Sermon

Revelation 21:10, 21:22 — 22:5

You Simply Aren’t Afraid Any More

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

I’d like to introduce you to somebody, not directly, but by means of this sermon. Her name is Phyllis Tickle. Yes, that really is her name! Phyllis, who lives on a farm in Lucy, Tennessee, is the author of many books and the retired religion editor of Publisher’s Weekly. She and her husband Sam have seven children and are also grandparents and great-grandparents. Phyllis has passed her seventieth birthday and is an Episcopalian.

When she was a young woman, newly married, Phyllis had a near-death experience. Here’s how she describes it:

“I was up in the corner of my room just above my bed. That is, was in the space where the outside wall and one of the inside walls of the room converged with one another and the ceiling. . . . My back was curved and my legs were drawn up in front of me and my chin was resting on my fists. . . . I felt exactly like a gargoyle snugly fashioned up under the overhang of a cathedral roof. . . .

“Something had caused me to look to my right; and there in that spot where there should have been only more ceiling there was only light. . . I thought to myself it was like a glowing culvert between two meadows. . . .”

How has Phyllis Tickle come to understand this strange episode? She says that a near-death experience “irrevocably changes you. By the time you come back it is too real and too integrated into every fiber of your belief system. The end result is you simply aren’t afraid anymore. . . . The experience clearly said to me, ‘This is what it is like. This is what you are getting ready for. This is the homecoming.'” She then offers a metaphor especially appropriate to an author and editor. “It’s like knowing the last chapter of a really good book and being able to read your way through it without the tension of wondering how it will end.”[Wendy Murray Zoba, “Literary agent: A profile of Phyllis Tickle,” Christian Century, May 18, 2004, pp. 20-27.]

I introduce you to Phyllis Tickle in this way because her near-death experience and reflection on it offers us insight into the vision related in today’s second reading, and both of them together promise us insight into that mystery which is the one closest to us, namely our own lives.

Today’s second reading is the grand finale of the last book of the Bible, the one whose title is the Revelation to John or the Apocalypse. We know precious little about the circumstances under which this book was written, and it’s an open question who its author was, other than that he was a Christian named John imprisoned by the Roman empire on Patmos, an island a short distance from the western coast of what is now Turkey.

John claims that what he describes in his book came to him as vision or a series of visions. This sounds similar to Phyllis Tickle’s near-death experience. Yes, Tickle’s experience was brief, simple, and personal, though also numinous and extraordinary, but what happened to John, at least as he relates it in his writing, was colorful, complex, confusing, with a vast cast of characters, with images taken from the Old Testament and reshaped to carry a Christian message. But the two are similar in this respect: both of them can free people from fear. Both of them, whether simply or through complex imagery, make the point, in Tickle’s words, that “This is what it is like. This is what you’re getting ready for. This is the homecoming.”

Phyllis Tickle survived her near-death experience. John of Patmos survived having his vision. For neither of them was the homecoming immediate. Each one came back and shared with the rest of us the promise of this homecoming.

Tickle saw “a glowing culvert between two meadows,” apparently the passage way to some supermundane place.

John saw more, enough to fill a book. In today’s passage, his grand finale, he gets an overview of the city sent to earth from heaven. This city is illuminated at all times by God’s glory and the light of the Lamb at its center. This is a walled city, yet its gates never need to be closed for the sake of security. The city is free from all that is cursed and unclean, all violence, all fraud, all malice, all injustice. The gates stand for ever open, and through them come the nations, people of every race and background, who bring with them whatever is good in their respective cultures.

Through the center of this city flows a river of water, a beautiful river, more splendid than even the blue waters of the St. Clair River on the most sunlit day you ever saw. This river’s source is the throne of God and the Lamb. Along both sides of the river run rows of extraordinary trees that bear their fruit not once or twice a year, but bear fruit every month, and each month a different fruit. The leaves of these trees are medicinal: they are for the healing, not simply of individuals, but of entire nations. These leaves are for the healing of Iraq and the United States, Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, and all the nations under heaven.

The occupation of this city is praise, the joyous praise of God and the Lamb, the praise of that love which is eternal and self-emptying, that love known to us in Jesus, who is one with the Father. The citizens of this joyous city look upon the face of God, they are marked as God’s people. The Lord is their light, and they will reign with him as his co-regents forever.

Phyllis Tickle’s near-death experience taught her something down to the marrow of her bones, something she can never forget. She tells us, “By the time you come back it is too real and too integrated into every fiber of your belief system. The end result is you simply aren’t afraid anymore.” She tells us what happened to her because the same freedom from fear is meant for us as well.

The vision seen by John of Patmos taught him something down to the marrow of his bones, something he can never forget. It is the same as what Phyllis Tickle learned, though expressed in different terms: “The throne of God and the Lamb will be in that city, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” John tells us his vision because we need to know what it’s like, what we’re getting ready for, this homecoming that awaits us.

Tickle’s near-death experience is personal, and she tells us about it in plain prose, hardly hinting at what may await us at the far end of that glowing culvert between the two meadows. John’s vision is social, even cosmic, and he announces it in language packed with scriptural images reborn for the occasion in what has been called the greatest poem of early Christianity. He describes in provocative detail that city which is the fulfillment of every holy desire, the place of safety and peace and praise.

Easter faith involves more than believing Jesus rose from the dead. Easter faith also has a future dimension. It means believing that resurrection awaits us, that what Phyllis Tickle experienced and what John of Patmos experienced does show us something of what it is like, something of what we’re getting ready for, something about the homecoming which will be the biggest blast of all.

Easter faith means believing Jesus rose from the dead and that resurrection awaits us too. But there’s a further aspect, one connected with living in the present. Easter faith means, in Phyllis Tickle’s phrase, “you simply aren’t afraid anymore.” Whatever fears you feel are not permanent; they have no root in your heart. Fear does not define who you are. In the midst of all the ups and downs, even the wild roller coaster rides, you have taken a look at the book’s final chapter, and you trust the author to get you there.

Copyright 2006 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.