The City - Symbol of Evil or Symbol of the Kingdom
The identification of the “spiritual” with the “pastoral” is common. The flowing stream, the mountain grandeur, the amber waves of grain are often seen as synonymous with God, meditation and spiritual presence.
But it is worth noting how common in the Scriptures is the search not for rural peace, but for a city – the founding of Jerusalem, its rebuilding, its splendor. “We’re Marching to Zion” is a theme not just at First Baptist Church’s worship hour, but of the Old Testament. Jerusalem, not the remote hamlet, is the inspiring vision.
Our Lord loves the city, has a passion for its true calling and weeps over its tragedy. Paul’s mission focused on planting the Gospel in the great cities of his day – Ephesus, Corinth – and he longs to reach Rome, the great imperial city. The letters of John’s Apocalypse are to the seven churches in the key cities of Asia Minor – urban churches.
The image of heaven is, interestingly, not a garden or sunset scene, but a city “whose maker and builder is God.” The city – the place of community, gathering, building, dining, partying – the place with streets and houses is the ultimate image we are given of heaven.
It’s good to remind ourselves of that. Spirituality, God’s presence is not something to be found only in nature, to be experienced by escaping alone into the wilderness. Those early Christians who fled to the wilderness to live in isolation, searching for spirituality surely missed the point. God’s work in our lives is not found in escape from the hustle and bustle of common life, but in engagement with it – in, metaphorically speaking, the “city.”
In our own national life, we have tragically missed this calling too often. Our cities, far from being centers of Christian presence and witness, have often been abandoned by evangelicals. We have loved the comfort of the suburbs, and small towns. Our little brown church in the vale, or the quaint New England church in a village are our pictures of Christian presence.
This disdain for the urban has happened for various historical reasons, I suppose. The frontier was the center of many of the evangelical revivals which shaped major denominations in America. Christian leaders were too often uncomfortable in the ethnic and religious diversity in urban centers. We found evangelism and piety more difficult in the cities with their clashing values and more transparent “sin” than the quiet towns. So we abandoned the cities to industry, rescue missions, and finance. The immigrants, intellectuals, industrialists, and politicians inherited the cities. Our churches left, and the symbols at the city center were no longer cathedrals, but became the banks and stock exchanges.
Such was not the case in the early church which deliberately engaged the cities with the Gospel – loved the intellectual challenge of its life. The new faith took root in the cities, so much so that the very words “pagan” and “heathen” – which reflect non-Christian faith – were words for farmers and rural people – the “pagani” and the “heath men.”
The city today is the center of law and government. Law is about the ordering of our communal life. How critical it is to know that these things too are at the core of God’s call and His will for human community. The city can be a symbol of all that is evil and corrupting – the Sodom and Gomorrah – but it also the highest vision – of Jerusalem and the city of God.
Lynn R. Buzzard
L. Buzzard, Week 14: The City – Symbol of Evil or Symbol of the Kingdom, in WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE OF YOU? 36-37 (L. Buzzard ed.1997).
Used with permission of the publisher, Advocates International.