click to access archived live stream
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
7 May 2023
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
Perhaps the best sermon I ever heard was preached by a five year old and consisted of only 14 words. Talk about being succinct.
In late February or early March of 1999 my father had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. I was there when he had the MRI that established the diagnosis. In the summer we took out a loan to travel to Germany, there were five of us, though Elias would not be born for another 2 ½ months. And then I went again in late October. I had hoped to be able to be with my congregation for All Saints Day but my father had told me that if I waited I would be too late. As it was, he died on October 30th of that year.
So I travelled in October. When I got to his house I called home to say that I had arrived safely. When I spoke with our eldest, who was five then, she asked, “How is Opa?” I really did not know what to say. How do you tell a five year-old, on the phone (!), that their grandfather is dying? So I awkwardly said something like, “Considering the circumstances, Opa is doing OK.” This was not false. We had a whole six days together before my dad fell into a coma. But it left out the fact that my father was dying. So our eldest said to me, “You know, Papa. You know, the most important thing is to be with God.”
That was the best sermon. It was the best sermon because it proclaimed the Gospel to one who needed to hear it. It was the best sermon because it told of the things that in the midst all gives our lives meaning, direction, and hope.
That the most important thing is to be with God is not a chronological or geographic designation because God is not limited by time and space. And yet we often associate the words of Jesus, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” with going to heaven, as if heaven were a place, and if we could only go to heaven after we die.
I am assuming that we want to be with God after we die. I certainly do. However, without being presumptuous, I think that we can be fairly certain that that’s where we will end up, not because we are so virtuous but because God is so gracious. And if we indeed will be with God and with the saints for all eternity, then we do not come to church simply to hold up our end of the bargain, as if this was a contractual kind of arrangement, because looking at it that way would reduce the grace of God to that of someone who insisted that we fulfilled all of our contractual obligations for them to fulfill theirs. But of course, that’s not how it is. Just see how thick Thomas and Philip appear in their interaction with Jesus in today’s reading, and Jesus loves them still!
And so what I want to propose is that you and I do not so much come to church to hold up our end of the bargain, though we are not dismissive of a faith that is disciplined – we know that that is important, but we come to worship simply because we want to be with God. We want to be with God because deep down we know that it is only God who gives our lives meaning, who fulfills our life, and through whom our lives can be both redeemed and become redemptive.
And we happen to know where to find God. God is present in the assembly, in the community of the church that we call the Body of Christ. Of course, that is at times difficult to believe because often we are neither saintly nor godly, but it is where God has promised to be. Paul can say that “we are the temple of the living God.” (2 Cor 6:16)
And that God is here does not mean that we are only with God for an hour on Sunday mornings, but rather that we take God at God’s word, trust in God’s promises, and that what we do and hear together in this place guides our lives for the rest of the week. And of course, we are part of the Body of Christ even when we are not occupying the same space.
That our lives are fulfilled in God’s presence is what we learn at the very beginning of the scriptures. In Genesis three we read, “They (sc the woman and the man) heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (Gen 3:8) The only problem now is that they are ashamed not of their nakedness but of what they have done. But that they live in God’s presence is how it is supposed to be. God has created the world, and God walks and talks among God’s creatures.
And then at the end of the scriptures we read, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” The re-creation of the world at the end of time restores the community humans enjoyed with God and with each other at the beginning. And surprisingly, it is not that our home is away but that God’s home is here among us.
That God’s home is here among us is where our reading from John takes us. Perhaps the clearest cue that this is the case is Jesus’ answer to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
To be with Jesus is to be with God. Jesus has brought God near. Later Catherine of Siena can say, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, “I am the way.”
Keeping in mind that we find this reading within the so-called farewell speeches of Jesus, and that Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure, we also remember that only a few verses later Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will dwell with them and in them. (14:17) The Father dwells in Jesus (14:10), the Spirit dwells in the disciples (14:17), and Jesus dwells in the disciples (14:25)
We cannot think of the Holy Spirit and, in fact, the Holy Trinity in any other way but as mutually indwelling each other. And in the image of Jesus as the vine and his followers as the branches Jesus expands on the indwelling of the persons of the Trinity by saying to us, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” (15:4) And when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, he speaks of God making God’s home with us, “Jesus answered (…), ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (14:23) To return to the word dwelling as it is used in our reading: Whenever in the Gospel of John ‘dwelling’ is used as a verb, the subject is never the believer but always God.
Understanding that Jesus dwells in us reminds us again that ‘dwelling’ or ‘dwelling places’ in our reading are not about a place but are about a relationship, the relationship to the Father, through Christ, entered into by the believer. The Father’s house is no longer heaven, but God’s household or family.
God’s household or family is not the atomized reality of a large heavenly apartment building but the community of the church.
I do not know about you but I find this enormously comforting. When many years ago our first-born told me that the most important thing was to be with God, she knew that her Opa was dying and she expressed that God is our refuge and strength. Of course, often we seek God when we have reached our limit, when we do not know what else to do. But that is not a denial of the fact that our life always finds its meaning and fulfillment in God.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel we learn that God came to dwell with us. We know that both tabernacle and temple were the dwelling place of God, a dwelling place not away but in the midst of the people.
I have told you before that the home in which I grew up was not a happy home. For me to know that my real home was with God and was not a lifetime away was a great gift.
That is more than a future hope. It is a gift for today. And of course, it begs the question about the kind of life that will fill this home, how the home of God will become manifest in our life together.
 Cf Lev 26:11-12; Ez 37:27)
 Mary Coloe (God Dwells with Us) quoted in John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel – A Prologue to Theology, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK:2019, page 173
 Robert H. Gundry (“In my Father’s House are many Μοναί”), quoted in ibid.