IT IS a relief to discover that the heavenly Jerusalem contains a river and a tree. Without such delights of nature, it seems an uncomfortable place, covered in metal and jewels, and cube-shaped. There is not a comfy armchair in sight. The thought of there being no darkness is particularly unappealing. A city that is all blazing light is a recipe for migraine.
But I am being too literal. That is not how John of Patmos means it. If it were a literal picture, how could the single tree of life stand “on either side of the river”? He is evoking Ezekiel 47.12, but his own symbolism demands both a single tree, and also symmetry (an aspect of beauty) in the heavenly city. There is no temple in the city, therefore no sacrifice. But this is not a deprivation. In the presence of God, sacrifice becomes redundant. Our access to the divine will go beyond anything we could hope for on earth. And, yes, John declares that there will be no night there, because the city will have God’s glory, and the Lamb to light it. As for the gates, they will not be shut, because the city has no need of protection or defence.
John’s language evokes other prophetic visions (Isaiah 60.19, Zechariah 14.7) to underline that his prophecy is authentic, a confirmation of what was foretold long ago. But the power of his vision is more rapturous than logical. He moves us with words of love and wonder, giving hope that death is not the end.
Paul’s vision is different. It is a message for right now, in the form of travel directions. He must forget going to Asia, and head for Greece (Macedonia is in the mountainous north of that land). So, the text goes on, “we” came to Philippi (the same place where Caesar’s supporters overcame the assassins Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC). Blink, and you will miss it. But open your Bible commentary and you could lose yourself in the sheer mass of scholarship on what is, after all, a mere change of verb form from the third person (“Paul”, “they”) to the first person (“we”).
What this untidy text reveals is the sticking together of two sources. Luke the historian has so far been telling a story about what Peter and then Paul did. But, suddenly and without explanation, it is as if he opens his notebooks and continues the tale by transcribing notes from his diary. True, it is a clumsy use of sources, perhaps an unfinished draft. But the benefit is that it allows us a glimpse of the author at work. We are suddenly hearing eyewitness testimony from someone who travelled with Paul, who was there to watch Lydia and her household being baptised.
There are two possible Gospels for this Sunday. One, John 14.23-29, looks forward explicitly to the giving of the Holy Spirit. The choice of the other, John 5.1-9, for the run-up to Ascension and Pentecost, needs a bit of explanation.
It begins by mentioning an unspecified festival of the Jews. One early tradition identifies this as Pentecost, the festival of “weeks”. Here is the implicit reference to Christian Pentecost. Unfortunately, the text is confused at this point: just look at the wodge of footnoted “other authorities” in NRSV. Did an angel stir up the waters, giving them healing properties? Was the place called Bethesda (“house of mercies” or “house of flowing”), or Bethsaida (confusing it with a place in Galilee)?
Despite this clutter of variants, it is clear that the pool — which has been excavated, complete with its “five porticoes” — was partly filled by springs. So, the invalid man is referring to water bubbling up from below: the seeming miracle of the water’s movement gave rise to hopes of healing. Being first into the waters meant catching the curative capacity at its strongest.
The sick man had gone there for 36 years without success. He had put his faith in the magic of angelically kinetic water. Jesus repeatedly warned people not to demand signs and miracles. Now, he ignores the magical pool, and simply tells the man to get up and walk. So, was the man’s disability all in the mind? No. He really is healed — by the words of the Word, which are more powerful in their effect on us (body, mind, and spirit) — than any holy hot-tub.