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Its gates will never be shut


Zhonghua gate; the southern portal in Nanjing's city wall

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Nanjing’s city wall.

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January 22, 2010
-Philip Bender

Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there…nothing unclean will enter it” (Rev. 21:25-7).

DAZHOU, China — Nanjing is a city of walls.  Julie and I visited this ancient former Chinese capital in July, before making our recent move to Dazhou.  One can still walk on portions of the old wall that zigzags around the central city.  Built in the late 1300s, it is the longest city wall in the world. 

Equally impressive are Nanjing’s 13 gates.  Some of these entryways are actually tunnels through the walls, sectioned into vaults sealed by smaller gates.  An army of thousands could be garrisoned inside.   Any enemy that tried to enter the city faced a formidable obstacle.

But the gates were not impregnable.  At various times marauding armies broke through and wreaked havoc.  On December 12, 1937, Japanese troops marched into Nanjing.  Six weeks of carnage and atrocity followed, with over 300,000 residents being massacred.

The closing image of the Bible is a city coming down from heaven to earth, resplendent with glistening streets and sparkling lights, breathing life through green trees and flowing streams.    

Like Nanjing, this city is circumscribed by walls and is accessible through gates.  But these gates stand wide open—not just during the relative safety of the day, but all the time.

Why?  Because this is not an ordinary city.  It is the holy city, the new Jerusalem, God’s final act of new creation.  It is the restored, redeemed city which God has been building since Abraham and Jesus. 

And the new Jerusalem is a secure city, where residents live without fear.  “Nothing unclean will enter it,” the seer of Revelation assures.  Here, heavy locked gates would be curiosities, tourist sites, artefacts of a bygone era, as they are in Nanjing today.

An open gate can be an image for mission, including teaching English in China.  Along with the speaking and writing they teach in the classroom, Mennonite teachers have many chances, literally and figuratively, to open their gates. 

When they entertain students in or outside of their homes—rarely done by Chinese teachers—fissures appear in the walls of language and culture that otherwise loom as formidable barriers. 

And, as in ancient Nanjing, the traffic through the gates goes in both directions.  By moving out of their own cultural enclave and becoming learners, North American teachers contribute to relationships based on mutuality and respect.  Receiving from, as well as giving to, their Chinese hosts disarms suspicion, dispels stereotypes, and opens the way to friendship and trust. 

And there is more.  Not only does opening walls that divide people contribute to reconciliation and peace today.  It also helps to build that renewed city of God that lies ahead.

“Blessed are those who from now on die in the Lord,” Revelation’s author has earlier said.  Their work will not pass away with their physical death, “for their deeds shall follow them” (14:13). 

Because God’s final Kingdom will involve the renewal of time and space—the new Jerusalem comes down to earth—words and deeds done today in the name of Jesus, even when they seem ineffectual, are not fleeting or futile.  They will endure beyond this life, being somehow used by God as construction material for the new Jerusalem.

Creating gates in walls of language, class, race and culture can be hard, discouraging work.  Patience, perseverance and a sense of humour are needed.  Especially essential is hope in the ultimate victory of the Lamb that was slain, whom one day “every nation, tribe, people and language” will praise (7:9).

Still, because of Jesus’ death, resurrection and present lordship, we can believe that our efforts for hospitality, understanding and peace today, in his name and spirit, will leave their traces in the new heaven and earth. 

Mission means declaring the good news that God in Jesus is renewing the whole creation, and will complete it one day.  By paring down walls that divide, we announce and signify the Kingdom that has started to appear.  By opening our gates to others, especially to those not like ourselves, we help God build that beautiful, lively, open-gated city that is coming.

Philip Bender and his wife Julie Bender are Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network workers at Sichuan University of Arts & Science in Dazhou, China through Mennonite Partners in China.