08 May 2016

God's Gracious Invitation - Come!

Revelation 22:8-14, 16-17, 20-21

Seventh Sunday of Easter

8th May 2016

This is the season for invitations.  Graduations.  Weddings.  Confirmations.  Baptisms.  Kentucky Derby parties.  Perhaps Preakness.

Consider the ritual of being invited to a special event.  Consider what it feels like to be invited.  Remember a time when you received a special invitation in the mail to an event or gala, a graduation or wedding, a party or concert.  How did you feel?  Excited?  Elated?  Happy? Surprised?  Maybe you didn’t expect to be on the invite list; maybe you didn’t even know about the event. Then there’s that marvelous feeling of feeling included, right?  You feel special, singled out, different, you feel honored, privileged. 

It’s marvelous because we all know what it feels like when we’re excluded or left out.  As Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations.”  We are social creatures.  We want to be included.  We don’t like being left out.  We want to be on the guest list.  Perhaps you remember feeling hurt in school when you discovered that you were excluded from a birthday party, when it seemed like all the cool kids were on the invite list, except you. Then you said to yourself, I guess I’m not “cool” enough.  You feel isolated, cut-off, unwanted.  That’s a horrible feeling.

Included.  Excluded.  As social creatures, we want to be included; we want to be on the inside of a group or team or club or association or community or, maybe, a church.  We also like to feel more special than others and so as social creatures we want our experience of inclusion to be special.  After all, everyone can’t be in the same group or on the same team or in the same club or association or community.  Right?  So we create exclusive communities.  We can’t let everyone in.  There have to be boundaries.  Limits.  Some can come in, but not others.  We want to be included, of course. We also have a tendency to exclude.  Acts of exclusion make us think we’re better or different or special, smarter, richer, more powerful, whatever.  We can’t invite everyone to the party—what would be the purpose of sending out invitations then?

Included.  Excluded.  We find both in this closing chapter of Revelation.  John of Patmos has been caught up in an extraordinary vision.  Or, better, John was caught up in an apocalypse, meaning, not the end of the world (that’s not what apocalypse means) but a revelation, an unveiling, an opening into the mysterious heights and depths that surround us, a disclosure of the larger drama of God’s redemption of the world and the consummation of history. 

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” Christ says to John. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).  Here we’re given a vision of what we could call the Cosmic Christ, the ascended Lord who sits at the right hand of God, the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  This is a vision of the Cosmic Christ who reigns with grace, who embraces time—past, present, and future—the One who both dwells in time and holds time, holds the days of our lives.  This is a vision of the Cosmic Christ who was there at the beginning of time, at the beginning of creation, who existed long before he was born in Bethlehem.[1]  He is Alpha, that is, the beginning, the origin, and he is Omega, the end, that is, the goal, the culmination, the destination of every life, of being itself.  Jesus says he is “arche kai to telos.” He is the beginning, the arche, the foundation, the ground, the source of everything and telos, the end or purpose or horizon or goal of everything.  The beginning contains its end or purpose.  The end is found in beginning.  It’s all in him.  “In my end is my beginning,” said the English medieval mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416).  And as T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) reversed it and said, “In my beginning is my end.”[2]  Beginning.  End.  Christ is all-encompassing. All-embracing.  Cosmic.  This is the vision of Christ that we have here at the end of Revelation.

Those who live in the New Jerusalem, those who dwell in the presence of the Alpha and Omega, whose light fills the city, have “the right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14); they may enter the city by the gates, the twelve gates which are never closed, we’re told (Rev. 21:25).  In earlier times the gates of a city were closed at night to protect the residents of the city.  But since it’s always day, never night in the city, “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 forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).

And inside the city, this garden city, we’re told, stands a tree, the tree of life, with twelve kinds of fruit—twelve being the number of completion and wholeness—producing fruit each month, a life-tree yielding fruit in every season, whose leaves are for the healing of the nation (Rev. 22:2).  In God’s holy city healing is always in season.

The vision is full of metaphors and symbols, some of which make sense to us and some don’t, but they would have made sense to the readers and hearers of John’s revelation.  It’s very clear to us in the symbol of the tree of life that the tree is Christ.  Christ is the tree who freely gives life—the Greek here for life is zóés (ζωῆς), a form of zóé (ζωή), meaning full life, vital life, abundant life—a tree of life whose arms branch out, stretch out in love, yielding the fruit of grace, fruit of healing, fruit of forgiveness, fruit of compassion, the fruit of goodness.  One can even say that this tree is maternal in nature as seen in its capacity to yield life and bear fruit.  Remarkably—Christ as tree of life becomes Christ our mother.[3]

And then Jesus himself arrives at the end of the vision and says, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony to the churches, ‘I am the root and the descendent of David, the bright morning star (Rev. 22:16).  Jesus is tree; he is also root.  He’s the root and the fruit and he’s the bright morning star, a light that leads the way to life, like the sun.[4]  Metaphors are stretched and bent here to form powerful symbols, symbols that point to the sublime truth conveyed in this revelation. 

And then John hears these words, these extraordinary words, these gracious words of invitation to him, spoken to his hearers, to you and me, to the world.   The tree of life reaches out, branches out in welcome. The Spirit and Christ, the bride of the church, say, “Come.”

Come!  Come! 
“And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ 
And let everyone who is thirsty come. 
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 22:17).

“Come,” Jesus says.  Come! Come to me!
Come to the tree and rest in my shade.
Come and be grafted into me, the true vine (John 15:5).[5]
Bring your thirst, your desire, your thirst for something more, and I will slake it with the water of life, water of zóés.

The invitation is offered to those within the city walls and outside the city walls.  And who is outside the walls, outside the gates?

Outside the gates, we learn in verse fifteen—which we excluded, which the lectionary excluded, the lectionary excludes this verse of exclusion(!)—are the people who live outside the gates.  “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:14).  It looks like they are being excluded.  Judged for their actions.  Inside are the “blessed,” the holy ones who have washed their robes, the saints, the followers of Christ who have withstood suffering and persecution, that’s who’s inside the city; those who had the courage and faith to stand out from the crowd of the Roman Empire to be themselves, those who confessed Christ in the face of persecution, those who refused to be defined by the idolatrous worship of empire and of Caesar, that’s who’s inside the city, those that survived the ordeal.[6]  The voice of heaven said earlier in Revelation, “Come out of her,” meaning Rome.  “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins…” (Rev 18:4).  Stand out. Take a stand!  That’s what John hears in the vision.  Early on in the book of Revelation Christ encourages the Churches of Asia Minor (in Laodicea in particular) to be bold, stop being “lukewarm” (Rev. 3:16).  Because you’re “lukewarm,” Jesus says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).  Choose!  Be either hot or cold.  Choose! The blessed ones in the city have chosen correctly.

There are people who live outside the gates of the city.  There will always be people who live outside the gates of the city.  But staying with the image of the text, if I’m reading this correctly, we also find that, yes, there are people outside the gates—but the gates of this city are always open.  Just come.

Yesterday, I was driving along North Avenue toward Bolton Hill and stopped at the light at Madison Avenue.  I looked to the left, toward an old church on the corner, and noticed an old illuminated sign over the threshold, which simply said: COME.[7]  (Babcock Presbyterian Church).  It simply says:  COME.


“And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’” Everyone who hears the Spirit’s invitation—meaning you and me—must extend the invitation outward, Come! “And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift”

Come!  Not to the church.  Not to an institution.  Not to a club.  Not to a community of pretty cool people.  Come—or, better, go—to him!  Invite the people who are outside the gates of the church, who don’t feel worthy of an invitation, who, for whatever reason don’t know that they’re invited or for whatever reason have not accepted the invitation. 

Come!  Not to church.  Come!  To Christ.  The Living One.  The Lamb.  The Tree.  The Alpha and Omega.

Allow yourself to be drawn into his gracious presence.
Allow yourself to drink in his life.
Go ahead. You’re invited, after all.
Accept your acceptance.  
Accept your invitation.  
Yes, go to him—again and again and again—your Lord, your Redeemer, the tree of life.

Go to him—again and again and again—and discover in him—
again and again and again—the deep and holy meaning of your life. 

Go to him, the One who contains your life and all life, the life of the world. 
Go to him, your Alpha and your Omega. 

Your first and your last. 
Your beginning and your ending. 

Thanks be to God!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Babcock Memorial Presbyterian Church, c.1925. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

[1] See also Colossians 1:15-20. 
[2] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets.
[3] On the tree of life as a maternal symbol, see C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 5 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), para. 319, 346ff.  The cross can also be viewed as a tree of life.
[4] The “bright morning star” is an allusion to Numbers 24:17. See Blount, 411-412.
[5] The motif of entwining—“I am the vine, you are the branches”—in John 15 may also be viewed as a mother-symbol.  See Jung, para. 367.
[6] See Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
[7] I later learned that the church was the original home of Babcock Memorial Presbyterian Church, built between 1893-1903.  The congregation moved  in 1949, when the building became home of the Whatcoat A. M. E. Church until 1954.  The church is now known as the Union Temple Baptist Church.