5th Sunday after Easter
May 18, 2014
John 14:1-14 and 1Peter 2:2-10
Mansions. That’s the way I heard Jesus description of heaven when I was a kid. It takes me back to my former life when I sold the plumbing supplies that went into mansions. I’ve seen plenty of them. Peter talks about buildings, too. Talking about cornerstones and living stones and being built up into a house.
The reading from John’s Gospel is often read at funerals, as a promise that the ones we loved will be welcomed into the eternal home God has prepared for each of us believers. I’ve preached it to grieving families: when we were baptized we were made members of God’s family, and that when we leave this world we go to await the people who are still left here on this earth to come and join us in our eternal home. It is a passage which brings great comfort.
But the more I read these passages together I realize that they are not primarily about what happens when we die, or even primarily about who gets to go to heaven. They are about us, about our work here. The reading from John happens chronologically as Jesus is getting ready to sit down to supper with his friends before he is arrested and interrogated and killed as a terrorist. He is trying to prepare his disciples for what will happen to him and then what will happen to them when he is gone.
As he tells them he is going to the Father, our literal friend, Thomas, wants the GPS location of where that is. Philip wants to know how we’ll recognize the Father. Jesus tells them that when they see him they are seeing the Father, too. He’s been telling them that all along. “I and the Father are one,” he will say later in the writings from this last evening with them. You know that he and the Father are one because of the works he does, he says, and that you will do them, too, once he is gone home to the Father. “I tell you the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” Hard to imagine, I know. But Jesus goes on to say “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father maybe glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And so we pray in Jesus name. But I am embarrassed to say, we don’t often attempt to do the things that Jesus did, or to do greater things than he did.
Peter went off after Jesus death to preach and teach and to write to the communities he founded to encourage and assure them in his absence. This is a man who did go off to do great things in Jesus’ name. He writes to his community to long for the nourishing milk that is Jesus, so that they can grow strong and accomplished. And then in a great change of metaphor he calls Jesus a living stone – quoting Scripture to identify him as the promised cornerstone, and the stone the builders rejected that becomes the capstone that holds up the arch. When our trust in in that living stone then we become the living stones that are holy. And being a holy people, a royal priesthood, our work is to proclaim the might acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
So you see, what started out being readings about Jesus – a vertical arc transporting us up into the heavenly realm – becomes instead more a vertical arc down toward us. Jesus is the very presence of the Father here with us, as he was with those disciples he was commissioning on that evening. It turns out that it’s not about what happens when you die, it’s about our life now, and God’s work here. He empowers us to finish the work he has begun among us humans – feeding, healing, raising the dead, preaching God’s compassion and forgiveness, welcoming, befriending – you get the picture. He promises that in him we have the power to do it. However imperfect, self-righteous, lazy, or just plain scared we are to share the story of how God has loved us with the people we know, it’s still what we do. We are invited into the work of saving the world from loneliness and pain, from lack of resources and scarcity, from injustice and oppression, simply because God loves us. We are able to be God’s hands and heart because the power of that love is at work in us, transforming us to see, to care, to touch, and to empower. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
We spent a great deal of time this weekend at Synod Assembly talking about vitality and vibrance in congregations, about equipping leaders, and about seeing God at work in our own particular context. We heard stories, we shared stories and we used these readings and others to call us to the work before us as the Church, Jesus’ presence here on earth. So let this be our image: instead of here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people, let’s say “here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open the doors and send out the people.” Amen.