which springs trees and rivers of life (22:2).
But how do we navigate that distance? How do we see by the light of the future city now? In this morning’s gospel, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The Holy Spirit is the eternity of God lived in the present tense. Christ our Lamb has gone ahead to be next to the Father at the throne in the heavenly city, but the Spirit makes what He has accomplished available to us as a present reality. It is, John tells us, “in the spirit” that he was carried away to the heavenly city (Rev. 21:10), and it is “in the spirit” that we are carried from that city to our earthly cities. The Spirit helps us see our cities in the light of the future city. Through its gifts, we discern the gaps that separate the two cities, but instead of despair, this distance becomes the ground of our hope, our mission, and our agenda in our cities – in short, the work we have to do together.
Jeremiah summarized that mission in one line: “seek the peace of the city” (Jer. 29:7). And peace is what Jesus leaves us in the Spirit: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn. 14:27). For Augustine, the greatest gift that the city of God can give the earthly city is its peace. And this is the second way that our citizenship in heaven transforms the earthly practice of citizenship. Christians seek an earthly concord with their fellow citizens in whatever city they find themselves. They “make use of the earthly peace and defend and seek the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man.” But in the process, the City of God also directs this mundane peace to a deeper peace, a peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). It directs the minds of citizens to a peace picked from the leaves of the tree of life, which gives healing to the nations. This peace is characterized not merely by the absence of conflict, but the presence of God’s shalom, the peace of God’s redemptive love. “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, and they will reign forever” (Rev. 22: 3-5). This peace will give us rest then, but it makes us restless now, stirring our hearts to know more of the experience of the city of God in the city of Baltimore, so that our citizenship here might give us a foretaste of the citizenship that awaits us there. Amen.
 Epistle to Diognetus, in J. Philip Wogaman and Douglas M. Strong, eds. Readings in Christian Ethics: A Historical Sourcebook (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 17-18.
 St. Augustine, City of God (London: Penguin Books, 2004 ), trans. Henry Bettenson, XI.11.
 Augustine, City of God, XIX.17.