Where Are You Staying?
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Easter/A • May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55-60 • Psalm 31:1-5,15-16 • John 14:1-10
I suspect one of the little noticed casualties of the pause is the name tag. You know these: they say, “Hello” in big letters and you print your name on it so people will know who you are. At church meetings, they always make me wonder: should I put the ‘Reverend’ in front? James or Jim? What about the church name? These are bits of information that help say who I am. We all assemble a picture of a person from different aspects.
Sometimes something new surprises us. One day one of our members dropped in at the church office. I was wearing jeans and it threw her; she was used to seeing me in a robe on Sunday. “I never knew you wore jeans,” she said. Like a picture puzzle, we know someone from the things we learn about them. Now today, in the lesson from the Gospel of John, Jesus is giving his followers—the ones right there and us as well—the pictures we need to understand who he is.
The lesson is set during the last supper. Jesus has washed his followers’ feet and given them the signature command for his followers: “love one another.” The shadows are gathering; it’s Maundy Thursday. We’ve been told his spirit is troubled and perhaps his friends are as well because he begins, “Let not your heart be troubled” But they are troubled. Their journey with Jesus always potted toward Jerusalem.. Now they’ve arrived but darkness is closing in and they must have wondered, “What now?” They’re about to face the great problem all Christians face: how do we stay with Jesus no matter what the world dishes out?
He begins by telling them that in his Father’s house there are many dwellings. I know many of us grew up hearing, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” But that Seventeenh Century phrase doesn’t accurately represent what John says because today ‘mansion’ means a big, palatial house for one family. ‘Mansion’ originally meant any dwelling, a house or a hotel along a road, not an especially ornate, expensive place. What Jesus wants us to imagine is something like a condominium, a home with many places arranged around a courtyard. I know that may give you a sense of loss. The first time Jacquelyn heard me explain this, she said, “Hey, I thought I was getting a mansion and now you tell me it’s just a condo?”
But I want you to understand what Jesus is really saying here. The dwelling places he’s talking about aren’t separate; it’s not a spiritual subdivision. This is a community and the very togetherness is part of what he means to say. Jesus begins from an intimate togetherness with the Father and now he’s telling his friends he intends to include them in the community, give them a place in the community, with him and with the Father. He goes on to say: “…if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am, there you will be also.” [John 14:3] Jesus is giving his friends—Jesus is giving us—instructions on how to stay with him and it begins with believing he’s going to make a home for us.
This home is crucial to our faith life because it’s how we stay with Jesus and it’s how we hold fast to our journey with him. As we heard, Psalm 31 says,
In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
Don’t we all need a refuge sometimes? Remember building a fort when you were a kid?—piling up pillow or chairs or boxes to make a castle and hiding inside? We build refuges as adults out of bits and pieces the same way. Sometimes it’s our possessions, sometimes it’s a house or job or sometimes it’s simply working to make sure we are in control.
But all those refuges eventually fail, just like our pillow forts came tumbling down. One of the reasons people are so stressed today is that our home built, self-built refuges are falling apart. When our refuge falls apart, it’s scary. But Jesus is offering a permanent refuge, a permanent place with him. As he said, his mission now is to prepare a place for us. The two questions in the text are questions we ask as well. “How do we get there?” and, “What’s the Father like?”
Thomas is blunt. Jesus says, “You know the place where I am going”; Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going.” How do we get to this dwelling with Jesus and the Father? How do we find the refuge? Have you ever stopped for directions and gotten something that didn’t help? Jesus is going and Thomas wants to come along—he wants directions. And what Jesus says is simply: “I am the way.” Last week we heard him say, “I am the gate—the way in”, and “I am the good shepherd”. Just like assembling the pieces of a picture puzzle I mentioned earlier, these “I am” statements show us Jesus’ identity. They are the clues staying with Jesus.
By saying, “I am the way,” Jesus is saying that living like him is the way to dwelling with the Father and him. That’s why it’s so important to read the gospels. They tell us the story of his life, they give us the pieces to help us understand who he is. When we do that, what we find at the center is a man with an unstoppable love that always embraces, always heals, always helps. He tells us directly how to know if we’re on the right track. Just before this reading, he’s said, “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another…” So walking the way of Jesus is determining to make love the persistent, every day energy of your life.
Now when someone says, “I love you,” a good question to ask is, “As evidenced by what?” When we talk about loving someone, many of the details cluster around what some call appreciation. That means, making a conscious, dedicated effort to consider each other person as a gift from God and to praise God for that person. It can begin with a simple prayer of thanks for someone. “Thank you, God, for Jacquelyn,” is something I pray every day. I like to name the people here in our congregation consciously in my prayers with the same prayer; I thank God for each of you.
It measures me and it will measure you. It’s hard to thank God for someone if you’re angry with them; at the same time, it can help you remember why you’re friends or partners in the first place. It can connect us. Try it out in the prayer time in a few minutes. When we’re silent, think of someone in the congregation or someone you know and simply consciously in your mind picture them and thank God for them.
This isn’t going to solve all problems. But it’s a step and it’s a step along the way with Jesus. It’s a step that helps keep us connected with him by connecting with each other. If you keep up with this prayer, if you keep up walking along the way toward Jesus, he will walk with you. And you’ll know what he teaches Philip.
Remember Philip?—Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father. It’s like saying, “Hey, this is all fine but just give me the GPS coordinates for God.” Jesus simply says that if he doesn’t know the Father is in Jesus, he doesn’t know Jesus. This is what it means to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It was the great celebration of an early community that yes, they had discovered how to stay with Jesus, yes, they had discovered how to find the Father, yes, they had found the refuge of faith, the truth . Professor Gail O’Day said about this passage,
Jesus doesn’t say “no one comes to God except through me” but no one comes to the Father except through me.” God is not a generic deity but the Father recognized in the life of Jesus. [John] is not concerned with the fate… of Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity… These verses are a confession a celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation. [New Interpreters Bible, p. 745]
We can have that same joy when we make our refuge a dwelling place in the Father’s house with Jesus.
So the question for us is, “Where are you staying?” Are you staying in a fort you’ve built that will never survive the winds of the world?—or are you staying with Jesus in the place prepared for you, walking the way of Jesus and seeing the Father in him? That’s our hope; that’s our reason for being together.
Our church’s purpose statement says that our purpose
…is to celebrate God’s love and to build a vibrant and vital church through worship, fellowship, education, service and outreach in an inclusive and diverse community,
Just like the church of John’s gospel, we are meant to be a people walking the way of Jesus by connecting and loving others, appreciating others, hoping with others. That is the way to dwelling with God. That is the true refuge that has sustained Christians just like us in every time and place, in every condition, regardless of the storms and disasters.
That can be your refuge; I know it is mine. Where are you staying? Come stay in the dwelling place Jesus prepared for you, for me, for all of us, come stay with God.