May 22, 2011 Gospel: John 14:1-14 1st Reading: Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 2nd Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10
I’ve probably preached on this text 20 or more times, because it is the most often chosen text for memorial services. Maybe some of you even have this Gospel lesson picked out for your service someday. At those memorial services I always wonder what people think when they hear this reading. Many don’t attend church on a regular basis. This might be the only sermon they hear all year. And I don’t get the chance to go into the particulars of the gospel at a time like that. We’re there to remember a person we love. We’re there to be comforted by God’s presence. We’re not there for the pastor to explain this text in detail so we catch the full meaning.
So now I get to do just that. I love this text and it can be very comforting to people who grew up in the church or who have a strong faith to sustain them. To them/us, it says, there is a place for us. We will be with God. Our faith and belief have led to a life of generosity and love. We can trust God and be at peace. We are in God’s hands.
But this text has been misused. It has led some to question whether their faith or belief is good enough. It has led to some people telling others that if they haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior then they aren’t good enough believers and their faith doesn’t count. It has led some people to decide that everyone else besides Christians are going to hell. Far from causing people’s hearts not to be troubled, this reading has done some of the most damage and caused some of the greatest anxiety of any text in the Bible.
If we start at the beginning we hear some calming words of Jesus, “Calm down, people. It is going to be okay. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be anxious.” This is one of the best reasons this text works so well when a loved one has died. It starts with comforting words. Often hearts are troubled because the loss is so deep. How do you say goodbye? Did you say everything you wanted to say? Do you carry guilt about something you did or didn’t do? How will life go on, and how will it be changed? This phrase is like the hand of God on our shoulder giving us comfort for our troubled hearts.
Jesus’ followers’ hearts were troubled, because no sooner had he been raised from the dead, he hangs around with them for a month or so, and now he’s making a farewell speech that he’s going away again. He’s going to ascend to God. He’s not going to be there physically anymore. They just got him back from the grave! Now he’s leaving! Certainly they were troubled.
The next part talks about the Father’s dwelling place. There is plenty of room for everyone. That is also very comforting when someone has died. You can almost picture them there. Sometimes it is used to say just the opposite—that space is limited in heaven. And is the Father’s dwelling place only in heaven? We sometimes call the church God’s house, when describing it to children. The reading from 1 Peter describes a structure of stone, with Jesus as the cornerstone. This was probably written not long after the temple had been destroyed. Imagine if you were hearing this sermon as you stood over the smoldering ruins of our church after an earthquake. That’s the situation in which Peter is preaching.
He’s now asking not to focus too much on the building, but to visualize another kind of temple. He talks about a living structure and letting ourselves be built into a spiritual house. It isn’t about the church building or the temple, the stones and wood and carvings. God dwells in the community.
When Jesus talks about the many dwelling places of God, might that be our own bodies? Can we live in God and God in us before we die? The Gospels confirm that we can and do. When the people ask Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “Where did we see you hungry and thirsty and give you food and drink.” He answers, “Whatsoever you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did also to me.” God dwells in people. That is God’s house. Sure there is plenty of room in the afterlife for our loved ones, but can’t we move into God’s house now and let God move into ours? Why wait?
Next we get reassured that where God is, we are. That works for both the living and the dead. Let’s live as if where God is, we are. Let’s go to where God has promised to be, especially among the poor.
Then Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father, except through me,” and “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Some hear this as saying, if you haven’t heard of the man named Jesus, then you’re toast. If you haven’t heard of him, too bad. If you’re Jewish, too bad. If you’re Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Athiest, too bad. It is a pretty harsh condemnation from the God of love. Is this the God we believe in? There are indications in both the Old and New Testament that the Jewish people are God’s people and have a place with God forever and even some foreigners. There are clues that those who lived before the time of Jesus have a place with God. Additionally, perhaps the many dwelling places refers to the wide variety of folks that God holds in God’s care and even redeems, maybe even of different religions.
Another way of looking at it is that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus’ way—especially his way of love and truth and life. Those who never knew him and those whom Christians have turned away from Jesus because of their hypocritical, judgmental and even violent ways, may still know Jesus’ ways and follow them. Should they be faulted that we misrepresented God to them?
What is Jesus way, anyway? His way of love and truth and life was about being honest, being with people he wasn’t supposed to hang out with, sharing his presence and teaching with nobodies, and giving life to all on the cross. I think he’s inviting us to try it his way. We have our way of trying to earn God’s love, or pretending to be perfect, or learning all the right answers, or getting lazy about our faith, or beating ourselves up. Those things have all failed us.
Jesus is asking us here to follow his way of service, of dying and rising to new life, of going where we’re not supposed to and breaking the rules, of telling the truth even when it isn’t popular, of sharing everything we have.
Just like the stones used in one lesson to destroy Stephen’s life and in another to build a spiritual house, acceptable to God, these readings and any in the Bible can be used to tear down or build up. If we remember that we are the dwelling place of God, maybe we will remember to be more intentional about building up, or letting God build up through us. And when our structures fall as they are bound to do, let’s remember that we are resurrection people and new life can come from the ruins.
I know that in our attempts to create a meaningful and rich worship experience, we have stepped on toes at times. We have torn some people down, when we could have been building them up and encouraging them. Sometimes maybe we get too focused on our own preferences and getting it just right, instead of just letting things be. When there is rambling during announcements or a particularly long and heartfelt prayer or we can’t hear everything that’s being said, maybe we don’t have to reign that in, but can let the spirit of God unfold even if it makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we should especially be looking for the presence of God when we are uncomfortable—it could be a signal. Jesus made a lot of people uncomfortable. His death stirred up a lot of troubled hearts.
When we’re troubled, that’s a good time to stop and examine ourselves, rather than point to someone else as the source of our unhappiness. Ask yourself, what is it about me that I am uncomfortable? Can I live with this anxiety for the moment? Can it teach me something about myself and about the rag-tag people that God calls home? Can it tell me something about why God would choose me, as fallible and flawed as I am, to be a follower and a leader in this community and a vessel bearing unconditional love to this world?