Easter 5A Sermon (2014)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 14:1-14;
1 Peter 2:2-10; Acts 7:55-60

THE NEWLY PREPARED ABIDING PLACES ARE … US

[This day was also a day of honoring our graduates with a liturgy of blessing and sending.]

Children’s Sermon

Guessing game about work. I’m going to tell what someone does in their work, and you tell me what that job is called:

  • This person teaches children at school.
  • Helps to get you well when you’re sick.
  • Someone who cuts your hair.
  • Someone who puts out fires.
  • Someone we call if we’re in danger.

Great! Now, Jesus did lots of different kinds of work. He taught. He gave sermons. He healed people. He stood up to things that were wrong. Finally, he died on the cross to save us from our sins. What kind of work would we say Jesus did? He helps us come alive. He helps us love each other and live in peace. But in our Gospel today, there’s a way to sum that all up: Jesus came to show us his Father. Jesus came to do the work of showing us who God is, and that God is close by. Jesus came to show us that God wants to help us do things that make us become more alive. God wants to help us be more loving and to live in peace with everyone. God wants to help us do our work in more loving and life-giving ways.

Sermon

It might be helpful for you to keep our Gospel Reading before you this morning, so please turn to page 3 of your bulletins and keep your place there. I’m going to offer two different ways to read these same words. The first one is one that I grew up with, and I’m going to symbolize that by putting on these older reading glasses of mine. It’s such a cherished way to read these words that the first six verses of John 14 are still the most common Gospel Reading at funerals.

The familiar way of reading John 14 goes something like this: “Jesus has gone to prepare places for all his followers in heaven. So that when we die, believing in Jesus, he comes to take us to heaven. That’s why it’s so important to believe in Jesus — because he’s the only way to get to God in heaven.” Sound familiar?

I’m going to take off these old reading glasses and put on my newer trifocals. In doing so, I want to stress that these old glasses still work fine. In fact, I keep them in my office as a back-up, I don’t need my new trifocals to drive a car, and so I sometimes I forget them. When I go to read something on those days, these old glasses come in handy.

Similarly, I want to say that the older reading of these words in John 14 still works. It continues to be important to us, especially at a time of loss. But I also want to offer this newer reading of the same words, because like these tri-focals, I think it helps us to see more, to see better.

It begins by seeing a different way to think about the role of belief. In this age where we are more aware of other great religious traditions, and even ‘agnostic humanism’ becoming more of an option, the emphasis on believing in Jesus as the only way to God has become offensive to many people — perhaps most of the generation of our graduates.

So I’d like to begin this new way of reading these verse by noticing verse 11: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” Obviously, believing in Jesus is very important. But is it necessary? Notice that the second part of the verse seems to give us an out for people who don’t believe in Jesus. The emphasis is not as much on believing but on the works, on what Jesus does. And the next verse extends that to followers of Jesus, saying something quite amazing: that followers of Jesus will do greater works than Jesus.

Here’s for me an example. Last century, Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu believer in the teachings of Jesus, led his people of India to stand up to an empire that was oppressing them. And he led hundreds of millions of people, mostly Hindu and Muslim, in a way of peace that was completely nonviolent, emphasizing love of one’s enemies. That, to me, is one of those greater works than Jesus, especially since it was on a scale so huge, involving so many people at once. But it only took one believer in Jesus, Gandhi himself, to know that what they were doing was following Jesus. Most of the rest of the people involved knew little or nothing of Jesus, much less believed in him. But there they were together doing a work of Jesus, one of nonviolent resistance to evil, a work which has been repeated numerous times since then, most notably in our own Civil Rights movement.

So here’s another way to read this passage: not as one of Christian exclusivism, where we only follow in Jesus’ way of getting to God based on believing in Jesus. But one of inclusivism, based on following Jesus in his own example of including all God’s children in the way of peace based on love and forgiveness. Believing in Jesus is important to guide this way. But it’s not essential for everyone involved to believe in Jesus, as long as his work is being done. Does that make sense?

The second and final element to a newer way of reading this passage has to do with heaven. Notice the word “heaven” never appears in this passage. When we hear “my father’s house has many abiding places,” we tend to think “heaven.” But that’s because we have these glasses on [holding up the older reading glasses]. The passage doesn’t speak specifically about heaven, but it does say a lot about abiding and abiding places. In fact, the whole Gospel of John has loads to say about abiding. It begins with two disciples asking Jesus where he is abiding. “Come and see,” he says. And by the end we get the idea that he’s not talking about literal places in which to live. He’s talking more about spiritual abiding places, namely, that God’s Spirit can abide in us. That what all that stuff is about when Jesus says things like, “The Father abides in me, and I in the Father.” Just a little later, he will say, “I abide in you, and you in me.” That’s followed by a whole lot of talk about Jesus’ love abiding in us and transforming our lives to lives of love.

In the only other passage where Jesus uses the phrase “my father’s house,” it’s clear that Jesus wants us to think anew about where God abides. It’s in John 2, the familiar story of Jesus raising a raucous in the Jerusalem Temple. He overturns money tables and loudly proclaims, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Here, “my father’s house” refers to the Temple. But what comes after this changes everything. When Temple authorities challenge his credentials for acting so boldly, Jesus says mysteriously, without any explanation, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John the Gospel Writer explains to us, the readers, that Jesus is talking about his own body. In other words, Jesus himself is becoming the place where God abides in this world.

And the upshot of all this abiding talk in John’s Gospel is that you and I then become the abiding place for God’s spirit in this world. By going to the cross, being raised on Easter, and ascending to the Father, Jesus is preparing many abiding places in his father’s house. Many abiding places? Yes! You and me! Anyone who by the Spirit continues to do Jesus’ work! Spiritual abiding places. Three weeks ago, we read the story of Jesus transferring his Spirit to the disciples on Easter evening. He breathed on them the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit which abides in him was now given to Jesus’ followers, to all those who go on to do Jesus’ work. Talk about “many abiding places”!

But, on a practical level, what does that mean? It can sound like a lot of spiritual gobbledy-gook. I’d like to recommend to our graduates, and to everyone, this best-selling book by ABC news anchorperson Dan Harris. It’s called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works — A True Story. It’s Dan Harris’ personal account of how an atheist-agnostic was brought kicking and screaming into the benefits of meditation. He gradually adopts regular disciplines of meditation, including going on a 10-day silent retreat, mostly from Buddhist traditions. I find fascinating his proposal that daily meditation should become as routine as brushing your teeth, eating healthily, and regular physical activity. We do things to take care of our teeth and the rest of our bodies, but how about our brains, the thing that makes us who we are. He argues that we should see meditation as regular and necessary exercise for our brains — and with them, our minds and spirits. Why? To tame the voices in our heads from running our lives in uncritical and unexamined ways. Meditation is necessary to be able to stop the steady stream of the voice in our head and gain some objective distance from it.

Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m not talking about hearing alien voices. I’m talking about that voice which is constantly going on in our minds, the one constantly assessing everything around us and telling us what to do. Sometimes this is a good voice, like the one we are about to repeat in a few minutes, through your parents’ blessings and words of love and support. Those are good words to hear in your heads. But there’s also the bad, less helpful, or even harmful voice that judges things too often negatively. It’s that voice that says, “I’ll never be good enough, attractive enough, talented enough.” It’s that voice that sometimes wishes harm on others, or even on ourselves. It’s the voice that leads us into compulsive, unhealthy behaviors, like going to the refrigerator even when we’re not hungry.

So here’s what Jesus is promising with all this talk of abiding places. God’s Spirit can abide in our spirits such that it can be God’s voice in our heads helping to assess everything around us and lead us into what we need to do. It can be God’s voice telling us, “you are my beloved daughter, my beloved son. I’ve created you with talents to discover and use to help me make this world come alive. I can guide you with my Spirit to work with others on making everyone and everything in this world flourish and come alive.”

Brothers and sisters, whatever you choose to do in life, God’s Spirit is close by you, seeking to be the voice in your heads that helps you to do everything better, by doing everything in love. So that wherever life takes you, and with whom whoever you find yourself working, You can be part of building God’s household, an abiding place of love in which everyone is welcome. Amen.

Hymn of the Day: “All Are Welcome,” by Marty Haugen, which begins, “Let us build a house where love can dwell…”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 18, 2014

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