All Saints’, Dorval
Easter V, Year A
May 10, 2020
I have to say, I find it a bit disconcerting that two weeks in a row now, we’ve read scripture passages that are very often used at funerals. At this time when more and more people are losing someone close to them, and we are waiting to find out when we can hold long-delayed funeral services, it’s not necessarily comforting to encounter these texts in our regular worship.
But then, although we certainly seek and find comfort in worship and church community, there are a lot of ways in which faith is not very comfortable at all. Certainly Stephen doesn’t find it so in our reading from Acts, in which his fearless proclamation of the Risen Jesus gets him killed, becoming the first Christian martyr.
When death creeps closer, and the veil of normality that usually lies over our daily routines is shredded, it’s not at all a comfortable sensation. But neither are many things that lead to growth and spiritual transformation. Our reading from I Peter uses an extended metaphor of stones, building blocks, to describe how members of Christ’s body are mortared together to form the solid structure of Christian community.
And I have to say that our last two months of virtual church has given me a new perspective on this passage: when I read it this week – like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood … – my immediate mental image was of what I’m looking at now: the Zoom screen, with its little rectangles with all your beloved faces in them, stacked on top of each other like virtual building blocks. We may not be between our usual four walls, but we are building a new kind of virtual community – community that is nevertheless very real.
As my friend Julie said in the hilarious video that went out in the weekly email, “In my Father’s house there are many Zoom rooms …” and we are discovering the ways that Jesus is present with us even when we are separated, able to see each other only by peeking into each other’s living rooms on calls like these.
It gets us thinking a bit differently about time and space. The distinctions between here and there, between now and then, begin to blur.
And indeed, the distinctions between here and there, between now and then, seem pretty blurred when Jesus is talking to his friends around the table at the Last Supper in the fourteenth chapter of John. He is still here, but is telling them he will go away. He will prepare a place for them and come again and bring them. He tells them that they know the way and that they have seen the Father, both of which they find hard to believe. Neither the timeline nor the geography of this seems to be at all clear. The disciples could be forgiven, not only for being confused, but for being doubtful as to whether they are actually all that excited about going to Jesus’ father’s house if it’s all so vague on the details.
And I find that that doubt and confusion persists. After centuries of hearing that heaven involves people in white robes with angel wings sitting on clouds playing harps, it’s not surprising that people wonder why we’re supposed to look forward to eternity with Jesus. This question came up at one meeting of our “The Path” Bible study group over the winter, and we had a lively conversation as a result.
I could preach several sermons under the rubric “Yes, You Do Actually Want To Go To Heaven” but today I want to focus on that most familiar line: “In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places.”
Because heaven isn’t a homogenous place where everyone has to join the harp ensemble or spend eternity twiddling their thumbs in boredom. (The robes and harps are symbolic, and we don’t actually get wings in heaven – but that’s another sermon.)
Jesus’ promise of “many dwelling places” is a reminder that if there’s anything God loves, it’s diversity. The last thing God wants to do is contort us all into identical clones. God made us unique and rejoices in that uniqueness, and in growing closer to God we only grow more distinctively ourselves, not less.
Whatever gives you true joy in this life, will not cease to give that joy in the next. It may be transformed into a form of such overwhelming glory that it will hardly be recognizable – but it will not be taken away. Creation is not just a disposable stepping stone to eternity with God; it is a foretaste of that eternity. Whether it’s the love of family, the wonders of nature, the joy of art and music, the fascination of stories, the celebration around a table, the thirst for knowledge, the feeling of compassion and connection – all these things have their dwelling places in the life to come, and Jesus shows us the way to get there.
When I worked in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, we would occasionally have events on the campus of St. Paul’s School, an Episcopal private school in Concord, the state capital. We would gather in the school’s old chapel under an arch on which was inscribed the school’s motto: “Let us learn on earth those things the knowledge of which continues in heaven.”
What are those things in your life the knowledge of which continues in heaven? What will your dwelling place look like? And how, perhaps, can some of that heavenly joy and love, some of that creativity and compassion, be manifested right here, and right now?
Our virtual gatherings collapse the divisions imposed on us by time and space. So does the way Jesus describes bringing his friends into the heavenly dwelling places. Although we look forward to a greater life in the nearer presence of God, God is already with us, and God’s Kingdom is breaking forth in the here and now, even amid the sorrow and strangeness of the present time.
Part of that sorrow and strangeness is that we are currently denied some of those foretastes of heaven. We cannot sing together. We cannot gather in large groups with those we love. We cannot break bread around the altar of God. And yet, our longing for those things only underscores their importance.
Perhaps part of being built into living stones involves God chipping away everything that is not essential, leaving only those things the knowledge of which continues in heaven. But what we can be absolutely sure of, is that God has built a dwelling place for who we are, for who we were created to be, and that nothing of the essence will be denied entrance to that eternal dwelling place that has been prepared for us.
And so, indeed, my friends, let us learn on earth those things the knowledge of which continues in heaven. And let us celebrate and cultivate and long for them, here and now, until time collapses into eternity and we see God face to face.