The Holy City

A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Readings for this Service: 21:10, 22-22:5

In 1995 an extraordinary heatwave afflicted the city of Chicago, killing around 750 people. Later, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg made a detailed examination of who died and who didn’t. What he found was that the intense heat affected diverse neighbourhoods and social groups differently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, eight of the ten worst-hit neighbourhoods were African-American. In such neighbourhoods individuals, especially the elderly, would hunker down in the shadow of poverty and crime, keeping windows shut to curb burglaries. Such people would become isolated, with the result that come the heatwave no one checked up to see if they were becoming dehydrated or experiencing heat exhaustion, and so many of them died. But Klinenberg also found some things he wasn’t expecting to find. Three of the ten neighbourhoods with the lowest death rates were also poor and African-American. Why? In the resilient neighbourhoods, diners, parks, minimarkets and barbershops were within easy walking distance: people came to know each other well enough to miss one another during the heatwave; it was easy to check on them; so lives were saved.

Klinenberg discovered that the biggest factor in determining people’s well-being was not their level of income but whether their neighbourhood had good social infrastructure. The difference of longevity between those in the good and those in the poor infrastructure neighbourhoods could average as much as ten years.[1]

Social infrastructure is a sophisticated name for the informal places where good things happen. Andrew Carnegie, dollar for dollar the greatest philanthropist in modern history, built 2811 lending libraries, and called them Palaces for the People. Libraries are the epitome of social infrastructure. They are places where people unrelated by family, tribe, race or class naturally meet, connect, have conversation and make relationship born of shared interests and passions. Other such places are the hairdresser, the gym, the cared-for park and playground, the outdoor swimming pool, the community garden, the market, the bookshop, and the communal lounge with free Wi-Fi. These are spaces where people are welcome to congregate, linger, and strike up conversation with strangers.

We all know the great threats to the developed world: climate change, profound inequality, serious poverty, an aging population, and explosive ethnic divisions. How can we address such challenges unless by developing stronger bonds and genuinely shared interests? It’s common to lament chronic underinvestment in hard infrastructure – bridges, sewage works, railways, roads, communications and storm protection. But hard infrastructure only improves society when social infrastructure accompanies it – and when hard infrastructure fails, as in the Chicago heatwave, it’s social infrastructure that determines our fate. Klinenberg concludes that ‘social isolation and loneliness can be as dangerous as more publicised health hazards, including obesity and smoking.’ The answer isn’t technocratic or civic, but something in between – the hidden networks and taken-for-granted systems that underpin collective life.

We’ve just read together words from the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22. Here we discover that when all is literally said and done, what we’re given is a new city. Notice it’s not a cloud with an angel and a harp; it’s not a garden with herbaceous borders; it’s not a clearing in a primeval forest. It’s a city. At first glance there’s an awful lot of no. There’s no temple, because the whole city is holy, and God is there in person, so there’s no need for a holy place. There’s no sun or moon, because the city is bathed in the glory of God. There are no shut gates, because there are no enemies to keep at bay. There’s no night, because on its spinning orbit the city will never turn away from the glory of God. There’ll be no need of lamp or sun, because people will be so close to God they’ll walk in the ways of justice and peace without any path to follow.

But see what there is in this holy city that comes from the heart of God. There’s the utter presence of God. The people will see the face of God, something not possible since the creation of the world, they will bear God’s name on their foreheads, and they will worship. There’s the glory of God and all earthly glory. The river of the water of life flows through the holy city, just as the river ran through the Garden of Eden; and it flows from the throne of God, just as blood and water flowed out of the side of Christ when his body was pierced on the cross. And right there at the centre of the city is the tree of life, just as in Eden, but this time instead of its fruit producing sin and death it has twelve kinds of fruit to encompass the twelve tribes of Israel and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

We may think, ‘Well that’s all very lovely – and if eternity’s like that then you can count me in.’ But I want to point out the connection between what Eric Klinenberg discovered about cities and the holy city as described in the final book of the Bible. The holy city isn’t a place that needs large infrastructure projects. It doesn’t have the usual roster of social malaises. It isn’t a deeply conflictual place where everyone is cautious about neighbours and mistrustful of strangers. But it does have one crucial thing in common with the Chicago of 1995. It needs people to make connections, form relationships, and establish trust. What I want to point out is what a challenge this constitutes for what we usually think of as church.

Here’s what we think of as church. We worship God, we seek to grow as disciples, and we take the good news of the kingdom to the waiting world. Sometimes we take that news in verbal form, and communicate the wonder of God in Christ through telling the story and challenging the listener and hoping for a response. Other times we turn the good news into actions of goodness and mercy that seek to show what love can do and model what selfless kindness looks like. See what all of these forms of church have in common. They all assume we know better, act better, understand better than the rest of the world, and mission is transferring wisdom, compassion or resources from us to them.

But what Klinenberg is describing isn’t like that. He’s not saying the best thing we can do is to find more and more ingenious and appropriate ways to demonstrate our beneficence and, out of our abundance, meet people in their scarcity. He’s suggesting something much simpler and humbler. He’s proposing we actively participate in the informal processes by which strangers come to establish communities of trust. Rather than approach every social situation thinking, ‘How can I exercise my superiority by being generous or magnanimous?’ this means looking for contexts where the Holy Spirit will make something good happen that isn’t necessarily limited to our own vision or under our control.

In my all-time favourite TV advert you hear a bell and then see a godly figure and a devilish figure meeting in a neutral space between hell-fire and Elysian clouds. The godly figure breaks a Kit-Kat in half and shares it. After a few munches, the devilish figure says, ‘Oh well! No rest for the wicked,’ and heads back to the flames. It’s a playful scene that makes you wonder, where and how do I encounter and learn to coexist with those who are in every way different from me?

Let’s imagine you’re at the launderette. It’s an interesting place, because once you’ve put your coins in, you’re more or less stuck there for 40 minutes till the cycle’s complete. Of course you can get out your phone or read a book; but you can also ask the person using the next-door machine if they saw the game yesterday or whether they’d recommend what they’re reading. Likewise on the train. Everyone knows you’re not allowed to talk to strangers on a commuter train or the tube. But on a long distance train it says on your seat where you’re travelling to and a myriad of mysteries can begin with the words, ‘Going to Peterborough?’

We’ve got it into our heads that you can tell we are Christians by our activity, our busy-ness, our constant advocacy for the poor or witness for the planet or justice for the migrant. But maybe mission is rather simpler and a lot more stationary. We’re facing a period in history where our lives are more permeated by strangers, and a larger and larger number of people never have a real face-to-face conversation from one day to the next. They don’t necessarily need rescuing from starvation or turning from their wicked ways; their need is for connection, humanity, common ground, a listening ear. In a lot of ways we’d rather save them, because it spares us the relationship; but that way they’re just saved for another stretch of loneliness and isolation.

Among the most important parts of St Martin’s are our cafés. You’ll notice few people go into the café alone. The cafés are places to talk, deepen relationship, find understanding, show concern. But just as important is the foyer at the base of the staircase. Without spending any money, people can linger, rest, strike up conversation, find common humanity. The significance of this is that this is how we’ll all be spending eternity. We’ll be in this holy city, with no lamp or sun, bathed in glory, with no social problems to fix – just opportunities to be with one another and God. So every time we strike up such a conversation we’re rehearsing eternal life.

But we’re also doing something even more significant. We admire, worship and adore Jesus. We believe he shows us the way God sets the world straight. But we also believe in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit shows up when people meet, when relationships begin to form, when we discover the sheer goodness of the gift of one another. There’s a temptation that many of us share, and that’s to want to be Jesus so successfully that there’s nothing left for the Holy Spirit to do. We want to save the world ourselves; and that’s not a bad thing, unless it suggests that Jesus hasn’t actually already done it. Maybe a more faithful and thoughtful approach is to create situations, cultivate circumstances and advance opportunities where the Holy Spirit will show up, with surprises, gifts coincidences and miracles.

We can read the account of the holy city in Revelation as a faraway tale of utopian bliss. Or we can see it as a challenge to say, if we stopped thinking about what’s missing from our lives, and how material change would make things better, how would we invest more imagination and energy into creating and sustaining real connection and relationship with people who through our work and home and regular life we’d never meet? And isn’t such encounter where our real work as the church and our greatest contribution to our fractured society truly lies? Might we ask ourselves, ‘How may I this week cultivate connection with one person just for the sake of experiencing the abundance God has to give me through them?’ Instead of waiting around for someone else to build social infrastructure, maybe, without realising it, we could become that infrastructure ourselves.

[1][1] Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society (London: Bodley Head 2018)