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Sermon on Mayor’s Sunday 2015

Rev’d Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster

The island municipality of Patmos in Greece is an idyllic destination for many. Guaranteed sun and its air of quiet tranquillity are factors which draw many visitors year after year. The ancient city at the heart, with its acropolis – a smaller version of the more famous Acropolis in Athens has dominated the Chora, the ancient city since the 3rd Century BC.

But what sets Patmos apart from the more touristy sister islands is its Biblical connections, for it was here that St John the Evangelist, in his old age wrote the Book of Revelation, from which we heard our Bible reading this morning.

St John describes a city – loosely based on that city you can still see in Patmos. It has gates, and in his vision they would never be shut – but nothing impure or defiling would ever enter the city.

And there are streets in this city, and through the principal street runs a river – the river of the water of life, which flows from the throne of God – which is at the centre of the city. And this river irrigates the city, so that on either side of the river, grow trees – the tree of life which bears twelve kinds of fruit; and the leaves on the trees are for the healing of the nations.

Patmos lies just off the west coast of what is now Asian Turkey – formerly the Ottoman Empire, and more or less right on the fault line which separated the Christian West from the Muslim East. For many years, like so many of the Greek islands, it profited from the international trade, and the advantages it had from being at the crossroads of civilisations. It received spices and fabrics from the exotic east, and was able to trade these with the Christian lands of the European continent, and it flourished. But with the growth of militant Islam in the 7th century of the Christian era, it began to suffer many attacks, and the ancient city was almost destroyed, but for the intervention of the Byzantine Empire, which defended Patmos as one of the most holy sites, where St John the Evangelist, the disciple Beloved of Christ, received his Revelation of the Apocalypse.

Successfully defended by the Byzantine armies, it has stood for centuries as the place where St John’s vision of the heavenly city was both inspired and recorded.

The city of his vision had no temple at its heart, for God was present in the city in all its places of work and leisure, in the homes of its people and in its markets, God’s presence was everywhere so there was no more need of an physical temple; for God was everywhere and in everything. And the city had gates which never shut. A city gates existed primarily for defence. They were made of strong stuff, heavily fortified with ramparts which were used to repel attacks, and provide a safe haven within the town squares for its citizens. The fact that the gates were never shut suggests several points:

  • There was no fear in the city of attacks
  • There was no need to regulate the movement of people who were free to come and go
  • People could bring into the city the ‘glory and honour of the nations’

To live without fear of attack was a rare hope in the 1st century. Piracy and theft were a way of life across the Mediterranean for centuries, and the cities and islands which prospered where those which learnt to defend themselves from attack – usually at night. The thought that gates could stay open continually was the fondest of hopes.

The free entry to all people, with all their gifts and treasures was another idea beyond the experience of all people. In the days before passports, travellers were met with great suspicion, and no one could travel without fear for their lives – free movement could hardly be imagined.

The treasures of the nations being brought in to the city was a great hope for all cities – the blessings of peaceful trade, the bringing of plenteous food, and the ennobling of the city’s trade were the ambition of all the city states of the ancient world.

But this is John’s vision of the City of his Revelation. Peace, prosperity, and plenty. And above all, life. Life that was promised and assured by that most precious of commodities – water. Flowing freely and available to all through the streets of the city was the water of life, crystal clear and giving life to all. No multinational company could bottle this water and sell it at a huge profit to the thirsty. This water is available to all, giving abundant life to all who would drink of its life giving stream.

And that water gave life to the Tree of Life, which produced its twelve types of fruit, producing fruit each month of the year. This constant, fresh, and free supply of fruit to the people of the city is a sign of its prosperity, health and vitality for all time.

And all may enter in to enjoy the fruits of this heavenly city, for the gates never close, except those who would bring in falsehood or abominations.

What a vision of a perfect future. All are welcome, wheresoever they may come from, and all are given life-giving food, and even the leaves on the trees have a purpose, they are for healing and wholeness.

How can this vision of perfection affect our own lives and, indeed, our own city? True, we have no city gates any more – they were here in the Roman period, of course, and right here we would have been at the centre of the walled Roman city surrounded by its walls. Those walls and the gates are no more, and people do indeed enter freely, and we hope people are free to come and go without fear of attack or piracy!

And indeed the river does flow through the heart of our city, though not even the city’s proudest marketing manager would want to call the waters of the Lune “as bright as crystal” for fear of being sued under the trades description act! But this green and pleasant city has much to commend it as we seek to be a place where all are indeed welcomed and affirmed.

There is still much to do for us to become the heavenly city of St John’s imagination. May we seek to be a city which can be modelled on that heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. A city where people can live without fear: where we welcome the brightest and best that the world has to offer as academics and leading lights from the world come to our city – bringing the honour and glory of the nations to our own doorsteps.

And where we value the gift of life as exemplified by the river of life, giving life to all around it, a constant source of provision to all in need, and a place where we seek healing and reconciliation, and the care of all people.

In such a city, God is pleased to have his dwelling in the hearts and lives of people who seek those things, and may our own City of Lancaster be such a place, where we make this vision a reality for all our people.