When the angels locked the gates of Eden, and set a guard with a flaming sword, it was to keep the humans away from the tree of life. It was a terrible prospect that the people who had disobeyed God and discovered knowledge for themselves would also eat from the tree of life and thus live for ever, almost becoming gods themselves.
So many stories tell of the search for Eden, that perfect garden, where everything is known, where every wound is healed, where life is found abundantly, and life without end. And other tales tell of the search for eternal life, and the consequences for those who find it.
But now we don’t have to go on a treacherous quest into mystical mountains. The padlock has been smashed. John the Divine has a vision, and he can see the gate to Eden standing open. The garden has become the city of God. And there, the tree of life is freely available. Just turn up. But who will approach? Who will taste the fruit? The invitation has been issued to all those who will listen, to us, if only we will hear. Jesus says, “Come!” and the Holy Spirit says, “Come!” Those who accept will find life; their deep thirst for God will be satisfied; they will find their home.
The invitation to the city of God is rooted in God’s dance of love, which John explains in his earlier work, the Gospel. There are so many Johns in the story of Jesus, they get mixed up so easily. The John who wrote the Gospel and the Book of Revelation, the source of two of our readings today, was probably not the apostle John, but a younger man, probably just a youth when Jesus was ministering.
And in the Gospel, John tells us of Jesus’ long prayer the night before the crucifixion, and that’s where today’s Gospel reading comes from. And he sets out the steps of the dance of love. God the Father loves Jesus the Son, and that love is mutual; it flows two ways. God the Son loves the disciples, and prays for them, that their love might grow, and that they might love the Father through loving the Son who loves them. And the dance continues because the disciples bring the love of Jesus the Son to those whom they know and teach, so that they will grow in love and will come to love the Son and the Father. Jesus’ prayer is that the world will experience this cascade of love and be caught up in the flow. And we are included in that too – we experience God’s love and learn to love God, and we love others and bring them into God’s love. And that is how the invitation into the city of God is issued, through the dance of God’s love, always flowing out to the next generation and flowing back in loving God.
Tree of life, city of God, dance of love – they are word pictures to help us understand something that is difficult to explain, which is how we come to know God, to have a relationship with someone we can’t see, to become fully the people we were made to be.
The first reading we had, from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, gives us a story about how it works out. Paul and Silas have been flogged and then locked in jail on some specious charge. The jail was probably a dungeon, underground, and their feet were fastened in stocks, so they were pretty secure. So what do they do, Paul and Silas? They sing and pray in their underground cell. They are trusting in God. Deeply rooted in that dance of love, they trust that God’s will be done. And sure enough, something strange happens. There is a violent earthquake, which shakes open the locked doors and unfastens all the chains securing the prisoners. Now come on, earthquakes do not open locked doors and the certainly don’t open padlocks on the chains. This is no natural event!
It’s one of those stories where strange things happen, things that just couldn’t occur normally – whatever normal is. And at one level they are showing that something else is at work, something that isn’t limited by the rules of physics and the way the world operates.
The earlier part of the story is similar, the reason for Paul and Silas finding themselves in prison. They are being stalked by a girl who has a spirit of prophecy, who can tell fortunes, and she is becoming a nuisance, so Paul orders the spirit out of her, and it goes, and she is no longer able to tell you about the dark handsome man coming your way or the fortune on the lottery.
In these stories, you stand at the boundary between normal and paranormal, natural and supernatural. Is Luke lying when he tells us all this, or is this the way it happened, and we have to adjust the lenses we use to view the world? As far as I am concerned, stuff happens, it just does. Live with it. Sometimes it takes an earthquake to shake you into the kingdom of heaven.
Back in prison, the jailer assumes his prisoners have all gone and is on the point of taking his own life, to save face, as he is accountable with this own life for their security. But Paul and Silas haven’t scarpered; they are still there and this convinces the jailer that they have the words of eternal life, and so he asks them what he must do to be saved, so they preach the good news, baptise the whole family, and get fed and their wound treated in return. I guess, there is wisdom in knowing when the earthquake is a sign that you should get out quick, or a sign that you should stay for the sake of doing God’s work.
So the love of God in Paul and Silas has reached out to the jailer and drawn them in to the dance of God’s love. Their lives are transformed, they become citizens of heaven, they find eternal life, and they too become part of the growing circle of love. And they spend the rest of the night celebrating.
We are part of that story too. We have all been touched by God’s love in some way. Maybe you long for more of it. Maybe you want to see God just a little more clearly. But we are also called to live out that love in such a way that touches the people round us. The dance goes on, all the way to the tree of life.