6th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 14:15-21;
BETTER THAN HEAVEN: LIVES TRANSFORMED IN THE SPIRIT
In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
Do you have any notion of what Jesus is talking about here? I have to be honest with you and tell you that, until more recently, I really didn’t have the foggiest idea of what Jesus was talking about. I’ve shared with you over the last year or so that I feel a deficit in our Lutheran tradition in understanding the Holy Spirit, what St. Paul calls “life in the Spirit,” and spiritual matters, in general. This is somewhat of a risky confession since I’m paid to be a “spiritual leader.”
But as I mentioned, I feel my deficit as one that our whole tradition has shared, including the way we train our pastors and leaders. Thankfully, I think things are beginning to change. Our synod, for example, has hired a Director for its Center for Mission and Ministry, who is a Catholic sister trained in the longer Catholic traditions of contemplative spirituality. The first thing sister Nancy Brousseau has done is to lead classes on foundations of spirituality. I had the privilege of presenting at this class earlier this month, because of my special knowledge of the work of René Girard and how that fits into the spiritual traditions. It was truly an honor for me since I’m new myself in learning about these wider traditions of spirituality. I’ve been going to a Spiritual Director for less than a year.
But this is truly exciting for me to learn and significantly deepen my faith journey at this point in my life. And I’m excited to share this journey with you, and invite you along. This morning’s puzzling, if not bewildering, Gospel Lesson is an example. I think I can help us to begin to understand it more deeply. For example, it helps us to understand what last week’s Gospel really means. We think we know what Jesus means when he says in last week’s Gospel, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” ‘Ah,’ we say, ‘that’s about going to heaven when we die.’ But here’s the thing: it’s not about going to heaven when we die. It’s about something much, much better than that. It’s about spiritual communion with God in the here and now such that even for those who have died and are held spiritually in God’s power of life, they are spiritually present to us all the time, because God is spiritually present to us all the time.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” In John’s Gospel, the only other place that Jesus talks about “my Father’s house” is at the beginning when he so-called cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem. “You have turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves,” he says. “My Father’s house” is clearly the this-worldly Temple, in this case, and not some other-worldly place we go to when we die.
But Jesus gives us more than a hint that he also means much more than just the Temple in Jerusalem. He tells the leaders of the Temple, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will build it up.” Later to his disciples, Jesus explains that he was speaking about “the Temple of his body.” So, when in John 14 Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he is again talking about the Temple of his body. In fact, I think he is talking about all our bodies as Temples of God’s Spirit, as St. Paul does in 1 Cor. 7. That’s why there are so many dwelling places, because there are so many of us. He goes to prepare a place for us by dying on the cross, by letting his Temple be destroyed. And God raises it in three days as a new way in which God can be spiritually present to each of us who come to believe in God’s very real power of love, which is the power of life itself.
Now, can we begin to understand what Jesus is saying this week, the continuation of last week’s Gospel, when he says, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” It’s not about us going to heaven when we die. It’s about heaven coming to us through spiritual communion with God, and with all who have died in God’s power of love and life. The world won’t see Jesus, because it has no clue about this spiritual communion. But we who believe in Jesus will be able to spiritually see Jesus because of this spiritual communion of Jesus living in the Father and in us, and we living in the Father and in Jesus.
As I learn and grow in this way of contemplative spirituality, I have new guides for my journey. One of those is John Shea, a Catholic Spiritual Director and teacher. Every week, I read his commentary and teaching on the Gospel Lesson. (1) This week he begins with one of his Spiritual Director friends, William Shannon, who wrote a very direct letter to a woman to whom he was being a Spiritual Director, a woman who had lost her sister. Shannon writes to her:
I hope you have been able to come to grips a bit more with your feeling about your sister’s death. I realize how very hard this is for you. You need to keep reflecting on the fact that, while in one sense death separates us from the loved ones, in another and more ultimate sense it deepens our spiritual union with them. When there is only that [spiritual union], then that becomes most important. And of course it should really be most important at all times. We are one with one another, because whatever of us there is that is really worthwhile is from God and in God. And that is something that death does not and cannot change — though it appears to do so, since we are so accustomed to think of a person solely in terms of her empirical ego. Death is the end of the empirical ego, but not of the person. We are all eternally one in the love of God. (“Thomas Merton and the Quest for Self-Identity,” Cistercian Studies 22, no. 2  172) (2)
And then Shea himself comments,
This seems to be very close to what Jesus is telling the disciples. The scenario is not: Jesus is going to God and when they die, they will go to God and be reunited to him. The scenario is: once he has died and is no longer physically among them, he will not be gone. He will be present to them in and through the Spirit in the depth of their own beings. They are not being encouraged to hope for life after death. They are being instructed in a consciousness change, to become aware of spiritual presence without physical manifestation. (3)
In this year that I’ve lost my mother, I’m beginning to experience the richness of this spiritual union. Not only am I experiencing spiritual communion with her in God, but, as Shannon says to the woman who lost her sister, it is a union with the best of who my mother is, because God preserves and enhances the most worthwhile aspects of who we are.
Does this make sense? Well, not completely to me, either. But I’m learning. And, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it truly surpasses what I grew up learning about God saving me after I die to an other-worldly place called heaven. No, in Jesus Christ, heaven comes to earth in the here and now through the new possibilities of spiritual communion with God — which transforms my life today. Listen in our prayers this morning for the emphasis on transformation. God in Jesus Christ seeks to transform each of us into living temples of his power of love and life in this world.
I’d like to finish in anticipation of the conclusion of an incredible cultural phenomenon: the last of the Harry Potter movies. I’m increasingly appreciating just how spiritual these books by J. K. Rowling are. I can’t go into all the aspects of that claim here. But I conclude with the relationship of Harry to his principal teacher Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore essentially acts as Harry’s Spiritual Director at the end of the first five books: He helps Harry interpret what has happened to him, primarily in terms of the spiritual power of love. The sixth book is a bit different, in that Dumbledore acts as Spiritual Director throughout the book, but not at the very end — for the very good reason that Dumbledore is killed at the end of Book Six. So we anticipate that Harry will miss his Spiritual Director for the final book, Book Seven. Alone, Harry sacrifices himself in a very Christ-like act at the end of the epic series. He means to die, but he doesn’t quite. Rather, he has a near-death experience in which he finds himself having his last session of Spiritual Direction with Dumbledore. And the very end of that session strikes the proper note on the reality of matters of the Spirit — on what we’ve been talking about this morning:
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (4)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 29, 2011
1. John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Year A — ‘On Earth As It Is In Heaven.’ Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004.
4. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007, p. 723.