St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, April 24, 2016
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them as their God;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God’s very self will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new."
This is a section of our New Testament reading from the Revelation to John appointed for this morning, the Fifth Sunday of the Easter season. These words come directly on the heels of the iconic vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God” and “they will be God’s peoples.” The Greek word that is translated here as both “home” and “dwell” is the word, skéné, which means, “to pitch a tent,” or literally, “tabernacle.” It’s also used in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt [pitched a tent, tabernacled] among us.”
This word, “tabernacle,” came to the fore this past Wednesday when I encountered the rare intersection of the Revised Common Lectionary, the cycle of readings that determine what scriptures we hear when we gather for Eucharist on Sundays, with the Daily Office Lectionary, which is the cycle of readings appointed for use during Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer throughout the week. These are completely different schedules that cover a huge range of material from the whole of the Christian Scriptures, and it is very rare indeed that they come together in any meaningful way during a given week. But on Wednesday, early in the morning, as is my practice, I was spending time with Sunday’s readings, and I came to our passage from Revelation. As I reflected that morning upon the vision of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven, this notion of God making a tabernacle among mortals grabbed and held my attention. I wrote in my journal, “This is a vision of God pitching a tent in the midst of all peoples and instituting a relational reality that changes everything.”
A few hours later, at Morning Prayer here in St. James Chapel, the Hebrew Scripture reading appointed for that day was from the book of Exodus, chapter 33. Listen to some of what I read:
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
When concepts like this intersect in the course of our prayers, I take it as an indication that we’re supposed to sit up and pay attention. This “tent of meeting” pitched outside the camp is eventually moved, over the course of these chapters in the book of Exodus, into the midst of the camp and becomes a tabernacle where God dwells among the people. This story of the tabernacle tent from Exodus is exactly what the writer of Revelation is pointing at when describing the vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God” and “they will be God’s peoples.”
This notion of God “tabernacling” in the mist of the people is central to the Christian tradition. This is the means by which heaven and earth are transformed, by which all things are made new. God pitches a tent right in the middle of our camp, and we become fully God’s, and God becomes fully ours.
The Church practices living into this reality through its Sacraments. The Holy Spirit descends into our very midst and makes the stuff of our lives, things that come from us, like our bread and our wine, into things that come from God, the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. This is why we call the place where the reserved Sacrament abides, above which the candle always burns, a tabernacle. God has pitched a tent in our midst, and this is where we recognize the living presence of God dwelling among God’s people. If you’ve wondered about the tradition of genuflecting or bowing before entering the pew or before coming up into the chancel or when crossing the center aisle, this is why. Like the people in the camp who bowed down at the entrance to their tents when they saw the pillar of cloud descend upon the tent of meeting in the Exodus story, this tradition developed as a way of acknowledging and giving reverence to the presence of God dwelling among us.
We do these things, however, not because that tabernacle is the only place where God dwells. The point of all this is not holy bread and holy wine. The point is that God’s presence among us, given to us, moving though us, makes us into a holy people empowered by the Holy Spirit to join God in the work of making all things new.
So what is it about holy bread and wine that makes us into holy people? Our Gospel this morning is a passage from John 13 that we also heard a few weeks ago on Maundy Thursday. In these verses, set around the table at which he celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus gives them the “new commandment” to “love one another.” It is also at the Last Supper that Jesus held up the bread and the wine and gave the commandment to “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Bread and wine are the locus of the Holy Eucharist because sharing bread and wine at tables is an act whereby we love one another. We honor and give reverence to this bread and this wine shared around this table in order to recognize God making a home, pitching a tent, tabernacling with us in all food and drink shared in love around every table. We honor God’s presence in certain places and in certain things so that we can learn to recognize and honor God’s presence in all places and in all things.
This is part of what means to be a holy people. Holy people have been formed to perceive the Holy dwelling in their midst: in themselves, in the people they encounter, in the non-human world around them, even in brokenness and pain and suffering. And once they perceive God’s presence camped among their own tents, holy people roll up their sleeves and follow God into working towards a world in which “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away,” a world in which all eyes can see that God is “making all things new.”
“The home of God is among mortals.” Let us open our eyes and see.