As I consider this text, I am thinking about that very brief scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally when Harry is sitting down to read the first page of a thick novel, and, after about 1.5 seconds, he flips to the last page of the book. The scene is foreshadowed by a comment Harry makes to Sally when they first meet: “When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends.”
The scene comes to mind because, with this reading, the people of God together are flipping the Bible to the last page to read how the story ends. Whether or not we will die before the story is finished is anybody’s guess, but God’s.
But in a way, this is a perfect way to end the season of Easter because it is the resurrection which makes anything in Revelation, or really anything that has happened since the eleven disciples plus one (Judas Iscariot is replaced with Matthias by the Spirit-led casting of lots in today’s first reading, Acts 1:12-26) walked out the door of their upper room, possible. This story began with the creation of the cosmos, but the story only has a happy ending because the God crucified on a cross is raised in Jesus walking from a tomb.
The other reason this text is a perfect way to end the season of Easter is that the end of the story also prepares us, in a strange way, for the wind and fire of the Spirit of Pentecost, celebrated next week. Knowing the end of the story of the cosmos before the story of the Church even begins gives us a glimpse of the Spirit’s work, its telos: Its end, its goal, its purpose.
Knowing the end of the story of the cosmos before the story of the Church even begins gives us a glimpse of the Spirit’s work, its telos: Its end, its goal, its purpose.
Perhaps it is also fitting to be reading aloud these last words in the midst of graduation season. As every graduation speech obligates itself to point out, the word “commencement” that we use at the end of the graduate’s course of study also means the beginning of something new. But, for the same reason, the time is ripe for every graduate, and everyone who knows someone graduating, to hear the voice of the One who promises, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (verse 13). Every good thing in this world finds its source and its completion in the One who is, indeed, coming soon. So, we pray each day in the last words of the Bible’s last prayer: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (verse 20). But even the prayer does not originate with us. It is only in response to the invitation Jesus has already made to “Come” and drink from “the water of life as a gift” (verse 17).
We are thirstier for this water today than we were yesterday, and we will be even thirstier for it tomorrow than we are today, not necessarily because our throats are that much more parched, but because the gift of the water is so clear and sweet to the taste. Each day draws us one day closer to the river which is its source.
Yet, the events of this day and age, the evildoer still doing evil (verse 11), make our longing for it heartbreakingly real. The tragedy of a Saturday afternoon in a grocery store in Buffalo is its latest reality. So, in light of it, I cannot help but reflect a bit on verse 2: “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” From time immemorial, a river has lined out a border, a boundary, a division between lands, families, groups, states, nations. But this tree of life spans the river, branching roots on either side of its shores. That makes this tree a living bridge crossing any dividing line of hostility (reference Ephesians 2:14 as well), so much so that the everlasting city is built not beside the river (like almost every city in human history), but the river runs through its center. And on either side, the tree gives its fruit, not just in the growing season, but each and every month (the echo to Eden here, and the reverse of its curse, is obvious). Finally, its leaves are a healing balm for “the nations.” The word here is ethnon, from ethnos or ethnoi, literally: All the “ethnicities.” Indeed, there is a balm in Gilead, and its healing is for the healing of us all, crossing every boundary between us.
The glimpse of this final vision of healing has healed us before, it heals us here and now, and it will heal us again. Telling the history of this multiethnic healing begins next week, when the Spirit will inspire the word of Christ’s promise to be heard by “every nation” (there is that word again in Acts 2:5), all in their own languages.