It would not be a challenging task to fill an entire book with nothing but jokes about Saint Peter and the pearly gates of Heaven. They are all a little different but follow the same trusted pattern of a person or two dying and waiting before the pearly gates to be let into Heaven. Peter is the one who is usually depicted as the gate keeper. After all, it was to him that Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and between their exchange the joke unfolds. So, a pastor and a politician die and arrive at the pearly gates. Peter meets them to present their room assignments. He hands the pastor a set of keys and says, “Here you go. It is one of our nicest and coziest efficiency units.” He then turns to the politician and gives him his keys and says, “Welcome. These are to our finest luxury penthouse.” Now the pastor is a little upset and says, “Hey, that isn’t fair.” To which Peter replies, “Look, pastors are a dime a dozen, but it’s rare that we get a politician up here.”
But the truth of the matter is this image of “pearly gates” is common for the gates to paradise. Our text today from the Revelation to Saint John is the source for this imagery. As you might suspect there is far more to it than an abundance of jokes about who does and does not get into Heaven. In fact, we are told what we are seeing in this image is the Bride, the wife of the Lamb, and what we see is a Heavenly city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven. The is the Bride and its description is difficult to fathom. An old friend of mine used to say that when Scripture speaks about the eternal things of God, the things of paradise and glory, it stretches our language to the extremes. So, we read that its, “…radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal,” and, “the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.” There is also no need for the sun or the moon to light it. It is an amazing picture, and it is trying to tell us something not only about what Paradise will be like but about our life here and now, our hope as we live out our days in these late and troubled times.
When we explore the description of this bride, this Heavenly city of God, what we are given is a picture of the Church. There are certain markers which clue us in to this truth. After all, the pearly gates are not just big shiny gates. No, these are massive gates where each one is constructed using a single pearl. There is not just one gate but twelve of them. And standing at each gate is not Saint Peter, or any of the disciples for that matter, but an angel of the Lord and each gate is given a name. Each one is named after one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve tribes are the ancient people of God. They are the chosen ones. In their midst God dwelt locally. He made His presence known to them and they were blessed to be a blessing for the entire world. But that is not all. In the vision given to John, the whole city, the whole construction of the Bride of the Lamb, is built on twelve foundations and the foundations also have names, they are named after the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The Apostles are the eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, the ones sent to forgive sins and bring the Gospel to bear upon the world. This is the twelvefold foundation of eternal life.
What this means is this revelation of the new Heaven and new Earth is not only a revelation about what is to come but also a revelation about the importance of what we have here and now, about the Church rooted in its history, the Church defined by the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The ancient Church of God, the ancient people of His choosing, constructed their whole life around the Tabernacle, around the Tent of Meeting. It was there they would meet their God. It was there that sins were atoned for, and the promise of life was proclaimed. There was a clear line of separation between the sacred and the profane. Sacrifices would be made at the Altar and a curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the eyes of the sinful and fallen. Church was solemn and perhaps even a bit terrifying. The smell of incense would hang heavy in the air as blood would be spilled. Yet, these are the gates through which we enter Paradise.
The Tent of Meeting becomes the pattern for the Temple in Jerusalem. In brick and stone adorned with gold and precious wood the moveable location of God’s presence became fixed in Israel. But over the years their hearts grow distant from their God. Sure, they perform the rituals, but the awe and fear no longer remain. So, they are not found ready when the Lord of the vineyard sends His Son. The Church of God becomes more clear, more evident, more tangible in the arrival of our Lord. What was hidden in the sacrifices of the Temple, is made clear in Christ. The life of the Church bound up in confession and absolution, in shedding of blood and proclamation of the prophets, is now focused on the life of our Lord. He is not only offering Himself as a sacrifice for sin, but as the final, the complete, the total sacrifice for all sin ever to be committed. He not only treasures and hands on the prophetic Word of God, but He is also the living Word in human flesh. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the source of faith. He is the location of the presence of God.
So, what happens to the Church when Jesus dies? Well, we are told the Temple is shaken and the curtain separating the Holy of Holies for unworthy eyes is torn in two. The mercy seat of God is open for all. Christ Himself is the identity and life of the Church. He alone is our access to the Father. He alone is the assurance of eternal life. No more sacrifices. No more shedding of blood to atone for our sin. It is complete in Christ. And what does He do then? Why, He sends out His apostles to proclaim the reality of His work to the world. He says to them, “As my Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” He gives them the Spirit and tells them that forgiveness, the forgiveness He accomplished, is now their task to proclaim. And the life of the Church goes on. Through the proclamation of the Word and the administration of our Lord’s Sacraments, His gift of forgiveness and love continues to go forth.
We confess each week in the Creed that we believe in the “one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” The Church is the church built on the foundation of the Apostles. We have an apostolic scripture, written and preserved by the Apostles for our faith here today. Our faith is the faith of the Apostles, faith centered in the magnificent work of our Lord, the faith they were sent out to proclaim. So, the Bride of the Lamb, the holy city John sees is the Church of God, elect and glorious, with twelve foundations and twelve gates. When you go through those pearly gates what lies on the other side is the perfection the Church. There is no temple, no dividing curtain between the sacred and profane. There is no preacher standing before you, no sacraments which need to be administered. Heck, there is not even a sun or a moon needed for light. Why? Because the glory of God is all the light needed and the Lamb is the lamp that eternally shines.
I know it is difficult to imagine all this. It is hard to think of life beyond the pearly gates. The language itself is strained and weird. And if it is the perfection of this fellowship here and now, we look around and figure there is a lot which will need to be changed to perfect this bunch. It can be difficult to imagine we are supposed to be the Bride of the Lamb. We are full of sin and resentment. We have petty augments that do not matter in the long haul. We fall into our little cliques and pull away from those who need us. We are quick to judge and slow to forgive. But that does not change the core of our faith. It does not end the foundations upon which this church is built, and it certainly does not negate the promises of Christ. As the sacrifices in the Temple were but a shadow of Christ greater sacrifice, so our worship now is a shadow of what will be.
Here you have heard again His Word. Here you have received the forgiveness you desperately need. Here you will feed upon His body and blood. Here you will participate in the blessings of God. Right here, in this small and simple place, we learn over and again about the love of Christ. We learn what it means to walk in His light. We learn that in Christ the Pearly Gates already stand wide open, and you are already invited to walk on through.