Texts: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-21; John 17:20-26
When this candle is not lit, it mostly lives in the choir room, next to the window. We don’t usually keep it in here, because it’s odd to have a candle that isn’t being lit. So why is it here now? Why is its cold, dark wick exposed to us today, so uncomfortably unlit?
I said earlier that Jesus’ absence is conspicuous, and no time is that more true than in the last few days of Easter following the Ascension. Seven weeks after the celebration of the empty tomb and many Easter hymns later, it no longer feels like a festival, but also isn’t yet time for Pentecost. We are caught in between, wondering what happens next. Meanwhile, life goes on. We go to work, we travel, we eat and sleep. Children are born, arguments are had, elections are held, wars are fought, loved ones die and are buried. Christ is alive, but he seems so very far away sometimes. What happens next?
For us in this in between time, the book of Revelation holds a promise: Jesus himself says, “See, I am coming soon.” We are reminded that in this liminal space, this transition period, we are between the first and the second coming; that we live, as we say, in the “already-but-not-yet:” the kingdom of heaven has already been inaugurated, but is not yet fully present. Nevertheless, we have Jesus’ own promise: “See, I am coming soon.”
However, “soon,” as we know, is relative. Many lifetimes have passed since Christ ascended into heaven with the promise that he would “come in the same way as we saw him go,” (Acts 1.11) and we will likely all go to our graves before we see that promise fulfilled. That is why St. John of Patmos recorded his vision for us. It is a vision not so much of the future as it is of the present; a glimpse at what already exists behind the veil, even if it is not yet apparent to everyone. Already, God sits on the throne, already the Lamb who was slain has conquered; although we do not yet see all of heaven and earth recreated in God’s vision of beauty and wholeness, it is no less true.
It is this truth which brought Paul and Silas to Troas and the house of Lydia, which took them into the marketplace with the slave girl, and which ultimately landed them in prison. It is this truth which gave them songs to sing in the middle of a dark night in chains, still bruised and bleeding from their arrest. It is this truth that shook the earth and opened the doors and loosed the chains of that prison, but is also this truth which kept them all in their cells until the jailer ran to check on his charges, wild with fear and despair that, if his prisoners had escaped, his own life would be demanded of him in place of theirs.
When the man asks Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” he may well have been asking what he could do to escape the wrath of the magistrates, or the wrath of the angry God whose servants he had beaten and chained. Whatever he expected to hear, the answer Paul gives him is not an ultimatum, but an invitation: build your trust upon the foundation of Christ and his promise, and you will not only escape death, you will live the life God has always intended for you to live--you will be saved.
In that moment, Paul invites the jailer—his enemy—into the life which he and Silas and their companions are already living. He can speak of this life—this life of beatings and imprisonment and persecution—as salvation because he has already experienced it for himself. They all have. To be “saved” means so much more than to be prevented from falling on one’s sword or from being freed from prison. It means more even than the promise of life sometime after we die. It means to see the world—and all the people in it—in the light of the Risen Christ.
That is the life to which St. John of Patmos is inviting us. We live in a world in which countless brands and parties and kinships and special interests demand, vie for, and seduce us for our allegiance. Each of these many directions in which we are being pulled seeks to be the thing that gives us our primary identity, which defines who we are as we move through this world.
We can choose to be defined by political parties or socioeconomic status or group memberships like the sorcerers, idolaters and fornicators who John says are outside the gates of the city, to be divided “us” against “them” by the artificial classifications we create for ourselves; but the invitation John is extending is the same one extended first to him: to let the waters of baptism wash away all those outside entanglements and to be defined by the one thing that connects us across all divisions: the love that God has for us and for all people.
That is what the book of Revelation—and indeed the whole Bible—is: an immense invitation to see the strings which the various powers at work in the world are trying to fasten to us, and to instead cast them aside to live in the freedom of the gospel. It’s the invitation made by Paul and Silas to the jailer, and it’s the prayer that Jesus prays for all his disciples, both in the upper room and all the way into the future: The Spirit and the bride say, “Come;” and let everyone who hears say, “Come,” and let everyone who is thirsty come; let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
This is the invitation that defines who we are as Christians. It’s also the reason why this unlit candle is still in the sanctuary: this candle cries out to be lit, to be a beacon of hope for the risen Christ, to tell the good news of God’s impending redemption of the world. Each and every one of us is a candle; the question with which we wrestle throughout the life of faith is, are we setting that light on a stand to give light to the whole house, or are we hiding that light under a bushel basket?
During times of anxiety and doubt, it is easy to hide that light. It’s easy to get distracted by Christ’s absence and to panic the darkness. We start to worry and argue and cast blame. Financial stress and differences of opinion over leadership can cause us to lose sight of the good news that has first brought us together. We may even look for a scapegoat, a single cause or person that, if we could only be rid of them, would finally solve our problems.
But this is not who we are. We are not people of dissension, people of anxiety, people of the Almighty Dollar. We are people of the Lamb, people of the invitation: those who have heard the call of the Spirit and the bride to “come,” and who now echo the same summons both to others and to ourselves—to “come.” This unlit candle calls and reminds us to share the invitation that was first made to us by those saints who came before us. It reminds us that they were called by others, who were called by still others, all the way back to those who were invited by the first One who testified to the truth; the same one who now says to us, “Surely, I am coming soon.”
The unlit candle invites us to see dancing on its darkened wick the inextinguishable light of Christ, the light that John says fills the holy city day and night, the light that draws all people to drink freely of the water of life. That invisible and invincible light is what calls us here: not the hymns we sing, not the political views of the people around us, not our preferences for what makes for good worship. The invitation we make is to none of those things, but only to the light of Christ, the glory of God revealed in a human person who died and yet lives, the eternal life that God has intended for us from before the foundation of the world. That light can never be extinguished, and as long as this congregation shines with that light, neither can we.