‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
That blessed hymn at the bible’s very end, at the conclusion of the Revelation of St. John, is our human heart’s desire. In thirty-eight words, ciphering a visionary voice from the throne of God, St. John the Divine touches upon virtually every yearning of the soul.
How many of us suffer, for instance, even this very day, from chronic or acute pain? How many of us experience that way that pain clouds everything else, adversely affecting all our experiences and joys? But in the end, St. John promises in today’s hymn, pain will be alleviated.
Who here doesn’t know mourning? Who here hasn’t lost one we cherished and loved? But in the end, St. John promises, death will be no more, and mourning will be no more. Every tear from our eyes will be wiped away.
What could possibly be worse that mourning and pain? There is one thing, as we all know. It is that thing which, when added to pain and to sorrow renders them exponentially worse. It transforms the difficult into the unbearable. It is what Henri Nouwen calls our “suffocating loneliness.” There is nothing in this world worse than the unrelenting feeling that we are abandoned. And that makes St. John’s first promise the greatest: “See,” the voice from the throne says through John, “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
In the end, God promises, our suffocating loneliness will blow away like storm clouds when the sun returns, and in its place we will abide in the very and immediate presence of God, enveloped by a love that has known us since before we were formed in the womb.[i] We will never be alone! Even in our solitude, we will know that we are not abandoned but held in presence of love.
It is because this hymn with which the bible ends encompasses, in such an economy of words, these comforting promises that we read it so often at Christian funerals, not really for the dead, who are in the bliss of heaven, but for us, who remain on earth. (After all, in Revelation St. John the Divine is talking about things in our world, not heaven.) In our moments of grief, when pain, mourning, and suffocating loneliness are all felt at their gnawing worst, we need to hear these words in their eloquence and grace. We need to know that God is there, and God is for us.
For some, there will be a faint familiarity to this passage, as if, here at the bible’s end, we remember something else about God, from long ago. And, in fact, the end recollects the beginning. You see, in the biblical narrative the last time God dwelt among humans was “in the beginning.” We are told in the third chapter of Genesis that God “walked in the garden [of Eden] in the cool of the day,”[ii] which is to say that God dwelt immediately with the archetypal man and woman. In other words, our frequent experience of God’s absence, both deep in our own souls and in our relationships in the world, is not as it was in the beginning nor as it should be. Something is broken.
Jesus surely knows this in today’s Gospel. Jesus will, momentarily, encounter all of those things that we earlier said cloud our joy. Jesus will be wrenched from his friends in the Garden of Gethsemane and know the grief that comes with the loss of the life he has lived; he will have inflicted upon him the most excruciating pain; and he will experience the suffocating loneliness of the cross, where he will be utterly and completely forsaken.
In today’s Gospel passage, all of these things are encroaching like a shadow, and Jesus senses it. Huddled in an upper room with his friends, Jesus seeks to give to those he cherishes most the remedy, the antidote, the solution to the brokenness that clouds joy. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus implores, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, love one another.”
The Book of Revelation—one of my very favorites in all of scripture—is a tale of perseverance through struggle. It first reveals to us just how devastating life can and eventually will be, how heartless man can be toward man, how brutally this world can bring down the hammer on those most vulnerable and exposed. But Revelation is also a tale of what God will do with this world in the end. As N.T. Wright says, ultimately God will not allow God’s creation to suffer “in the darkness of Hiroshima and Auschwitz.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Wright adds, “but there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God.”[iii]
God will ultimately return to God’s garden, where God walked in the beginning, and the blessed hymn that we read today is what the world finally will be when that occurs.
But when will God act? When will God do these things? When will God wipe the tears from our eyes, alleviate our pain, dispel our suffocating loneliness? Christian people validly ask why, two thousand years after Easter, the world it still a broken place. Why is God still absent from the garden? Why does God not yet dwell among God’s people?
For centuries, Christian theologians and clergy claimed that God was waiting for committed Christians to spread the Gospel in every corner of the earth, offering heathen everywhere the opportunity to convert. That notion is, I think, a misunderstanding of our Gospel calling. God tarries, I believe, because Jesus’ Maundy Thursday commandment still lingers there before us. The last words of Jesus, before Jesus showed us on the cross what love looks like, continue to implore, unheeded and unfulfilled: As I have loved you, love one another. You see, the Gospel is, in the end, this love. This is what we are called to share to every corner of the earth.
But even (and perhaps especially) Christian people, to whom the commandment is given by the one we call “Lord,” do not yet love one another, not in the way Jesus loves us. We disregard and hurt one another. We hedge. We selfishly calculate risk and gain. We do not, on the whole, open our arms as wide as Jesus’ arms on the cross, welcoming all of God’s children into embrace. In this political season, there are candidates left and right who proudly claim the title “Christian” and yet who pit us against one another and use anxiety, grief, pain, and loneliness as avenues to power.
What is God waiting for? Why is the blessed promise of Revelation not yet manifest? Perhaps God is waiting for the followers of Jesus to be faithful to Jesus’ dying wish. Perhaps God is waiting for Christians at least to make the attempt, with heartfelt conviction and sacrificial faith, to love God’s children as Christ loves us. It is not nominal conversion the world is lacking; it is Christ-like love.
You see, we have work to do, aspirational work. We at Christ Church Cathedral must continue to be a vanguard, always willing to ask forthrightly of ourselves where we are already loving as Christ loves, and where we have yet to make that love manifest. Like the disciples sent out after Easter to spread God’s grace far and wide, we are called to spread grace, to open our embrace to those we meet, to ready our community for God’s great day in which crying will be no more, pain will be no more, loneliness will be no more.
For those who know John’s Gospel well, we know that even now we live by hope, and we do this work not alone. No sooner does Jesus give the new commandment, than he also promises that even now, in this meantime, in this waiting period between Easter and the End, we are not alone. Even now, God dwells with God’s people through the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus promises never to leave us orphaned, never to leave us in suffocating loneliness. [iv] Even now, we are empowered to love and to share love because God is already here, loving us with a love that will be with us always and everywhere, sharing our pain, assuaging our grief, and moving us toward God’s hope-filled future.
[i] Psalm 139:13.
[ii] Genesis 3:8
[iii] Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 179-180.
[iv] John 14:18