When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School back in the 80s, I worked a couple of summers as a bellhop at a hotel in the Back Bay of Boston. The money was pretty good, and it was a nice break from the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge and Harvard. Plus, the hotel was right next to Fenway Park. I worked evenings, and after punching out, I had to run to make sure I caught the last train (subway) going in. I got off at Harvard Square (this was before the redline was extended out to Alewife), and I still had a fifteen minute walk to my apartment in Somerville. The quickest way was through Harvard Yard, the historic heart of Harvard’s campus. It’s surrounded by walls with more than twenty gates. Now, some of the gates are always open, some are almost always closed, and some seemed to be closed and locked completely randomly. Too often, as I came out of the Harvard Square station at around 12:30 am, the gate closest to the exit I usually used was locked, meaning that I would have to either retrace my steps, or go all around the yard, adding five minutes to my late night walk.
There was an urban legend I heard back then that Harvard was required by law to close all of the yard’s gates at some point every year in order to preserve their independence from the city, county, and state. Whether that’s true, I never did find out, but it seemed no less unlikely than many of the other legends that were told about Harvard.
Gated and walled cities (or universities) would seem to be relics of the past. We’re familiar with them from Europe or the Middle East, where most cities have long since burst out of the walls that were built in the Middle Ages or even before. Cities that remain confined behind their ancient walls are most often places that history has passed by. They exist largely as tourist attractions, quaint reminders of the world we’ve left behind.
There are other walls, monuments to civilizations and empires that have long since collapsed. The Great Wall of China, built during the Ming Dynasty. What I learned just recently was that it replaced a wall made of earth and stone that was first constructed centuries earlier. Or Hadrian’s Wall, that stretches across northern England, constructed by the Roman Empire. Historians still debate its purpose. It seems not to have been defensive in nature. Perhaps it was a symbol of the extent of Roman power and influence.
We tend to think of such walls as protective, defensive. But they can mean other things. In medieval and Early Modern Europe, a male serf who made it to one of Germany’s free cities, would himself become a free man if he lived in the city for a year and a day. In the pre-modern era, cities with their walls were centers, outposts of civilization, keeping the chaos and dangers of the outside world at bay.
We think very differently about cities today. While people still migrate to cities in search of a better life for themselves and their families, cities today and today will be places of human suffering and want as well as opportunity. I read an article a couple of days ago that by 2030, more than 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Most of that population will not be in cities like Madison, but in the massive urban areas of the Global South, in Africa, Latin America, and in Asia. They will share something in common with Madison, however, enormous economic inequality. And like Madison, all of them will struggle to provide basic services to all of their residents.
In our reading from Revelation in these past three weeks, we have heard parts of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. In today’s reading we are provided more detail, although the lectionary skips over the description of the city’s walls and its twelve gates. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is as captivating as it is strange, and it’s worth the time to examine it in closer detail and to explore its continuing significance for Christians in the twenty-first century.
I want to remind you of a couple of things I’ve mentioned in past weeks. First, this is not a vision of heaven, of what it will be like when we die and enter the nearer presence of God. This is a vision of the end, the consummation of history; God making all things new at the end of time, or when time is no more. Secondly, it is a vision that is for and about the whole universe, human beings as well as animals and the earth, and it is a communal vision, it is not primarily about the fate of individuals.
More importantly, it brings fruition a number of biblical themes that stretch back to the book of Genesis. In fact, the vision of the New Jerusalem is not fully comprehensible without reference to creation and fall. Let me give you a couple of examples. In Genesis, there were four rivers that flowed out from Eden in the four cardinal directions. In the center of the Garden of Eden was the tree of life, the fruit of which promised eternal life. Adam and Eve, having eaten from the fruit of the tree, were cast out of the garden. Later, their son Cain, having killed his older brother, was said to have built the first city. For the writers of Genesis, paradise was a garden created and planted by God while cities were the product of human creativity and ultimately, human sin.
The New Jerusalem imagined by John was of divine, not human origin. And it included within its walls transformed nature—a river flowed through the city, its origin being God’s throne. And on the banks of the river grew the tree of life, its leaves being for the healing of the nations.
There is one other important characteristic of this new Jerusalem, this idealized city. There is no temple in it. In the ancient near east, cities grew up around sacred sites, temples were built, then human habitation appeared. In cities throughout the ancient near east and Mediterranean, temples were at the heart of cities, they dominated the cityscape. Think of the Acropolis in Athens, or the Forum in Rome. Even the Israelites couldn’t imagine a capital city for their kingdom without a temple for their God. And of course, political power proceeded out from the temple. In Jerusalem, and in Rome—the emperor, after all was among other things the chief priest of the Roman cult.
Not so in the New Jerusalem. There was no temple, because as we saw, the dwelling place of God is with humans. But it’s not just that the barrier between human and divine has broken down. In this new city, all humans are welcome, all find sustenance at God’s throne and at the tree of life, all are healed and made whole.
And another detail. In this city, the gates are always open. We have heard a great deal over the last months about the need to close our borders, to build a wall to keep out immigrants who seek a better life in America. We are hearing a great deal in the news about efforts to exclude and marginalize gays and lesbians, and transgendered people. In times of fear, and rapid change, our first impulse is often to exclude those who are unlike ourselves, to build up our defenses, to draw clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong.
The vision of the New Jerusalem that beckons to us is a rejection of our fear and hate, and our desire to exclude. The New Jerusalem that John imagines is a community where all nations and peoples are welcomed and embraced, where all find healing and wholeness, where God’s intention for creation, for humanity, reaches its perfect end in a human community united in love, united in God.
Such a vision will become reality in God’s time, through God’s perfect will. But in the meantime, as we work to embody God’s love, as we seek to build a community that embraces human beings in all of our diversity and difference, as we welcome the stranger and the alien and share the good news of Jesus Christ, our efforts offer glimpses of that larger and perfect vision, we receive, and give, small tastes of the leaves of the tree that are for the healing of the nations.