This Way to Eden – The Very Rev. Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury
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Friends, I cannot tell you what a loving privilege it is to stand here on this very special occasion with representatives of all those who love and support this community, which is so precious to us.
Holy Week always begins with an entry back into the place of worship. When we gathered at Canterbury Cathedral—not in the Cathedral but in the Chapter House, as a sign of reentering our holy place of worship—I was encouraged and really thrilled by the news from Br. Geoffrey, that you would be re-entering this holy place in a very real way after so many months of (shall we not call it exile but) dislocation. I know this is only a beginning, but it feels a very joyful beginning. And you were in my mind and heart throughout Holy Week.
There’s a lovely phrase in the middle of the Exsultet which goes, “lost innocence restored.” There is always a flavor of that at Eastertide. The deans of the cathedrals of England have a habit of having their conference after Easter. I, as their chairman, gather them in different cathedrals across England, year by year, to spend four days as the guests of different communities. This year, we went to Exeter and Truro. For those of you who know England well, Truro will be well known to you, but for those of you who don’t, Truro is on the western tip of the south of England in Cornwall, a very long journey for me from Canterbury, certainly, and for the deans of Durham and Newcastle, even longer. Cornwall is a place where you’re never very far from the sea and where the population is very small. And yet it is a place of wonder in natural terms.
In the middle of Cornwall, a Dutchman, Tim Smit, has had the vision to set up what he calls “The Eden Project.” Eden…lost innocence restored. I’d never been there before, and now a whole coach-load of fairly tired deans after all the Lenten and Easter activities, were in a bus which disembarked them at the gates of this project, not quite knowing what they’d find. I shall never forget the scene of these forty-odd, fairly white-haired men and women standing under a notice, pointing along a leafy lane, which said, “This way to Eden.”
We went along and found, under what the Dutchman calls “biomes,” huge geodesic domes so large that to inspect the tops of the trees a hot air balloon is needed in one of them. As we entered each biome, we saw that a different world had been created in each: in one, a rainforest; in another, something tropical; in another, temperate, Mediterranean. In each atmosphere there was a sign of growth of the very best foliage of all those climates of the world, accompanied by a dampness and the sound of running water, with total light shining through the roofs, which were so high you forgot about them. Huge palm trees growing in the bottom of what had been an old china-clay quarry, long since disused. Deserts flowered.
And when we came out and passed under the sign again, it didn’t seem quite so ridiculous that it said, “This way to Eden.” Our faces seemed somehow fresher, for having walked from one biome to another.
The Fourth Gospel—which is our spiritual guide towards Christ this morning—sets forth a whole range of what the Evangelist calls “signs.” The signs are all of healing and restoration, of an end of dislocation, as though the gates of that humanity which God created to be in his image are once again being opened complete with a notice saying, as we walk with Jesus in those opening chapters, “This way to Eden.” Whether it be at the marriage at Cana of Galilee, where the water is turned into the richness of wine, or sitting by the well with the woman of Samaria, or going to find the royal official’s son in Capernium, healed. Or seeing the joy of the lame man who didn’t need to step into the waters to be healed when the angel stirred the waters, because Jesus had stirred him into a new creation, and he could follow him on the way. Or the thousands who needed feeding, and Jesus’ hands fed them from the child’s picnic. Or the one who had not seen and suddenly was given his sight by he who was the Light of the World. Or most of all, the dearest friend, for whom Jesus wept, having his tomb opened by the creative words of the Word incarnate and being able once more to follow the call: “Lazarus, come forth.” Or, in perhaps more Gospel words: “Come and follow me.” And he did.
We see him next sitting beside Jesus at a foretaste of the messianic banquet, cooked by Martha and scented by the fragrance of Mary’s offering of ointment in understanding of the messianic vocation and suffering of the Christ himself. Signs. Signs of a new creation. This way to Eden. Lost innocence—potentially—restored.
And there, at that moment, when Jerusalem has been entered and Jesus has been saying through all those chapters, “My hour has not yet come,” the hour comes for the fulfillment of Christ’s activity for us: the opening of the gates of that new life, that light, that new creation.
And then a disciple is introduced. Until now, he has not appeared. And now, he will be named “the beloved disciple.” Five times.
The first occasion is when he is at the foretaste of the messianic banquet, before the suffering of the Messiah. And here we have an image in the Greek—so close physically, spiritually, mentally—that words find it difficult to describe in the Scriptures. There are so many different translations, but the old King James Version (which we celebrate this year in an anniversary, from 1611 to now) talks about it the same words as Lazarus in the parable in a different Gospel, “in the bosom of Abraham,” surrounded physically, mentally, spiritually by the love of that person. The beloved disciple in the bosom of Jesus at that supper, so close that he understands—not by his mind, but by his heart—all that is happening, all that must happen.
Next we see him at the cross. And Jesus sees him, too. Sees him standing beside his mother. And here he is given his commission, as we are given ours: take her as your mother now. And to Mary: take him as your son.
And then, as we’ve been reminded in our Gospel reading today, Easter Day, when again not eyes and mind were at play, but the heart of the beloved disciple, understanding what had happened the moment he entered the tomb. He saw and believed.
And finally, on the lakeside: the foretaste of the messianic banquet after the Resurrection. He doesn’t need to splash to the shore, like Simon Peter, jumping into the sea. Rather, quietly from the boat, he says, with the eyes of the Spirit, “It is the Lord.” Lost innocence restored—and offered to us.
He is never referred to by his name (though we have named it several times this morning). He’s simply “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The Gospel writer does so that he can offer us the opportunity of putting our name there instead—which is what his Gospel wants to do for us: to place us, after all those signs, in the place of receiving them—in joy, in witnessing the suffering of situations and our world, its turbulence, its violence at the cross, and also in the confidence of knowing resurrection and the foretaste of the messianic banquet in a new creation. All of that and much more, he offers to us.
Then we see him a fifth time. And what is he doing? Following. Simply following. Peter says, “What’s going to happen to him?” Jesus says, “Never mind, Peter. Follow me.” But behind, we are conscious, is the one who is in heart, mind, and soul near to Jesus. Following.
That gift is given to us as a community today, as we reenter this place of restoration, loved so much over the years and about to enter a new sphere of its life through the courage of all of you in doing this. And as we do so and make a new beginning, with all this growth, all this juice and joy of Eastertide around us, we hear the voice of the beloved disciple, so close to the heart of Jesus, addressing each one of us by name, saying, “This way to Eden.”
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Um, all the scriptural study I’ve ever had suggested that “the disciple Jesus loved” was referring to the writer of the gospel itself: the circumlocution a way for a writer to refer to themselves with a certain level of humility and anonymity.
The suggestion that we could put ourselves there is an interesting one, but I’d have to question it as an accurate reading of John’s gospel….all due respects, of course.