Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 10 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
The gospel readings have returned us repeatedly, since Holy Week, to that locked room in Jerusalem, where the disciples stayed from before the crucifixion until some time after the resurrection; a particularly evocative location in this spring of lockdown. And we are back there again today—though it isn’t directly stated, the exchange in today’s gospel takes place on the night of the last supper, is a part of the long section of John’s gospel known as the “farewell discourse” — the last teaching which Jesus would give to his friends before going into the night, towards his arrest and death.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” he says. Difficult advice, it would seem, for that time, or for this time. It does not mean, it cannot mean, that there is not confusion, fear, and grief. The disciples are about to walk into a series of terrible events, in which they will be powerless, and will mostly fail to rise to the challenge; they are about to witness their teacher murdered by the powers, the apparent end of all hopes, the knowledge of their own inadequacy, then days of hiding, rumours, uncertainty, before a restoration almost impossible to grasp, and a sending out for which they could not have believed themselves sufficient. They are not being told that they should be cheerful and optimistic throughout all this. But they are being told that, on some profound level, they are known, and held, and preserved. It was that knowledge which enabled Stephen to continue speaking his truth even at the cost of his life; it is that knowledge which we must all draw upon to maintain us in our risks and tasks and callings.
“In my father’s house are many dwelling places.” We are accustomed to hearing this at funerals, probably; used to thinking of it as relating to our shelter after the end of our lives in this world. That is not wrong, but I think—as so often—we have shifted the emphasis of what Jesus is saying in an otherwordly direction, when he is talking, I think, as much about our lives right now. Where Jesus is going is not simply into some other world or some other life, but into the ongoing life of God, present both in this world and beyond it. The place he prepares for us, in his life, his death, and his resurrection, is not a place we can only reach by dying; it is a place in which God holds and tends us always—and right now is part of always. Sheltering in place in a pandemic, working on the front line, all of us trying to figure out how to survive—wherever we are in the world, however safe or endangered, however stable or chaotic, we are also in God’s house, in the room God has prepared for each of us, and for us only, each precious, irreplaceable, beloved person.
The many rooms, the many dwellings, within the life of God are ours now, and we are always invited home. We may move deeper, we may be more or less able to know it, we may be held back from full realization by the powers of the world or our own frailty, but where we are going is not profoundly separate from where we already are. It is a place which, in some part of our being, we do already know, as Jesus tells Thomas, for it is a place in which our very being is grounded. And I think it is important that here, as always in Jesus’s teachings, the emphasis is on diversity. There are many dwellings, for there are many individuals; God’s home for us does not compel us all to fit into a single mode. We are known and loved as the specific people we are, where we are, with all our particular pains and joys.
Within a few blocks of my house are two hotels which have been, in this crisis, converted into emergency accommodation for the homeless. I pass at least one of them nearly every day, and I can’t help but think of them, right now, when I read this passage. All those rooms, given over, at least for now, and partly due to the work of grassroots advocates, to some of those people most neglected by our society; a tiny, temporary foreshadowing of all the small poor ones welcomed into the great house of God. We need to ask why it took a pandemic to achieve even this much, and what will happen when the immediate crisis passes, but we can also hold this ragged image in our hearts, a part of what homecoming looks like for every wretched one of us.
Imagine this, and imagine, for your own self, the most beautiful and most comforting room you have known, furnish it with the details of love, and you will be some way there. And imagine such a room for everyone, for that is what God is working constantly to bring about.
But of course, it is true that when Jesus spoke of where he was going, on that night, he was speaking most immediately of Calvary. When he says to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he is telling the disciples, telling all of us, that God is revealed not in power or glory, but in everything they have seen in their time with Jesus—this carpenter’s child, this crosser of social boundaries, this one who is willing to touch lepers and dead girls, to consort with both sex workers and imperial collaborators, to walk around his little occupied country talking to unimportant people, this person undefended and strangely free. But revealed most of all in what seems at first to be the greatest defeat, God’s entire self-offering in love. The works we are asked to believe and emulate are these—to listen to the outcast, to reach out to the lonely, to wash tired feet when we can, to lay down our violence and our self-regard. To mourn the dead as Jesus wept for Lazarus—to mourn collectively, even when we cannot gather collectively, that mourning may speak of the value of human life, may say that those who are paying the heaviest cost of this disease, the elderly in care homes, Black people, poor people, many of the same people who bear the weight of everyday social violence, are not worth less than those who can keep themselves safer. Every life one neighbour in our common home.
Most often, too often, this passage has been used to promote Christian exclusivism, to suggest that formal adherence to Christian doctrine is the one and only route to salvation. But the incarnate Word of God, walking the dry hills of ancient Palestine among the ill and the afflicted, nailed to a piece of wood by the forces of empire, is not a doctrine, but a person, whose way, whose life, can only be known in living. This is our way, this is our truth, our life—the way revealed to us in that human life, the way of undefended love, the truth that this is what God does, who God is, that all our imaginings of a God of power and strength, the God who punishes or rewards or takes vengeance are only the projections of our crooked hearts.
So we must let those hearts be healed — piecemeal, slowly, as all our healing happens. Let those hearts be held, in the midst of all our pain; let our hearts, in the image of Ezekiel, become hearts of flesh. Let us release the false Gods which surround us, the great gods of the ravenous economy demanding human sacrifice, the gods which build walls between ourselves and others, the small gods of pride and self-reliance which would make us deny our own weakness and our interdependence.
We are not freed from pain or error or failure, and we are not protected from the storms of history, but in all the struggle of this world, we are still all held together in God’s house. We are all neighbours, all relations, and we depend upon each other. And we depend, even more, on the sustaining love of God, which is always building us a home, always inviting us in, preparing the place that is both shared with all creation, and intimately our own. The room you barely dare to imagine, which every good room and every moment of safe shelter you have known in this life may hint at, where each one of us is suddenly, perfectly, at home.