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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/10/2020

If you’ve attended very many funerals, this gospel reading from John is probably familiar: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told that I go to prepare a place for you?” It gets used a lot, I’ve used it a lot, because…one of the things you want to do in a funeral sermon is to provide comfort and the image of Jesus having prepared a place for us so that we will be close to him does just that.

It seems reasonable to think that it’s from this text that you get the “mansions in the sky” idea of heaven, maybe it’s what well-meaning people have in mind when they say of the deceased that he or she is in a better place, dwelling now in that room that Jesus has prepared. It’s also the image that is the source of all the jokes about people who die and go to heaven, it’s the image that a TV show like The Good Place started with, the idea of heaven as a place, a good place, most likely one that is up there and out there.

It is kind of a simplistic, childlike way to think about heaven, but sometimes simplistic and childlike is OK, it’s the best we can do, and for comfort, childlike or not, the image of dwelling in a room close to Jesus is a helpful one and an appropriate use of this text. A funeral or memorial service is not the time to dive in and see what else might be going on with the talk about dwelling places.

On the Fifth Sunday of Easter though, I’m going to say that a closer look at the text is permitted and what you find is that while this is a good funeral text, it’s also a good here and now text that tells you that, in a sense, you’re already in that place prepared for you and…it is a good place, even though…it’s not really a place at all, at least not as we normally think about it.

If I asked you to define heaven my guess is that you would say it’s where you go when you die and, despite years of listening to “justified by grace though faith” Lutheran sermons, you might add, it’s where you go when you die if you’ve been good enough. That’s the prevailing cultural belief anyway. So, heaven’s a place, kind of like earth, except better with all the wrinkles ironed out. All your loved ones are there and all the things you don’t like about earth are gone. You can sit in your mansion and play the harp. I remember the Far Side cartoon of the guy sitting on a cloud playing the harp with the caption, “I wish I’d brought a book.” Then there’s the one, on one side, “Welcome to heaven; here’s your harp” and on the other side, “Welcome to hell; here’s your accordion,” but I digress. A little Holy Humor for you though, even if I just offended all of you who love the accordion.

One of things that opens this text to a different interpretation is the word that gets translated as dwelling places or rooms: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” That does imply a physical place of some kind. Worth paying attention to though, is that the Greek word used here is related to a verb that John uses a lot, a verb most often translated as “abide” with Jesus saying things like, “Abide in me as I abide in you; those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit; if you keep my commandments you will abide in my love.”

Abide is not a word that we use a lot in normal conversation, it is one of those Bible words, but on the lips of Jesus it most often has to with relationship, our relationship with God and with Jesus himself. God abides in him and he abides in God. Jesus abides in us and we in him, in his word and in his love. In his farewell address to his disciples, he promises that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate will abide in them and by extension, in us.

It’s all about relationship though, not about a physical place, and it’s a relationship that isn’t just about the hereafter, it’s also about the here and now. When Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” while it’s not wrong to read a future component into what he says, it important to hear what he says as an invitation to live now in a relationship with God. In other words, to be in a better place doesn’t just have to be about the heavenly hereafter; we can begin to experience that better place in the present.

That might give you a different way to think about heaven, thinking of it less as a destination that is out of this world and more as a relationship with God that begins in this world and doesn’t end when we die but continues. NT Wright who is a prominent New Testament scholar explains it in a way that I have found helpful, I’ve talked about it in Bible Studies. He suggests that rather than thinking about heaven as being up there and earth down here, think of it instead as two hands representing two dimensions, heaven being one, the God dimension, and earth the other, the worldly dimension, with the fingers intertwined so that there is overlap between the two. Living in relationship with God, we are able to experience aspects of both dimensions as we journey through life.

There’s that journey thing again; it always seems to come back to that doesn’t it? With me it does anyway and it leads to and connects with another part of this text, one that often gets used as a Bible bullet that eliminates the possibility for those of other faiths to ever find themselves in that better place: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Looking more closely at this, the word that gets translated as “way” has to with a path or a way of life or, dare I say it, a journey. By the end of the book of Acts, followers of Jesus were referring to themselves as people of “the Way.” Jesus wasn’t calling on his followers to accept a package of beliefs about him; he was inviting them to follow him on a journey, a journey on which they could experience the intertwining of the divine and worldly dimensions of life, a journey on which they could come closer to being who they were created to be having been created in the image of God.

What you could say is that Jesus was inviting them and is inviting us to be pilgrims on the journey. With Kathy having made the pilgrimage to Santiago across northern Spain a few years ago, many conversations with her relate back to that somehow, and she’s talked about the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist. She acknowledges that for some people who do the Camino as it’s called, it isn’t much more than a long hike through the countryside and the towns along the way with the goal being to get there, to get to the end.

That’s not a bad thing, good exercise for one thing, but it’s not really a pilgrimage, it’s just a long walk; they’re tourists more than pilgrims. To approach it as a pilgrim is different. A pilgrim is using the walk as a time of reflection, a time of spiritual growth where the journey, including its difficulties and challenges, is perhaps more important than the destination. You still want to get there, but…like how the divine and worldly dimensions get intertwined, the destination and the journey also get intertwined.

That’s the kind of relationship into which Jesus is inviting his followers in this text. It’s a relationship that includes worship and prayer and study and caring for others not just focused on a destination, not just so that when you die you go to heaven, but so that, along the way, you are able to be who you were created to be which is a person in relationship to God, you’re able to experience all that life offers, including glimpses of the divine, here and now. It’s an offer to experience the fullness of life in all its dimensions.

There is invitation here and while it’s tempting to leave it at that, I don’t want to duck the “No one comes to the Father except though me,” part of this text which is the real Bible bullet part that’s used by some to consign all non-Christians to the fires of hell. A more helpful way to interpret this, a more Lutheran way would be to say that it’s another expression of the truth that says we can’t earn our way. We grow in relationship as we engage the journey, but still, we come up short. Our hope is always in what has been done for us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the way and has cleared the way for our journey. He has made possible the salvation of all people. He has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

I don’t find it necessary to try and explain how this works with people of other faiths. That’s not my call. What I feel called to do is to proclaim what I believe about a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I find that God revealed in Jesus and for me, it’s not a God who is chomping at the bit to condemn a wide swath of humanity into eternal damnation.

My call then, is to give thanks for what Jesus has done for us, and to extend the same invitation he did, an invitation to join him on the journey, to join him on the way to the place, to the relationship he has prepared for us.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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