There's a Place For You
So, what comes next?
That’s a question a lot of people are asking these days. Are businesses going to open up again? Will schools re-open? Will I get to go to classes in September? When can I go back to work? Is there going to be work for me? When can I leave home, who will I be able to visit?
There are a lot of questions about what comes next these days, as we think about moving into the next phase of this pandemic, the ‘new normal’, as some people are starting to call it. No one really knows what it will look like. And as we tentatively take steps to re-open, no one really knows whether the virus will stay under control or come storming back. That’s a big question mark!
We don’t know the way. But we do feel like life is about to change. It feels like we’re at an inflection point.
In the gospel we just heard, the disciples aren’t just at an inflection point, they’re in full-blown crisis! And just like us, they don’t know the way forward either.
This text plunks us down right in the middle of the last supper, the night before Jesus’ death. Jesus and his disciples have eaten, he’s washed their feet. Now he drops a bombshell on them. “One of you will betray me.”
Then, he tells them that soon he will be put to death. “I am with you only a little while longer, and where I am going, you cannot follow me now.”
And then, when Peter protests that he will always follow Jesus, Jesus tells him “Peter, before the cock crows you will have denied me three times.”
Betrayal, death, denial. Can you feel the tension in the room? The fear, the anxiety, the deep sense of loss, the confusion of not knowing what’s going to happen next? For the disciples, this is a full-blown crisis.
And that’s where today’s gospel reading begins. How does it begin? It begins with words of reassurance. When we are in crisis, Jesus cares. The words of reassurance are intended for the disciples in their time of crisis; these same words of reassurance are intended for us in the times that we find ourselves in:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. There is a dwelling-place for you in my Father’s house.”
Whoever you are, no matter what you’re going through, no matter what the future that you’re facing,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. There is a place for you in the family of God.”
And if that’s all you need to hear this morning, you can put me on mute right now and go get yourself another coffee. Believe that God has a place for you, and let not your hearts be troubled by everything that’s going on. The future may be uncertain, but God holds a place for us. Sometimes, that’s enough. Some days, that’s all we need to hear.
For those of you that don’t have me on mute, let’s talk a little more about what we mean by that place.
Because if you are confused by what Jesus is talking about, you’re in good company. When Jesus says, “you know the way to the place where I am going”, Thomas responds immediately, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
The confusion is understandable, especially when we consider Thomas’s distraught state. When we talk about a place, usually we’re talking about a geographic location, and so we want to know where that is and how to get there.
But Jesus isn’t talking about a geographic place. He’s talking about a dwelling-place, using the Greek word ‘monE’. It’s the noun form of the verb menos which we usually translate as “to abide”. That’s the verb that Jesus uses when he talks about the Father who dwells in me, or when he talks about the coming of the Spirit who will abide in you, or when Jesus says I will abide in you and you will abide in me. Menos.
We’re not talking about bricks and mortar here. We’re talking about a relationship. A relationship of mutual in-dwelling. The sort of relationship that Paul talks about when he says that in God we live and move and have our being, the sort of relationship that Jesus talks about when he breathes into them on that first Easter day and says receive the Holy Spirit.
What Jesus is trying to tell them, and us, is that his death, his imminent departure, the fact that he’s no longer physically in this world, is not abandonment, but rather a move that will make for an even deeper intimacy, a relationship of mutual in-dwelling that we often talk about theologically as participation, as the Spirit of God living in us and we living in the Spirit. That’s the ‘place’ that Jesus is talking about. And nothing, no crisis, no virus, no fear and no uncertainty can ever take that place away from us.
Now I know that this idea of mutual in-dwelling, of the God who lives in us and we who live in God is still hard to wrap your head around. Philip raises another objection. How can we have a relationship with God, how can we live in God, if we don’t know God? “Show us the Father,” Philip says, “and we will be satisfied.” It’s a valid objection. How can we be expected to enter into a relationship, let alone this intimate relationship of mutual in-dwelling, with someone we can’t see and don’t even know?
To which Jesus responds, to which Jesus reassures, “Philip, you know me. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.”
Now way back in the prologue to this gospel, in chapter one, John let us know that this was coming when he wrote, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”
The reason that Jesus came is to make God known, so that we can know God, just as we are known by God, and that then enables us to enter into this relationship, this relationship of mutual in-dwelling which is our place in the house of God.
Now, another side note about the language here: when Jesus talks about “my Father’s house”, the word he uses, that we translate as ‘house’, is ‘oikos’ which can also be translated as household, or home, or family. It’s not just a building. Much more than that, we’re talking here about a place of belonging.
Do not be troubled. There is a place for you in the family of God. You belong here.
In our bible study this week we raised another question about this promised place of belonging, the many dwelling-places in the Father’s house, and it was this: When Jesus makes this promise, when we talk about this dwelling-place, are we talking about this life or the next? It’s a good question. In the immediate context of the last supper, the disciples were thinking in terms of their immediate future in this life – Jesus is going away, we’re going to be left here on our own, what’s going to happen to us. And yet, we often hear these words read at funerals, don’t we, where the promise is that there is a dwelling-place for us with God beyond the grave.
So does the promise refer to this life or the next? The answer, is yes. Both/and.
Because once we begin to realize, or even better, once we begin to experience that the dwelling-place we’re talking about is this relationship of mutual in-dwelling, of God living in us and us living in God, we start to appreciate that this is a relationship that begins in this life and will endure beyond the grave. It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. We get a glimpse of that in our reading from Acts. Stephen knew his place in the family of God, he had that relationship with God, he was filled with the Holy Spirit in this life. Knowing this, he had the courage to face death.
Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly, now and in the life to come. But in that moment, Jesus’ disciples were in crisis, anxious and afraid. And so to those who were hurting and in trouble, to those who faced an uncertain future, he spoke words of comfort and reassurance. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. I go to prepare a place for you in the house of God and I will bring you to that place.”
Some of you might know that my favourite poet is Mary Oliver. One of her most beloved poems speaks to our need for reassurance and belonging when we are in a difficult place. It’s called Wild Geese and it goes like this:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
And like the wild geese in the poem, Jesus comes to us, over and over again, announcing our place, our dwelling-place, not just in the family of things, but in the very household and family of God, the God who created you and the wild geese and everything else, the God who cares for you and loves you, just as you are, this day.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Homily. Yr A Easter 5, May 10 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 7.55-60; Ps 31; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14