Sunday, 14 May 2017

In My Father's House...

Audio version here

John 14.1-14, Acts 7.55-60 & 1 Peter 2.2-10

‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ we heard Jesus say. My immediate thought was ‘well there’s certainly no shortage of people to fill these spaces. Every day we hear about housing problems, overcrowded households, and unaffordable properties, and even then there are still not enough of them.

Today’s gospel reading follows the foot washing of the disciples by Jesus and his parting speech to them at the Last Supper. The disciples are clearly confused by what he is saying and I’m sure many us of would have been too without the hindsight we now enjoy.

Jesus wasn’t speaking in the context of a housing crisis he was explaining that there will be a place with God for everyone and that the disciples need not fear their imminent separation from him as they would be together again in time to come. He didn’t go on to say of course some are en-suite, some have balconies or a sunny courtyard, and room service will only be for the few. No it’s an equal place with God regardless of whether you currently share a single room or live in a mansion here on earth.

It’s a beautiful demonstration of God’s wild generosity that he effectively flings the doors wide open despite the fact that there was no room at the inn for him when Mary and Joseph sought shelter for Christ’s birth.

Of course for some people the thought of a place with God which offers comfort, love, peace and security sounds so much better than what they have now that the temptation could be to miss out the earthly bit and go direct. It’s no joke when you think of people facing starvation, war, abuse or homelessness who have lost all hope of a better life.

In Acts we heard that Stephen is focussed on his heavenly vision of Jesus beside God as he is stoned to death with Paul, then Saul, watching the process approvingly.

Rabbi Lionel Blue who died late last year recorded his own obituary. (That is pre-recorded!) In it he said that he never really thought of this world as home, more like a departure lounge where you make a few friends and then you’re off. For that reason it was always the people that mattered most.

Peter’s letter is for a diverse group of people in the early stages of the church who are starting to realise that Jesus isn’t going to be taking them to dwell with God just yet. The impact of this is that they will need to find meaningful existence on this earth for longer than they may have planned for and this would include facing up to persecution because of their faith.

We all know that lack of a home and lack of shelter can arise for a multitude of reasons and will usually result in further difficulties including poor personal safety, health problems and unemployment to name but a few.

It’s all very well looking forward to a future with God after this life but in the words of Christian Aid who are collecting this week ‘we believe in life before death’, as well as after. Christian Aid week is highlighting the plight of refugees.

They cite the example of one family forced to flee their home in Afghanistan. After crossing to Greece in a dinghy they were told they would live in a tent for 10 days but are still there 6 months later. No fit dwelling place for a family with so many problems.

Some homeless people build temporary shelters from whatever materials they can collect, some refugees live in mass produced modular buildings which meet basic requirements but are not meant for long term residence, many have nothing. When you actually take time to think about it in the context of God’s time we all live in temporary shelters whether they are made of cardboard or crafted from brick and stone. We can only enjoy their shelter as long as we live and in the longer term no material lasts for ever. Even though we may find it hard to imagine now, one day the places we call home will crumble away or be demolished to make way for something else. Next time you’re at a gathering you could always try shifting the terminology a little when the house price bores start comparing notes, you’ll probably get a strange look if you say ‘Oh darling your temporary shelter must have gone up a lot in value over the past few years.’

Space for all is what God offers and if his kingdom is to come on earth there’s no doubt that he wants us to help those trying to find it. When we have baptism’s here Anne will usually say ‘meet your new family’ and I’m sure some will look at us all and think what a motley crew you lot are. Young and old, different nationalities, different backgrounds but all brought together as a family in God.

Last week I was between meetings in central London and needed a quiet half an hour to do some reading. I decided to sit in the area next to the crypt café under St Martin-in-the-Fields on the corner of Trafalgar Square. Partly due to the work of the church the surrounding area is always busy with people who have no home. When I’d finished reading I took the steps which lead directly into the church to pray for a short while. None of pews were occupied so I knelt in the middle and started praying. As I did so I heard loud snoring and saw movement all around the back of the church, people with no home found shelter here, bare feet poked out from under a blanket, I could work out that there were people from many nationalities around me. It was one of those moments, more focused than usual because of the setting, that I was reminded that these people are my family, my brothers and sisters, a real motley crew to be sure. Of course I’m not so naïve to think that it would be easy to live alongside these people day by day but I do hope to spend eternity with them and when you have such a moment of clarity indifference to their plight is not a possibility.

As we look around us at God’s people we may all appear a little different but we are united in our common humanity and God’s love for us. However dishevelled, no matter what our past failures may be when we start to see each other as family, family that we want to help and share with, God is delighted and through him we are collectively transformed into something majestic. This is what Peter is trying to convey to this rag tag bunch of Christians, their potential to come together as a temple of worship with Jesus as their cornerstone. We know that God loves the world and its people and he has shown us that there is no limit to this. So as long as we are on this earth the way we live our lives gives us an opportunity to respond to his love in the way we relate to each other regardless of our differences.

Jesus was challenging thinking about what his Father’s house really meant. You will be familiar with the time when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple telling them’ stop making my Father’s house a market place’. He wants them to cease thinking that the temple is the only place they can meet with God and expand their horizons to consider the possibilities of a new relationship that gives access to God’s house via Jesus.

If we want to be at home with God we may find our security in different ways. It’s a sense of home available to everyone, particularly those who have not been lucky enough to have a safe peaceful home in their lives. When Thomas asks ‘how can we know the way’, the way to God, Jesus replies with those famous words ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Effectively he is telling Thomas that if you want to know what God is like, he is like me, and if you want a room in his mansion you will find it through me. If we want to be at home with God we need to be at home with Jesus and we don’t have to wait until we depart this world to move in.

Of course physical shelter is a necessity but thinking of home as a strong loving relationship can also be helpful. In the Old Testament book of Proverbs we find the words ‘by wisdom a house was built, through understanding it is established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures’. We can be at home in God. Home is where unconditional love lives, it’s the same place the prodigal son headed for when he came to his senses but for us there is no need to go anywhere because Jesus came to us with God’s message ‘welcome home.’

Kevin Bright
13th May 2017

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