Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
Sunday, May 14, 2017
I get a lot of questions around the times of death. “What is heaven really like? What will I look like? Can I look down and see what my still living loved ones are doing? Will I see my spouse? Will I see my ex-wife? Can I choose not to see certain people in heaven? Will I be worthy?” There are so many questions we may have about death.
Clearly the disciples have questions too. In this part of John’s Gospel, they are at the Last Supper. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and then tells them the incomprehensible news that he will be betrayed and die by morning. Here come the questions. Suddenly the story is moving from religious ceremony to more like a town hall meeting. Several disciples are going to fire questions at Jesus about their specific faith concerns, to pin him down and get on the right side of this breaking news. Let’s take a look at three big faith questions from the disciples, questions we too may have, and how John’s Gospel answers one big question – How do we enter into relationship with the source of life we call God?
The first question comes from Peter, of course, at the end of chapter 13. Peter says, “Jesus, where are you going?” I’m going where you can’t follow me, Peter. “Why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you Lord.” Peter, truly you will deny me three times before the cock crows.” Peter’s question strikes me as being about obedience. I will follow you Jesus. I will do my duty.” Will this make me acceptable to God? Make me holy? Will this get me into the inner circle? Jesus is very blunt with Peter. You can’t obtain God with your obedience and duty, in fact, you will deny me when your self-interest and self-preservation is on the line. A faith based on duty won’t make you holy. It often makes for fanatics. Obedience-bound faith leads to strong judgements about others, and excessive quests for perfection that only end in frustration and disappointment. Peter will learn at the end of the Gospel that mature faith comes from grace, as he is forgiven by Jesus and sent back into the work of God, more grounded, wiser and humble.
Next Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” We drop the first line of this into funerals without all the drama of the context. When Jesus says this, the disciples are in full heart-attack mode. You can’t be serious Jesus, with all this talk about death and betrayal! But Jesus keeps droning on like the State of the Union address, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
Next up comes Thomas, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is a very literal guy. When he later hears Jesus is risen, he wants to touch the nail prints in Jesus’s hand. So, if Jesus says there are many dwellings in God’s House, he wants to know what floor and room number are his, is it smoking or non-smoking, and does it have a full bath? A map would help with a red dot saying, “You are here.” So as Thomas asks Jesus, how can we know the way, Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
If I was answering Thomas, I would probably say, “Stop being so literal.” Don’t you get that this is all metaphor? God is, by definition, beyond anything we can think and say, so we use metaphor to do our best to relate. When we take metaphors literally, we limit and reduce God, and our faith becomes narrow. Let’s start with the metaphor of dwelling place.
Where is the dwelling place of God? The Christian faith has often put God in heaven, an eternal and separate reality from earth, where God’s love is made perfect, all truth is revealed and where we hope to go where we die. It is a lovely thought, but is that what Jesus is talking about? Jewish commentators would note that throughout the Hebrew scriptures of what we call the Old Testament, God’s dwelling place is usually the Temple. Jesus himself, uses the phrase, “my Father’s house” to refer to the Temple in Jerusalem. When he turns over the money-changers tables, he says, “You have turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves.”
So in most biblical contexts, the dwelling place of God is the Temple in Jerusalem. But here is the rub. John’s Gospel is written at least 60 years after Jesus death and 30 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel of John’s early Christian readers probably remembered the Roman sacking of the Temple in 67 AD like we remember 9/11. Early Christians are in a fragile paradigm shift. Judaism and Christianity are parting ways so to don’t have the synagogue either. How do you have a religion with no buildings for God to dwell in?
John’s Gospel is providing the answer. The dwelling place of God is in God’s people, it is in our relationships and in our community. So as Thomas asks Jesus, how can we know the way, Jesus does not answer, “You will find me in heaven in the afterlife Thomas.” Instead Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” God dwells where we live the way. This is not new or radical. The early hymns from the Psalms understood how to use metaphor. Psalm 90 says, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”
The last response coming from Philip, who is close, but also getting stuck on taking a metaphor literally. Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” We can have great sympathy with Philip, because we can understand the desire that if we could see God just once face to face then we would know God is real, and could have a greater sense of certainty. But no, it is not that literal, for God is not hiding somewhere, waiting for us to design a better telescope, or for us to be perfect so we deserve to see God. God is already everywhere and in everything as unseen spirit who lives and dwells wherever there is life. Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them. We are the dwelling place of God, you are the dwelling place God.
John’s Gospel is an antidote to literalism and fundamentalism. It is filled with encounters where people don’t understand Jesus and he has to explain the metaphor. He says to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above, or born again,” and Nicodemus says, “What? How can I go back into my mother’s womb.” Jesus has to explain to him that understanding God is like a metaphorical rebirth experience. He tells the woman at the well, I have living water, and she says, “Wait, you don’t have a bucket, or a rope and the well is deep. How are you going to get me any water?” Jesus says, “I am the living water.” The Gospel of John is filled with this pattern. People try to comprehend him literally and he responds with metaphors. “I am the light of the world, I am the living water, I am the bread of life, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the vine and you are the branches, I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is trying his best to bridge the gap between human and divine the only way we can understanding, by sharing helpful but imperfect metaphors from our lives.
The mystics of the ages get it. God is not a thing to be grasped, not a tool, not a secret knowledge, or even our best ideas or a power at our disposal. God is in relationship, when our meaning and life purposes are aligning with the Source of life. I am the way, the truth and the life. We are already in God’s dwelling place, and we understand this as we practice the presence of God in all we do. Here is another way of saying it. Be the Church!
These are all relational imperatives about how we love the earth, economic relations, power relations, relating through brokenness and finding joy. When we live like this we are in the dwelling place of God.