20th Apr, 2008

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is a home? When you think of the word or image or idea of a home, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of a building made with wood and plaster or brick and mortar. Perhaps you think of a home as a shelter from the storm, a place of refuge. Or perhaps when you hear the word “home” you think more of the hopes and dreams of the people who live there. A place where people build and share a life together; a place where hopes and hurts, joys and sorrows, and above all love is shared. Maybe you think of a place of solace and comfort, where you feel safe and whole and loved. Some say home is where the heart is. Others say it is where you “hang your hat.” Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

When Bob and I and our “fur children” (as we call our feline companions) moved to West Hollywood six years ago the most consequential component of our transition to Southern California was establishing a new “home.” After we recovered from sticker shock and quickly realized we could not afford to buy property and could barely afford to rent anything, we were thrilled when we finally found a very small but quaint duplex. I called it our “Barbie Doll house” but once we placed our favorite belongings and hung pictures, we were as happy as if we had found a mansion in Brentwood! We had made a successful relocation here and we had a “home.”

Somehow, someway, home has a special place in the human heart. We all long for a place to call “home.” That is why we feel it is such an outrage that so many people are homeless in our city, especially contrasted to the opulent and extravagant living of others in our society! “To feel at home” expresses the deepest longings of our hearts and souls.

St. Augustine of Hippo gave famous expression to this longing when he wrote of God: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Somehow our restless hearts are always seeking a place to rest, a place to find true and abiding peace, a place to call “home.” Maybe we feel that if we only had the perfect job in the perfect community, then finally we wouldn’t be so restless. Maybe we feel that if we could only meet that perfect someone, that perfect spouse or partner, then we would be ready to settle down in blissful contentment. Maybe we feel that if we could just get the kids raised, then finally we could rest.

And yet, even when we land our dream job, find our soulmate, raise our children, find the perfect dwelling; somehow the heart is still restless, still looking for that place to find true and genuine peace – a place to truly call “home.” In our Gospel lesson for today (St. John 14: 1-14), we hear the words that speak directly to the longing of the human heart. Jesus says,

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be.

The context of our text from St. John’s Gospel today comes from what is known as Jesus’ “Farewell Address.” In it, He is preparing His Disciples for the time when He will no longer be with them in the flesh. They must have been brokenhearted. But Jesus assures them that even though their relationship is changing, it is by no means ending. He comforts them with the fact that He is going to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house; where they will remain unified to Him forever, “so that where I am, there you may be also.” Our true home is with God and that home is ultimately not a place, but a relationship.

But our forever skeptical patron, Thomas chimes right up and asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” And Jesus answers that if you have known me, then you will know the way. He says to trust Him, don’t get distracted, look only at Him, and don’t be afraid. He tells them to trust in themselves and what they have experienced together with Him.

Even though this Gospel passage is frequently read at requiems and funerals for obvious reasons, and the fullness of the relationship our Lord is talking about remains in the future; even now we can know the reality of this relationship. Even now we can experience a foretaste of this eternal home. When we do the works that Christ commands us to do, when we love one another selflessly as Christ loved us, then God’s love will dwell in us, then God’s love will make a home in us. When the afflicted and brokenhearted are comforted, and when the homeless in this world are ministered to, then God will make a home with us. When people lay down their lives for one another, then God will make a home with us. When all of God’s children are invited to the waters of Baptism and then welcomed to His table to share in Christ’s blessed Body and Blood, God will make a home with us.

Our Gospel story today is ultimately an intimate tale of commitment and trust. In the midst of feelings of abandonment, betrayal, grief and fear, Jesus comforts His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled…” He tells them to keep loving one another as He has loved -this relationship of love will never be able to separate them. If you love one another in this way, the way I have loved you… that is how you will be identified as my disciples.

Questions of identity run through this and other lectionary readings for this week. I Peter quotes the prophet Hosea in saying, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” And in the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen is stoned to death because his adversaries say he follows “this Jesus” who “will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.”

But a stoning mentality is what we must avoid in our interpretation of this Gospel text. An intimate relationship of love with Christ and one another in our identity as His Body, does not require us to disrespect or mistreat other people with identities different than our own. We find our place in God’s home by working on our own loving relationship with God as followers of Jesus instead of condemning others who do not agree with us. Exactly how the universal love of God and the particularity of Jesus fit together is not to trouble our hearts.

C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity wrote,

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what his arrangements about other people are. We know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.

Finally, a long time ago I quit trying to understand everything and admitted the many limitations of my knowledge. To quote St. Augustine again, after advising that we should do our best to seek answers to difficult questions, we should then “rest patiently in unknowing.” At the end of the day, it is not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me, but the parts that I do understand, like loving God with my whole heart and loving my neighbor as myself that give me the meaning and comfort of my eternal home.

Amen.

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