The New Jerusalem
University Christian Church – Austin C. Kutz-Marks
The New Jerusalem
Easter , c, May 26,2019
Rev. 21:1 to 12, 18 to 22:5
Introduction to the Scripture Reading
This passage is, I suggest, the most imagistic and mystical revelation recorded in the Bible. Compare it to Joseph’s dream of seven years of plenty and seven famine and this is immensely richer. Compare it to Jacob’s vision of the stairway going from heaven to earth and the following Scripture passage is immensely brighter and fuller. To best receive the gift of this Scripture this morning I invite you to close your eyes and imagine as best you can the wonders of the vision provided John of Patmos that Susan will read aloud for us now.
Some of you may remember that I once mentioned that the summer of 1978 I was a Chaplain Intern at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital – our nation’s only federal mental hospital– in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful, challenging, and frequently wild experience. That long hot summer, some very strange patients opened my eyes to issues of faith I’d never have dreamed I’d be facing.
One patient was absolutely convinced he had a word from God that he was personally supposed to convey to then President Carter. He had several times approached the White House with his message, but there were wise guards there. No one at the White House let the man, let’s call him Fred, anywhere near the President.
But Fred was compelled, you see. He was absolutely sure that God had given him this mission and he was going to carry through this mission no matter what it took. So Fred climbed into his car, got moving down the streets of Washington D.C. at quite a clip and in a very foolhardy act tried to drive his Oldsmobile through the closed thick metal gates leading up to the White House…. Wrecking his car and getting himself an all-expenses-paid, permanent vacation to our St. Elizabeths Federal Mental Hospital!
Now, because Fred’s behavior was so bizarre, and because he had used large quantities of the drug PCP that had in the other patients’ colloquial expression “fried Fred’s head”, it was easy to quickly judge Fred as clearly insane. It was easy for people to understand that his thinking was so far off of normal that he rightly belonged in a mental hospital.
But especially as religious people, we must admit that often things aren’t quite so clear. Consider our Scripture author for this morning, John of Patmos. I suspect what we heard this morning is the overwhelming mystical experience that undergirded and informed John while he was exiled to the island of Patmos for being Christian and not hiding his loyalty to God through Christ. The Romans in charge demanded loyalty to them. John refused to give it. But John was not reticent to share what God was revealing to him.
Did you ever notice that the whole Book of Revelation is one long report of what he saw and heard, and what he was directed to do by angels and the voice of God. As he wrote down all that transpired in his trance both he and the Christian community through the ages that highly esteem this book, have tacitly stated that even or especially in his altered state of mind, the content, the prophecies, the ethical directions here are to be honored. They have the authority of the Spirit of the living God. If you have a red-letter edition of the Bible, you’ll find the whole this book is red.
So, what about these people who have visions, dreams, these strangely delivered messages from God? Are they rare? Are ust a few folks getting them?
You may know of Dr. Andrew Greeley, a Roman Catholic priest, famous for his authoring of a number of popular, and I am told, quite racy, novels. What you might not know, is that Dr. Greeley was also a well-respected sociologist. Periodically, he and his team launched a massive national sociological questionnaire.[i] Some years ago he discovered in this questionnaire that 39% of the sample indicated that they had had a mystical experience as defined by the standard fourfold criteria of William James proposed in his famous 1902 lectures.[ii]
So first we note that there is quite of a lot of mystical experience out there. If you are a closet mystic, maybe this will embolden you to take a chance and let others know! You aren’t like Fred. You are like half the people around you, in having had such wonders granted to you![And, by the way, if I’ve tantalized you into wanting to know more about what this mystical experience is like, please check into the printed copy of these notes under SERMONS for this sermon’s annotations.]
What is even more interesting is that half of this thirty-nine percent who had had a powerful mystical experience, had never mentioned this experience to any other human being before Greeley’s survey. Did you get that? Half had never shared this with anyone!
As a minister, the news gets even more frustrating. I was particularly distressed to learn that the post-test recheck Dr. Greeley ran revealed that the last category of persons with whom the subject would have been willing to share this powerful mystical experience was the clergy of mainline churches. One must suspect that either they thought we clergy would not respect their spiritual experience, or worse, that we would actually chastise them for making such grandiose claims. Now, I hope those respondents were underestimating clergy sensitivity, but in any case, their caution reminds one of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 7:6 (NRSV) “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”[iii]
If people are motivated to hide their special spiritual experience, their mystical experience, from one another, they also have powerful motivation to hide the experience from themselves, at least their conscious selves. Dr. Morton Kelsey was an Episcopal priest deeply involved in helping others claim and navigate their own spiritual journeys.[iv] He argued that Western Christianity has abdicated its distinctive worldview that had a place for spiritual experience, in favor of an essentially materialistic perspective more congenial with the rest of the intellectual culture. Kelsey asserted that a materialistic worldview provides no way to integrate or comprehend what one senses, and what the Bible names, as an in breaking of the spiritual world into one’s consciousness. So then, if people cannot fit their experience into a rational structure, they have great motivation to exclude that experience from consciousness. If they can’t make sense of it, they’ll just forget it, ignore it, repress it. Dr. Kelsey asserted that this is exactly what post-modern men and women do with difficult-to-pigeonhole religious experience.
Abraham Maslow made the same point with respect to “peak experiences.”[v] Rather than label themselves crazy, or wrestle internally toward a worldview that can integrate this type of experience, many people simply choose to forget the mystical experience altogether.[v]
At this point, let me own up a judgment I make. This seems to me the ultimate tragedy! If you believe as I do, that such spiritual experience is rare and wonderful and is supposed to be God’s great gift to us, then what a tragedy it is when we forget it, or refuse to accept it because we cannot simply understand it! These precious experiences are ones that we should highlight, that we should honor, that we should celebrate!
Had I time; it would be easy to make the case for this kind of spiritual experience being the bedrock of Christianity. Jesus was a mystic. Paul was a mystic. Peter had a powerful mystical experience. John Patmos tells a long string mystical revelation that if read straight through in one sitting would take over 3 hours to. And all this is recorded in scripture, and that no doubt just scratches the surface of what these leaders experienced. Mystical experience is the bedrock foundation of our Christian religion.
Nevertheless, I do not say that such experience is necessary for Christians. In fact, Dr. Greeley shows that 61% of the population does not have that kind of spiritual experience. Certainly, millions live fine, faithful, satisfying, Christian lives without ever being transported to the third heaven in ways that Paul described once was his personal experience. But this notwithstanding, there are two important determinations that seem utterly central.
First, if you are one of those who has been blessed with special, mystical experience, please don’t pretend that it hasn’t happened. Please don’t ignore this wonderful gift that God has granted to you for your own spiritual edification. You may want to be careful with whom and when you share it. But claim it as your own reality! Claim the gift!
As the poet Mark Nepo put it, “Once risking our way through that threshold, we inevitably fall back into the streets. But we are blessed with a consciousness that knows that life consists of this shimmer between depth and surface, between oneness and isolation. Here, the exquisite risk becomes the courage of heart not to forget, not to believe that the extraordinary center of things has vanished because we have lost touch with it.”[vi]
Secondly, if you have not had this kind of special, mystical experience, be sensitive. Many of those in your world have had such experiences. If you laugh at their stories; if you say that that kind of experience cannot be real; if you despise or deride, you are very literally pushing that person back from what should be their natural path of spiritual development.
By now, if you are in the 61% without such mystic experience yourselves, you may be asking, why is this so important? What, you may ask, is the lasting effect of these experiences? What difference do they make in the long run?
Again, remembering that these experiences are not at all necessary to live a good Christian life, what these experiences can provide for those who have them and who claim them, is their own unshakeable foundation of faith. Some things in their lives are simply no longer negotiable. They are not theoretical. They directly know them.
Most of us build extensive theological systems on faith: based on Scripture, based on reason, based on the church’s and our families’ traditions. But the mystic as the additional resource, the additional AUTHORITY of his/her own direct experience unshakable experience.
Authority. Authority! No matter what the earliest church in Jerusalem believed important, nor what Jesus’ brother, James, directed, following his Damascus Road experience Paul knew God called him on a mission to convert the Gentiles to faith in Christ. In the opening of Gal 1:1 “Paul an apostle–sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead–
…11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Hopefully you remember our scripture where the Apostle Peter in Acts 10 had his theological world pried wide open by a vision in which a heavenly voice told him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Before this experience, this good Jewish man couldn’t have conceived of eating the ritually unclean animals that were before him. But after that experience, his life was forever changed. His theology changed. His ability to commune with others changed, all because of that vision. He had experienced it. He knew it to be real, and his life was now wide open.
John of Patmos had seen the future; had the coming of the New Jerusalem so beautifully and wonderfully in this morning’s scripture. John’s vision was drenched with beauty and hope and power and plenty and utter peace. It was solid truth for him.
Do you think John would EVER recant his faith in Christ?
Do you think John would EVER despair for his situation in life?
Do you think John would EVER lack faith, or verve?
No, my friends, John was set free from the time of that vision for the rest of his earthly life and then on through eternity.
The effect of such ecstatic experience is clearly profound and just as clearly positive. Through the centuries the mystics among us have challenged us to open up our own understandings of how it is we live out our Christian faith: to make our relationship with God fresh, and powerful, and immediate, and most of all, real!
Because they have been in touch with the very Spirit of God, they have been, and may they always be, our leaders and our guides. And, friends, the Holy Spirit present in power, I’m talking Pentecost, is right around the corner! Halleluia, Amen!
[i] Andrew Greeley, The Sociology of the Paranormal: A Reconnaissance (Beverly Hill, CA: Sage Publications, 1975) 47.
[ii] The following is from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, the beginning of Lecture 16. The entire book is in the public domain and downloadable from http://www.promo.net/pg/. You may also view it online at http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/james/toc.htm.
“1. Ineffability.- The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.
- Noetic quality.- Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical, in the sense in which I use the word. Two other qualities are less sharply marked, but are usually found. These are:
- Transiency.- Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.
- Passivity.- Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.
These four characteristics are sufficient to mark out a group of states of consciousness peculiar enough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study. Let it then be called the mystical group.”
[iii] One can conceive of another reason why such experience would not be shared. In fact, the scriptures give evidence in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4. The apostle Paul describes what is obviously his own ecstatic spiritual experience in the third person, not “boasting,” to use his word, of it. If his explanation there that he was being “caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (italics added) points to a Divine command for silence, then we have still another reason why such experiences might not be shared.
[iv] Morton Kelsey, Companions on the Inner Way: The Art of Spiritual Guidance (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1987), 19-35.
[v] Abraham Maslow, Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences (New York: Viking Press, 1964), 20
[vi] Mark Nepo, The Exquisite Risk (New York: Harmony Press, 2005), 13.