Princeton University Religious Life

This Is Here

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
May 1, 2016
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

            In 2006 I organized a trip to Tibet for students, staff, and faculty at the university I was then serving in Chicago.  We were there to learn about religion, human rights, and social change, and were hosted by a wonderful tour company that was owned and operated by Tibetans.  One day we visited the marvelous monastery called Drepung, outside the capital Lhasa.  The word “drepung” means, essentially, “rice pile,” and indeed the whitewashed low buildings built into the side of the bare brown mountain truly looked from a distance like piles of rice.  Just down the winding road from the Drepung monastery sat another, smaller, very different monastery (different in terms of the emphasis of its religious teachings).  It was only a few minutes’ drive from the main monastery, and when our van pulled up in front of it our Tibetan guide stood and announced, “This is here.”

            The professor sitting next to me turned and smiled; we each thought that was a wonderful phrase.  It’s unusual grammar in English – we would say something like, “We are here.”  Perhaps it translated literally into the Tibetan language: “This is here.”  “Here” was our destination so, of course, when we got there, “This is here.”  I’ve remembered the phrase since because, in a sense, it is always true: this is here.  “Here” is wherever we are, wherever that happens to be.  Here may be good; here may be bad; here may be everything in between.  Our Tibetan guide was telling us that we had gotten to our destination, “This is here.”  He points to the fact that we are always at some kind of destination.  We can always say, “This is here.”

            We can say that now – we who are Christian are a resurrection people.  Christ has risen.  This is here.  God worked the miracle.  We are living in its wake.  And yet, life is very much, in its practical aspects, like it was before the miracle.  This is here – this is a daily slog that may include illness, death, financial hardship, the challenges of parenting, anxiety, the stress of schoolwork, you name it.  We have indeed arrived – or did we never leave?  This is here.

            Our two texts for today know that “this is here” – they begin with “this is here,” and they tell us how to live here and what to believe in for the ultimate “here.”  Our passage from John is Christ’s wonderful news that, although he will be leaving his friends, he will bequeath his peace, and also the Holy Spirit, that all who believe in him will truly have peace and a divine Advocate in every moment.  Our passage from Revelation is John of Patmos’ beautiful vision of the ultimate realization of the throne of God descending to earth – the culmination of all our struggles to testify to the truth of God and Christ – the holy city taking root on earth, a destiny of indescribable blessing.  This is here – or it will be! 

            Let’s begin with the reality we have described to us in Revelation.  John of Patmos sees a very new “here” – he sees the very throne of God descending from heaven down on to the earth.  Heaven on earth!  The fusing of the two!  This new Jerusalem, this new and sacred home, is a place of safety and inclusion.  Its gates are wide open – there’s no need to bar them, because there is no danger.  There is no need to keep certain people out, for there are no enemies.  This city becomes a beacon of hope to all.  Its light shines forth and all who can see it are drawn to its beauty and truth.  This city is, indeed, a light to the nations.  Kings and their subjects are drawn to that light.  The light will shine whether it is night or day.  No one there needs to turn on a table lamp, or to think about nightfall.  The night, and all its vulnerabilities and dangers – they are a thing of the past.

            There is a tree in the new Jerusalem, and it is the new Tree of Life.  It is always producing the food we need; month by month, this tree is never out of season.  It produces glorious nourishment for all.  And it produces shade, and it produces comfort – on a barren rock in the middle of the sea John of Patmos tells of a new tree of human hope and destiny that replaces the tree of the knowledge of good and evil through which humanity fell to sin.  The new Jerusalem is the answer to that long-ago garden of our origins.  There is no garden now but a city, and yet – a river runs through it.  The river evokes that of the second chapter of Genesis, the river that flows out of Eden and waters the whole garden.  There is life everywhere in this new city, a lush landscape, thanks to the water that pulses through it.  And perhaps the most wonderful thing about the new Jerusalem is this – it is here (“This is here”) where we will finally see God’s face.  No human has seen God’s face – not even Moses!  But in this holy city that is to come, we will finally be face-to-face with our Creator.  All that we have ever yearned to know, we will understand.  There will be no separation, no mediation between ourselves and the Holy One, even God Almighty.  Come, O new Jerusalem, indeed!

            And from our passage from John the Evangelist we have even more, wonderful assurance.  John likely wrote from the context of the Christian churches in Ephesus, at the end of the first century.  There, the Jewish followers of Jesus were being decisively differentiated from those Jews who were not.  There was a lot of rancor, and as they were increasingly no longer welcome in synagogues, followers of Jesus began to build community in house churches.  John the Evangelist wrote to them to tell them that wherever they gather, regardless of location, that is home and sacred community (“This is here! ”).  John records Jesus as telling all of us that he, Jesus, is giving us a peace that the world cannot give or take away.  Nothing can take away the peace that Christ gives us – this is here!  Jesus says that he will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and that we may never be fearful of new tomorrows.  This is here!  There is plenty to fear, plenty to worry about, but this is here, and God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are here.

            “Shalom” – the Hebrew word for deepest peace, is the word for peace with which Jesus grew up.  It certainly means an absence of violence, but it also means well-being in the midst of any kind of trouble.  This is here!  Trouble presents itself all the time, but if we remember the presence and promises of God, shalom/peace is actually our inheritance in the moment.  This is here!

            True peace is about the having of so many things, and the letting go of so many things.  What delicate discernment it is to hold on to those things that deserve to be held on to, and also to let go of those things which no longer merit clinging to.  Martin Luther has some wisdom for us, he said:  “I have held many things in my hands, and have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”  I would add that what we place in God’s hands are already our most precious things.  We know that they are precious; we are lifeless without them; and so we give them back to the giver, the keeper, the lover, the protector.

            True peace – the peace that Christ describes to us – this is the peace for which we yearn always, in the “This is here.”  We want it here and now.  But do we know and see it when it is before our eyes or spirits?  “This is here,” and the “here” is often a hard place to be.  There are as many ways to connect to the peace of Christ as there are people in this beautiful sanctuary – and infinite more.  I am enamored of the words in a poem by the Christian poet and farmer Wendell Berry:

                                    “When despair of the world grows in me

                                    and I wake in the night at the least sound

                                    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

                                    I go and lie down where the wood drake

                                    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

                                    I come into the peace of wild things

                                    who do not tax their lives with forethought

                                    of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.

                                    And I feel above me the day-blind stars

                                    waiting with their light.  For a time

                                    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

            From the evangelist John we learn that in every situation or trial, and for every responsibility we have, God and Christ provide the resources to endure.  For some of us, as for Wendell Berry, those resources and the sustenance for the journey are found in the natural world.  In infinite places God places the spiritual food we need for the journey.  About that we must never worry, and about our destination as Christians we must never worry either – the new Jerusalem.  We love, we strive, we give of ourselves, and one day we will see the throne of God descending to earth and we will know with finality: This is here!

            Amen.

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