Abiding places

Acts 7:54-8:3

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. 8 1 And Saul approved of their killing him.

That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

 

John 14:1-14

[Jesus said:] “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 and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”        Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

 

 

 

 

When my mother and I and my two brothers moved in with my Grandparents in Hampton New Brunswick it changed my life in a big way.

We moved from England to Canada. The marriage of my parents was over and that was a change.

I was immersed in a different culture and as I remember it was quite different for me. The sports were different, the weather was different, the speech was different, even the comics were different and weird.

 

But we adapted. And my grandparents were wonderful people with this big house on a big lot in Hampton and that was very different. This was really the first time living in a house that wasn’t a rental.

And the house had been in the family since it was built in 1918 and it had a big unfinished attic that had all kinds of stuff in it. Especially there were lots of bookshelves of books and comics that had been my mother’s and uncle books. I read xbar-x boys. Tom Swift. Hardy boys. Boys own annual, and there were all kinds of comic books. All the classic comics were there, which were classic novels like “Two years before the mast,” and “White Fang” and “Les Miserable” and ”Great Expectations”

There were Superman and Batman, and Archie and Donald Duck comics.

It was a treasure trove. And I wished I had kept all that stuff.

 

And when I was reading about Jesus being “the way” this week, one of those comics I read came back to mind.

 

I was thinking of Jesus, “the way” and playing around in my mind of this image of “the way”

 

The way to where? Or to whom?

 

And one thought I had was “the way home”

Just like the prodigal found his way home, back to love, and acceptance.

Back to family. Back to his identity as child of God…

 

This cartoon came to mind.

It was a Huey, Dewey and Louie cartoon, where they were Junior Woodchucks and trying to earn a badge by teaching their St. Bernard, Bornworthy to rescue people in the mountains.

The comic is from 1951. Huey, Dewey and Louie were Donald Duck’s nephews and the Junior Woodchucks were a kind of take-off on the boy scouts. This comic is the first time the Jr. Woodchucks appear.

 

So the boys are trying to teach their St. Bernard to be a rescue dog in the mountains, but he hates the snow and wants to stay inside where it is warm. In fact Donald has to get a car and drag him into the mountains.

All he wants to do is go home.

 

Without going into all the details, the Commander-in-chief arrives to test the dog and the Jr. Woodchucks. So the Commander and and Donald head farther up into the pass where the dog is supposed to rescue them, but a little avalanche happens and a blizzard happens and they are lost.

 

The Jr. Woodchucks arrive in a snow machine to save them. But Donald cries out, the blizzard is so bad that they will never find their way home.

No problem they say. We have Bornworthy tied to the back and he is straining at the rope straight for home.

So Bornworthy the dog who hates the snow knows the way home and saves the day.

 

So is Jesus the way home?

 

You see most people when they here the text: “I am the way the truth and the life, no one goes to the Father except by me.”

Think of heaven. They think of a place one goes after one dies.

And so they read the text that Jesus somehow is the only way to get to heaven after death, with maybe an implication that if you don’t somehow go Jesus’ way to heaven then maybe you are going someplace else where that #50 sunscreen might be vital.

 

And when they read the text that Jesus is going to prepare a place for them, they think of that big mansion in the sky.

The old evangelical song goes: “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop, in that great land where we’ll never grow old. And some day yonder, we will never more wander, but walk those streets that, are purest gold.”

 

But Jesus doesn’t talk about heaven. He talks about abiding places. That is the literal term. Abiding places. In fact I think he talks about abiding places, or to abide about 69 times in the gospel of John.

And if you read through them all, and I know you just can’t wait, you will begin to understand that Jesus isn’t talking about heaven or what happens after we die.

 

The first time abiding is mentioned it is about two disciples asking where Jesus abides. Jesus says “come and see.”

And after while we begin to see that Jesus is not talking about heaven or physical places as much as he is talking about a spiritual abiding place.

And that abiding place is him.

“Abide in me and I will abide in you” says Jesus.

 

Jesus himself is the abiding place, the place where God lives, where the Spirit lives.

 

Jesus wants us to think of where God lives, where God can be seen, heard and experienced.

Early on in John’s gospel he goes into the temple and proclaims: Stop making my father’s house a marketplace.

So he calls the temple his father’s house. But then later he says: “destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.’

He equates his body with the temple, because he is the new spiritual temple.

He is the abiding place where God can be see and heard and experienced.

 

In fact he says in the passage we read earlier from John’s gospel in vs 9. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

 

And maybe that is the secret to understanding the passage and interpreting vs 6, the verse about Jesus being the way, the truth the life.

 

I quote from Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity:

To me, the dynamic core of this passage leaps out here in verse 9, not back in verse 6: Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Here the irony becomes nearly unbearable (to me at least), as we contrast this statement with the conventional interpretation of verse 6. Jesus says in verse 9 that the invisible God has been made visible in his life. If you want to know what God is like, Jesus says, look at me, my life, my way, my deeds, my character.”        And what has that character been? One of exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism, and condemnation? Of course not! Jesus’ way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end — whether with a visiting-by-night Pharisee, a Samaritan woman, a paralyzed man, a woman caught in adultery, or a man born blind.

But our conventional interpretation of verse 6 seems to say, “Forget all that. Forget everything you’ve seen in me, the way I’ve lived and treated people, the way I’ve accepted prostitutes and tax collectors, the way I’ve welcomed outsiders and rejects. Forget all that. Believe, instead, that God will reject everyone except people who share your doctrinal viewpoints about me, because I won’t let anyone get to the Father unless they get by me first by joining my new religion.” It makes me want to cry, or groan, or scream.

“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Jesus says, but our conventional interpretation of John 14:6 turns this all upside down: “Reinterpret me in light of your old tribal, chauvinistic, exclusive, elitist views of God and religion. In place of circumcision and dietary laws to exclude the outsiders, now substitute mental markers or belief markers about me.” Once this alternative understanding hits you, once you see it, it’s truly heart-breaking that John 14:6 can be used the way it so commonly is. (pp. 223-24)

 

 

So when Jesus is talking about being the way, he is not talking about tickets to the Oilers or to heaven.

 

He is talking about the way for us to be abiding places of God’s Holy spirit.

How we become the place where god lives.

How we become the body of Christ.

 

How we become that hands of Christ to heal…the words of Christ to forgive and bless…

The feet of Christ to take love around the world…

The family of Christ to include.

 

And what is the way. The way is Christ. The way is to emulate the character of Christ.

Jesus’ way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end.

 

And by the grace of God we have received compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion and love, freely from God.

 

But if we truly want to be abiding place, places where God lives, then there is only one way.

It is not by accepting doctrinal statements, but by living the way of Christ.

By living compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion and love.

 

And whoever lives Christ’s way, becomes an abiding place for the divine, for Christ, for the Holy Spirit.

 

Whoever loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.

 

And so now when we read, I am going to prepare a place for you….

So now when Jesus talks about in his father’s house there are many abiding places…

 

Can we understand that Jesus is talking about us…. About Jesus leaving the physical earth to take up residence in us…

 

So that we are the many abiding places in which Jesus now lives.

 

 

And we know the way.

We know the way, because the way is the way of Jesus.

It is the way home to acceptance and love. It is the way home to what God created us to be…

Full of love, compassion, forgiveness and inclusion…

 

That is why sometimes you meet people about whom I have heard it said: That person is more Christian than the Christians I know.

or

That person is more Christlike than the people at church yet she doesn’t go to church.

or

That person is Christlike and he isn’t even a Christian.

 

Because there are people who practice the way of Christ who don’t necessarily know it is the way of Christ…

Or who follow the way of Christ even though they practice another religious faith or none at all.

 

Let me quote from Lutheran minister, Paul Nuechterlein, a Christian scholar who writes extensively on the philosophy of Rene Girard.

Here’s for me an example. Last century, Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu believer in the teachings of Jesus, led his people of India to stand up to an empire that was oppressing them. And he led hundreds of millions of people, mostly Hindu and Muslim, in a way of peace that was completely nonviolent, emphasizing love of one’s enemies. That, to me, is one of those greater works than Jesus, especially since it was on a scale so huge, involving so many people at once. But it only took one believer in Jesus, Gandhi himself, to know that what they were doing was following Jesus. Most of the rest of the people involved knew little or nothing of Jesus, much less believed in him. But there they were together doing a work of Jesus, one of nonviolent resistance to evil, a work which has been repeated numerous times since then, most notably in our own Civil Rights movement.

So here’s another way to read this passage: not as one of Christian exclusivism, where we only follow in Jesus’ way of getting to God based on believing in Jesus. But one of inclusivism, based on following Jesus in his own example of including all God’s children in the way of peace based on love and forgiveness. (excerpt from sermon Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, May 18, 2014)

 

Sometimes I have heard it said in Session or at the Board or by concerned members that we have to get our act together and do more things to get members in the church.

Getting more members in the church I think is admirable, but my concern is that sometimes when these things are said, the real concern is about paying the bills.

We want members not primarily for these new members’ abundant life, but so that we can keep the doors open and pay the minister’s salary. (I am sure that’s important)

And sometimes to be honest I think that way too, that we don’t advertise enough and do more to sell our product so to speak…

But if we are truly abiding places and if we want this congregation to truly be an abiding place…

…a place where God lives and dwells….then it should be our nature to welcome and include and love…        regardless of the bottom line and of bank accounts.

 

You know, a couple of years ago I read this book:

 

“Real good church and how to get it.” About a church in New England that had 35 members and was dying and how they turned the church around with over three times the members and 5 times the budget.

The author the minister said that the institutional church is dying because it has been hateful and violent, boring and fake.

 

She talked about church as a community to support people, an opportunity to serve others, a place for hospitality, a place for people to exercise their gifts.

 

And in some ways there was nothing that was that new of different to me, except this group of people really were intentional about doing things that they thought would enhance the spiritual life of people without getting stuck in; But that’s not the way we have always done it.”

 

The church is Open and Affirming which is the United Church of Christ’s code for open to, and affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning peoples.

And she says if you are not, then just skip the chapter.

 

But they flew the rainbow flag outside their church and made it known they were truly inclusive.

 

Every week they start worship by saying:

 

Welcome to you if you are

Male or female or a little bit of each

Queer or Straight or a little bit of each

Black or Brown or white or a little bit of each

Old or Young or a little bit of each

Rich or poor or a little bit of each

Doubting or believing or a little bit of each.

 

They even have a special service during gay pride week and invite people to dress in drag if that works for them. And they go into the community and invite people to go to church who are trans or drag queens or whatever and they come to church.  Their biggest service of the year outside of Christmas and Easter.

 

My point in all of this is not to say that you have to believe in a certain way about human sexuality… or to try and copy them.

But at least to show you a church that worked hard at love and inclusion and because of it their church grew.

 

So I want to push us to think hard what it means to follow the inclusive way of Jesus, especially as Jesus reached out to those who were excluded.

I think we as First Church have to find our own way to include people, especially those who feel left out…

not to get their money, but to love them and make an abiding place for them where they can experience God, experience love, experience forgiveness, experience community, experience inclusion.

And not just people who are like us, but people who are also sometimes quite different from us.

 

May I remind you that the way of Jesus is not easy. One fellow called Stephen preached saying that Jesus would tear down the temple and become the new temple where God lived and therefore was arrested and put on trial.

Stephen told them that they didn’t listen to God and practice the way of love but did violence to the prophets.

And then he said, that heaven was open, and that Jesus was with him.

 

And so they took him out and stoned him to death. As he died Stephen’s last words were: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

His last words were words of forgiveness because Stephen followed the way, the way of Jesus, and became an abiding place of God’s spirit.

 

If Christ can forgive and include people and he says to us that we can do greater works…

If Stephen can forgive…

Then I believe it is possible for us to truly forgive, truly be compassionate, truly include….

Truly follow the way of Christ and do amazing things. Amen.