The Heavenly City

Let’s not seek fruit, or growth, or dominion in the earthly city, but in the heavenly city!

The Heavenly City 

May 2, 2021 

Community Baptist Church of Gay Head in Aquinnah 

Hebrews 13:14-15 For here we do not have a permanent city, but we seek for the city that is coming. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess His name. And do not neglect to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. 

Today I want to talk to you about the Heavenly City. And, as always, I’m going to tell stories to get there. Parables. It’s a trick I learned from our rabbi, Jesus Christ. 

The Chinese Church 

There’s been a controversy in China. China boasts one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world. A revival is exploding over there. The problem is, it’s happening in the “wrong” churches. 

In China, there’s a “right” church. It’s the Liǎnghuì – that means “the two organizations”. It’s the CCC (China Christian Council), and the TSPM (Three-Self Patriotic Movement). These are sanctioned Protestant churches in China, and all together the Liǎnghuì is one of the largest Protestant bodies on earth. But that’s not where the Revival is happening. The Revival is happening in the underground churches. 

Now, because this Revival is not happening in the state-sanctioned churches, this Revival is illegal. You may have heard what awful persecutions our Christian family is going through in China, illicit arrests without habeas corpus, torture, forced labor, rape, medical experimentation, death. Crimes against humanity. 

We’d all agree that that’s awful. It’s also the backdrop for a newer controversy, since Pope Francis has agreed to let the Catholic Church in China submit to a similar state sanction. In both the Liǎnghuì and now the Catholic Church in China, the Communist Party appoints bishops, priests, pastors, deacons, etc. If you don’t want to end up a victim of persecution, these are your options. 

Now that might sound awful and scary. But I’d like to point out that this arrangement has existed before, in varying degrees. It’s actually quite an ancient arrangement – where the civil government controls the religious bodies — and it’s quite common in the history of the Christian church. Let’s go back to the beginning of this type of arrangement in the church – Christian Byzantium. “New Rome”. 

*** 

Christian Byzantium 

In AD 312, a man from modern-day Serbia was in battle at the Milvan Bridge in the Tiber, and he had a dream, a vision, of the chi ro, and a heavenly voice told him: “In hoc signo, vinces” — “by this sign, conquer!” 

That man was Flavius Valerius Constantinus – we know him as the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. He put that chi ro on the shields of his army and the rest is history. The following year, the victorious Emperor issues the Edict of Milan, declaring that Christians would enjoy the full rights of Roman citizenship and even enjoy the privileges of state support – state money. 

Constantine moved the capitol of Rome to Constantinople, and he built Christianity into the new capitol. And from then on, Christianity was built into the New Rome, what we call the Byzantine Empire. We look at this beautiful mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople – an artist’s depiction of Constantine offering Constantinople to the Mother of God and the Christ Child, and on the right, Emperor Justinian I offering the Hagia Sophia. Isn’t that a beautiful image – making a religious offering of your city, or a beautiful cathedral, to the glory of God? Could you imagine Martha’s Vineyard having a mayor one day that consecrates the Island to Jesus Christ? 

As the Christian Byzantine world was being hedged by barbarians, the church polity became a tool of the Empire. Bishops were given civil authority to bind and loose – to practice and enforce Roman law. They were often appointed by the Emperor himself. Doesn’t that sound a bit like the Liǎnghuì — minus the crimes against humanityThis was how it worked in Byzantium. This was the age of the Ecumenical Councils, when the Emperor would call together all the church leaders just to settle a doctrinal issue. Could you imagine Biden and Harris calling a Senate hearing over a Christian theology issue? That’s sort of what Constantine did when he convened the Council of Nicaea. It was a big, big deal at the time. Nothing like this had ever happened before – the state getting involved in the church’s issues. 

Present at the Council was Eusebius, who wrote the first History of the Church. He spoke highly of Constantine and says that Emperor Constantine’s conversion marked the Triumph of Christianity, fulfilling prophecy that “at the name of Christ every knee shall bend.” That was it – all prophecy fulfilled – by Constantine! That’s what Eusebius thought. All that remained was a glorious eternity on earth, that over “the coming ages [God] might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:7) 

Well. All that hubbub over an Ecumenical Council. But really, it was over the power that Christianity seemed to have finally gained over the Roman Empire, such that the Emperor made Christian doctrinal disputes his business. The Church and state were becoming one. Was this really the pinnacle of Christian achievement? Was this the goal of Christian life?  

Many Christians of that era did. And they were in for a surprise. 

*** 

The City of God 

One hundred years after the Edict of Milan, the Visigoths sacked Rome, the “eternal city.” Now, Rome was no longer the capitol, Constantinople was. But by comparison, Philadelphia was only a temporary capitol in our nation, and yet two centuries later we still revere the city where the Declaration and the Constitution were signed. Rome was a much more ancient and meaningful capitol, and for Christians, it was also the home of the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome. The destruction of Rome was a big deal, to put it mildly. 

It’s ironic to think that the Roman Empire, whose cross killed Christ, had become for his followers not just home, but the Kingdom of God itself. And the city of Rome, the eternal city, was the “city of God”. Its destruction was as traumatic for Roman Christendom as the destruction of Washington D.C. would be for American Christendom. How do you make sense of such senseless destruction, seeing everything you believe in explode and collapse? 

St. Augustine wrote his great “City of God” in order to do just that. He lived through the fall of Rome. Over many, many chapters, he talks about the glories of Rome, but he also is unflinching in criticizing her and passing judgment on her history and her ways. And as he consoles those who mourn the loss of “the eternal city,” he reminds his flock that God never promised an earthly city. “Here we have no lasting city, but we look for the city to come” (Heb. 13:14). 

The Empire of Rome was never the Kingdom of God. The “eternal city,” the city of Rome was never eternal. It was never the heavenly city, but the earthly city. Augustine tells us, “… the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord.” 
 

*** 

The Heavenly City 

Now I ask you – what is the heavenly city? While Augustine had a lot to say about this, I think we can learn the simple answer from scripture. That’s where he got his answer! 

Scripture shows us two very different cities, in the first book of the Bible and in the last. In the Genesis 11:4, the people say, “Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” This was the earthly city that Augustine talked about. Built by man to reach up to God.  

Rev. 21:2, on the other hand, says: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” This, of course, is the heavenly city, built by God to reach down to man. “And [John] heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’” (Rev 21:3) 

This is the heavenly city – where God and man dwell together. Paul tells us in Hebrews that all of the people from the time of Genesis to Revelation were willing to suffer as they waited for it because “they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:16) Why were they willing to suffer and die for it? Because this is the City of the Resurrection, where all who live in the Risen Christ dwell. This is the city where eternal life lives. 

Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? In the words of John Prine, “Just give me something that I can hold onto.” That’s what they hoped for – an eternal, heavenly city. 

Paul says that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, they all were waiting for this city – but he had the audacity to say to the 1st century church, “you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly JerusalemYou have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly, to the congregation of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven.” (Heb. 12:22) 

If it was true for them then, how much more so for us now. If they had come to it then, surely we also come to it now. That is the promise of God, recorded in scripture, for us: that we may come to the heavenly city. 

Again – the earthly city is built by human hands to reach up to heaven – but the heavenly city is “a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Cor. 5:1) — and it descends from heaven to us. 

*** 

Church and State 

So, how does this heavenly city descend to us? How does it come down? Put another way, does our “Christian utopia”, our heavenly city, come when the power of our civil government joins that of the church, like it did in Rome? That’s what Eusebius thought. But many centuries later, the great Russian writer Dostoevsky wondered about this. 

One of his characters, Father Paissy, said, “It is not the Church that should seek a definite place for itself in the state…but, on the contrary, every earthly state must eventually be wholly transformed into the Church and become nothing else but the Church, rejecting whichever of its aims are incompatible with the Church.” 

That’s from the book, Brothers Karamazov. And one of the Brothers, Ivan, adds, “It is not the Church that turns into the state, you see. That is Rome and its dream. That is the third temptation of the devil! But, on the contrary, the state turns into the Church, it rises up to the Church and becomes the Church over all the earth.” 

Isn’t it interesting that he says, what happened in Rome is: the church became the state. And in some ways, that’s what happens in America, when churches mobilize to get involved in democratic government, or whether they make more extreme moves – like when Christian progressives founded the KKK in the 19th century, or more recently when Christian nationalist folks joined in on storming the DC Capitol. And yet, Father Paissy’s alternative, that the state becomes the church, might better describe what is happening now in China. I’m not so sure it’s much better!  

If the “heavenly city” doesn’t come by the church and state joined together — either by one transforming into the other or vice versa — then there must be another way! And that way is to be found not in Rome, Russia, America, or China – but in scripture! 

*** 

Come, Holy Spirit, Come! 

How does the heavenly city come down, then? There is a very simple answer in scripture. 

“Where two or three of more are gathered in my name, there I will be.” Mt. 18:20. 

It’s that simple. Where Jesus is, there the city is. The heavenly city is the church. And it’s not up to the government, it’s not up to anyone except you, and those with whom you gather in the name of our Lord. 

I said this last week, and I’ll say it again: the first thing we do after our first hymn of the day, is we call down heaven into our midst. This liturgy is the liturgy of the City of God! Paul told us that from his time on, the people of God would “with uncovered face behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord” (2. Cor. 3:18) — and that same glory is the light of our heavenly city, and the Lamb is its lamp according to Rev. 21:23. 

When we ask the Holy Spirit to come, we all experience something in our hearts and spirit that John saw and wrote about in his Revelation: “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” When the Spirit of Christ comes down to us from heaven in our meetings, so does that reality that is with him, in him – that reality in which “we are seated with him in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 2:6) 

That’s the heavenly city. That’s how it comes down – when we gather in His name to worship Him in spirit and truth. In love. 

So much for the heavenly city. So, what is the destiny of the earthly city? What is the answer to our Church vs. State conundrum? John tells us that by the light of the heavenly city, “the nations will walk, and into it the kings of the earth will bring their glory… into the city will be brought the glory and honor of the nations.” (Rev. 21:24. 26). That is to say, the glory of the Lord that is in the church will illuminate the nations – what is this but the Great Commission, preaching the truth of the gospel, and doing the works of charity and mercy? The light of the city is the people who do these things. 

And what will the outcome of the church’s ministry be? It does not say, that “the church will transform the state into a Christian empire,” but that kings and the peoples of the nations will give glory and honor to it. And aren’t we the living proof of this prophecy, seen from millennia ago by a Jewish disciple of a Jewish messiah, that God’s heavenly city would be a “house of prayer for all nations” in which all people of all stars and stripes are welcome to pray, and encouraged to live their best, most honorable lives to the glory of God?  

“Nothing unclean will ever enter it,” John says, “nor anyone who practices an abomination or a lie, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.” And he says this to show us that he is prophesizing not about nations and empires but individuals – since the sacrifices God requires for fellowship are the sacrifices that only an individual can make: mercy, repentance, faith, love. We enter into this city first by baptism – can a nation be baptized? No, only an individual. Can a nation receive the Holy Spirit? No, only an individual. 

God is calling you. He’s not calling your nation, your tribe, your race, not even your family – he’s calling you. He is not interested in the group you identify with – he is no respecter of persons – he is interested in a relationship with you. He did not send Christ to die for Rome, Russia, America, or China – but for individuals. For you.  

Rome, Russia, America, China – these are not eternal. “We have no lasting city.” God never promised to raise nations to eternal life. But Jesus said, “it is My Father’s will that every one who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life.”  Not every nation, every one – every individual. He is speaking to you! He is calling you to this blessing. 

*** 

Individual Responsibility 

So I will close by calling us all to individual responsibility. This is a precious value with some very loud and popular detractors in our culture today, but we won’t be in their ranks! I want to remind you all that in the beginning, our spiritual ancestors Adam and Eve were given this heavenly city, the Kingdom of God itself, when they were placed in the Garden of Eden. For even though it was a Garden, they were commanded to “be fruitful and multiply,” and cities do come on the tails of population growth! — and they were commanded to have dominion over everything in the Garden, which is nothing less than God granting them the Kingdom.  

But they were also commanded, “do not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” Yet that very thing they did. And Adam took no responsibility, but blamed his wife; and Eve took no responsibility, but blamed the serpent; and the serpent took no responsibility either. And everything fell apart! They were bound by a curse and evicted from the garden.  

In other words, when Adam and Eve took no responsibility, God took away their freedom and their dominion. 

Take this lesson to heart. God has now given us the heavenly city in Christ, and has sealed our eternal citizenship there by the blood of the new covenant – you can’t be cast out on account of sin like your spiritual parents in the Garden were, because Jesus Christ died for your sins. God, in sending His Word made flesh to die among us as one of us, has raised us up in Him so that we are forever in this together — “[Jesus] became what we are so that we might become what He is”, is how St. Iraneaus put it. 

What is He? The child of God. And now we too are once again children of God, as Adam and Eve were before they fell away. What we could not reclaim for ourselves, God in his grace has given to us for Christ’s sake: we once again have “the glorious freedom of the Children of God”, and we once again have dominion in that He has made us “a royal priesthood” — royalty pertains to Kingdoms, and priesthood to God – so he is saying we, the Church, are the Kingdom of God – and He has made us “a holy nation, God’s special possession, that we may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1. Pt. 2:9).  

Our job, then, is to obey his commandment to love the world as he loved us. And if we do this, we will be blessed with the privilege and responsibility of our original calling: be fruitful, multiply, and have dominion over the earth. So let’s not seek fruit or growth or dominion in the earthly city, but in the heavenly city: let us bear fruit in Christ, grow into his image, and exercise responsibly our dominion in the heavenly city, the church, the Kingdom of God. Amen. 

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