A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on April 24, 2005.
Based on John 14:1-14 (5 Easter, Year A).
It’s a long goodbye. This section of John’s gospel begins what’s known to scholars as the “Farewell Discourse.” It goes on for two and a half chapters and its context is Jesus’ imminent death and resurrection. And through this long goodbye, Jesus prepares the disciples for what is to come. He offers them hope, he bucks them up, he leaves them with lessons upon which to dwell. The Farewell Discourse is peppered with well-known phrases. In addition to what we hear this morning, we get lines like: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you,” “Abide in me as I abide in you,” “Love one another as I have loved you,” “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and on and on. It’s a long, inspiring, theologically-rich, and profoundly moving goodbye. And I commend you to spend some time with it as a whole.
But this morning we get the beginning of the farewell. And it, too, is chocked full of familiar quotes. Indeed this passage in itself is often proclaimed at funerals. So in a sense it is also, liturgically, a text used to bid farewell to our loved ones. Jesus begins the entire farewell discourse by saying simply, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” A statement of great comfort to the disciples as he prepares to take his leave from them. And a particularly poignant message at a funeral, when we are in the midst of raw, unadulterated grief. Bringing more questions than answers about life, death and the role of our faith.
The passage continues with the assurance that, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” It is of great comfort to know that Jesus has prepared a place for us in heaven. The King James Version of this passage is perhaps more poetic and certainly better known. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” That’s a different feel. It conveys the rich sumptuousness of the afterlife and is in keeping with Scriptural images of the Kingdom of Heaven as a royal banquet.
“Dwelling places” seems somehow pedestrian compared with “mansions.” A cot and a sink versus a luxurious master bedroom suite. Another version of the Bible translates it, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Which makes it hard not to envision a gigantic Hilton.
So we have a choice of dwelling places, mansions, or rooms. But please note that it cannot be translated as, “In my Father’s house are many Mcmansions.” Heaven, I hope, doesn’t look like Trump National Golf Course. This life isn’t merely something to get through so that we can finally make it to the promised land of manicured greens. But that’s the danger of the “mansion” language. It potentially leads to “pie in the sky” theology. ‘Don’t worry about this life, don’t worry about the here and now, things will be great in heaven. So, let’s just get this over with and we’ll all have double sinks.’
But God doesn’t merely reside in a far away place – up there, in heaven, away, distant from us. God resides also in the dwelling places of our souls. You and I are dwelling places for God. Just as Jesus prepares a place for us in heaven, we need to prepare a place for Jesus in our hearts. And this dual preparation is what Jesus both offers to and demands from the disciples and us. The dwelling place, the mansion, the room, however you want to translate it, is both in heaven awaiting our arrival and in our hearts in the present actions of everyday life.
This loving, forgiving God makes room for all sorts of imperfect and sinful human beings. God welcomes a wide variety of people into heaven, there is not one perfect, unalterable formula. Not that anything goes but that if our heart resides with Jesus, he will meet us where we are and prepare a place for us in his Father’s house. Our paths are all uniquely our own and yet Jesus is present with us. This is where the comfort resides. In the roominess, in the sheer expanse, of God’s love.
And it’s in this context of inclusion that we must look at the next great line from this passage. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This has been distorted by various Christian groups over the years and used as a battering ram against other denominations or faith traditions. “I am the way and the truth and the life” becomes “my way or the highway.” Which completely misrepresents Jesus’ message of hope and comfort. This passage proclaims not exclusivity but particularity. For the initial audience of John’s gospel, it is a joyous affirmation of the faith, not a means to keep people out. It is literally a defining moment – ‘this is how we know our heavenly father. Others may have different paths but for us, Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.’
The Farewell Discourse is a long goodbye. But it’s also a beginning. A start to the disciples’ new relationship with Christ. A relationship that transcends Christ’s physical presence. And one that holds up for us the hope and comfort of relationship with the risen Christ. We, as individuals and as a community of faith, are on the way, we seek the truth, and Jesus offers us life.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005