Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5
There are days when I just wish we’d all give up the notion that being a disciple of Jesus is about becoming a better person. I don’t think that’s why the disciples left their fishing boats and their tax collecting tables and their zealotry and everything else that they left behind—their whole lives, everything to follow Jesus. To be a better person—a little kinder, day by day, and little more caring, a little less selfish day by day, to sweat in the gym of self-improvement, to count your gains on a chart. No, I don’t think that following Jesus is about becoming a better person, or the practice of moral perfection. I think it’s about drinking from the river of the water of life. I think it’s about that tree that John saw in a vision, a tree with leaves for the healing of the nations, the tree of life hugging the banks of the river. Following Jesus isn’t about us—it’s about the touch of God and the fire of the Holy Spirit, and the voice of something we have longed for but could never name, the voice that speaks and makes us whole and holy. It’s mystery and revelation, and the lifting of the veil. It’s like living without ever having gone into a cold river, but then laughing in delight as you tube down under the trees. It’s like waking up in a dark, stuffy room, and opening the curtain to the light and the window to the fresh spring air.
At the end of Scripture, in the very last chapter, this final vision we heard today from the book of Revelation, the city of God comes down to Earth, completely renewing all things, and the goodness of God fills everything. There is no sun or moon in the vision, because God shines eternally, no lamp to guard against the dark. There is no evil there, and so there is no knowledge of good and evil. There is only God, unveiled, bared, brilliant, face to face with humans at last. The knowledge of good and evil, like all the horrors of this life, is gone. All there is to know is good, and the fruit of the tree of life is free to eat for everyone. Because, as the old Christmas hymn has it, “No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground: he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.” That’s the vision of Revelation—that blessing flows and fills the rotted world, and the tree of life heals us.
This is why healing is one of the signs of the kingdom coming near. How many times in scripture is Jesus healing a leper—or healing in general? Leprosy back then really meant a skin disease, not the precise diagnosis that we have now. Now we picture the slow loss of feeling, then the rot of flesh. But nevertheless, it seems like the fitting sign, that at word of Jesus, feeling comes back, the disappearance of flesh reversed. No longer will the leper have to distinguish between sick flesh and healthy—rather his whole body is healed.
I think this is the point of following Jesus. Becoming a better person is good, and in following Christ you will become better. But the vision we have today is so huge and wonderful, I wonder if we are really able to handle what we hear. The idea that our faith is about becoming a better person is a particularly insidious form of idolatry, one that makes us the idols of our worship. We cast in our mind the people we think we ought to be, the steps we need to take to get there. We judge ourselves against that person, and find we constantly fail. We judge others against that person, and find them failures, too. But instead of making ourselves the center of our faith, the Scriptures tell us that God is the object and the center, the fullness and the light. Following Jesus means encountering God. We’re never going to be good enough to get there on our own. And anyway, that’s not the point: the point is to see God, and God will make us the goodness that God wants us to be.
Jesus today tells his followers, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” God makes God’s home with us so that God can heal us to be the everlasting light for eyes. When Jesus says those who love me will keep my word, he means that those who love him will love another. Love, as we heard last week, changes us. It heals us. Love does not act for its own sake, but for the sake of another. It gives first. Love builds up, as the Apostle says, but because it looks outward, it does not ask, “Am I a better person now?” Love is too busy to care.
One summer my friend Carl and I were suffering in the heat of a Chicago summer. Carl came over to my apartment and we got to talking, and he told me about growing up in Muscatine, Iowa. “You know,” he said, “Muscatine is in the Mississippi river valley, and that means it’s really good melon country.” I said, “OK.” He said we should get up early one morning and drive over to Muscatine and get some. It’s about a four hour drive or so from Chicago, but it was summer and I didn’t have anything better to do than to drive to Muscatine and buy some melons. So that’s what we did, although Carl did make a few calls and take some orders. We left at 6 am and drove over in my 1984 Toyota Cressida, which had a tape deck that didn’t work, and lots of air conditioning knobs that also didn’t do anything. We got to Muscatine and filled the trunk with melons. We bought two pies and drove up to the park on the bluff, overlooking the river. We cracked the melons on our knees and ate them with our bare hands, and ate the pies that way, too, as God intended, in the sunshine, in the grass, as friends, near the river. I don’t know if it made us better people, but we talked about all that we could talk about, as the breeze cooled us down. They really were the best melons I have ever eaten, and I believe, that if what John saw in his vision is true, we caught a glimpse of it that day.
God’s love makes us better people. But perhaps not in the way we think. It makes us better in the way friendship makes us better, the love of a family makes us better, the way a kind touch and a gentle word heals our spirits and makes us better. Today we unite again around the holy meal of Jesus, who is both our guest and our bread. That meal continues outside, in the garden, where Jesus still resides in the faces of the faithful, gathered here. Does a potluck make you a better person? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the point. I know that the love of God, the mystery of the Trinity, the hallowing fire of the Holy Spirit will make something new out of us for the sake of God. And that’s the point, not to be better, but to be new. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack