Today we have a guest post from Claire Aufhammer. Originally from California, Claire now lives in Glasgow as a part of InnerChange, a Christian order amongst the poor.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away. Behold, I am making all things new’…
This is the vision John offers us in the final passages of Scripture: a vision of the garden city, the epitome of perfection and holiness. Scripture illustrates for us the movement of a people in and out of cities and gardens and the wilderness.
God’s people are expelled from the garden and proceed to make cities, urban dwellings, towering skyscrapers oriented towards the pursuit of self and human progress. They are enslaved by empires more powerful than themselves, eventually freed and led into the wilderness, but promised their own good land. They finally take hold of this new land, and they are given unique rules for its flourishing, but they break these and find themselves in exile again.
Back and forth, back and forth, Israel, always living under the shadow of an empire, ever seeking the city of promise, the holy city, the true Jerusalem.
And so there’s this tension in Scripture. On the one hand, cities represent a fall from grace. They embody all that is evil and opposes the nature of God and strips humanity of itself. But on the other hand, cities are an instrument of human liberation. They possess within themselves great opportunity and connection and potential for human flourishing.
John’s masterful vision described in Revelation is meant to garner faithful worship of the one true God. Christians in the first century probably found themselves caught between and even allured by Rome’s imperial vision and the promise of peace and life and truth and beauty and goodness. But allegiance to Rome was categorically opposed to allegiance to Christ. And so this imaginative and detailed picture of the powers, which John depicts and describes in Revelation, is meant to stir in his readers, and so too in us, love and loyalty to the lordship of Christ.
These days, we find ourselves in an increasingly urban world. Statistics are immense and some predict that “’future historians will record the twentieth century as the century in which the whole world became one immense city’” (David Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations). What are we to make of this? What is the purpose of the city? What is our role, the role of the church, in these increasingly urban contexts?
I would suggest that we must ever keep before our eyes this image of the heavenly city and so begin to anticipate and usher in the new Jerusalem.
In my experience living in a marginalized neighborhood on the north edge of Glasgow—a community in the shadow of an abandoned empire—this happens in small ways. It looks like creating spaces for the presence of God to dwell, while at the same time uncovering places where he already dwells. It looks like creation care and creative expression and savoring ordinary beauty and breaking down boundaries and laughing with children and listening to people’s stories.
Because the arts and creativity is typically chucked out, overlooked, or completely inaccessible to communities in the margins, I enjoy indulging in a little artistic expression with my neighbors. It becomes a way to capture and glimpse the presence of God among us making all things new. It’s seeing the world in the light of the Son and calling forth the flourishing of the city.