Sunday, May 7, 2023
Home — Rev. Brent Gundlah

The pandemic experience caused me to look at many things in my life from a different perspective, including my own house.

Like everyone else, I spent a whole lot more time there than I ever had before. It  was no longer just a place to eat, to sleep, to hang out, to watch TV, and to do all of the other things that people typically do at home; it suddenly became an office, a conference room, a gym and, in my case, a pulpit.

Because I’ve spent so much more time in the house over the past few years, I’ve tended to notice all sorts of things about it that I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to in the past.

On the plus side, the beautiful sunlight coming through my living room and kitchen windows here in Salt Lake City is unlike anything I’ve experienced before moving here (maybe that’s because I’m a mile closer to the sun than I’ve ever been).

On the minus side, I simply couldn’t unsee the cracks on my walls and ceilings the earthquake caused a few years ago, so I had to spend the better part of a week fixing them all.

Home has always been a place that I’ve longed to get back to, a place in which I’ve sought refuge from the world outside. But, in 2020, home became a sanctuary for me in a way that I couldn’t have even imagined just a few years earlier; for a while, staying there might actually have kept me alive.

Yet, at the same time, home was also often a place I found myself wanting to escape from. There were times when I desperately wished that I could be someplace else, anyplace else — maybe you felt the same way. I guess what I’m saying is that my understanding of home is a bit different now.

I can’t help but feel the same way about the house — God’s house — that Jesus describes in today’s reading from the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel.

“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?” is what Jesus says to his disciples here.

If you’ve ever been to a Christian funeral, then there’s a better than average chance that you’ve heard this passage. And this makes complete sense because Jesus’s words here are intended to bring us comfort as we deal with the harsh realities of death, with the pain of being separated from our loved ones. They give us hope that there’s something else, something beyond what we experience together right here and right now; they give us hope that we will be reunited with God, and with one another, someday.

Today’s text marks the beginning of Jesus’s Farewell Discourse, which takes up three chapters of John’s Gospel. As Jesus addresses his disciples here, he is talking specifically about his own impending death.

To put it in context, the Last Supper has just happened; Jesus has washed his followers’ feet; Judas has been identified as the one who will betray him; and Peter has been told that he will deny Jesus three times before sunrise. Knowing that he is about leave this world, Jesus says to them, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer” and commands them to love one another, in his absence, as he has loved them. Tomorrow is Good Friday; before the sun sets again, Jesus will have been crucified.

The disciples, of course, are really upset by all of this talk about Jesus’s death, which is why Jesus begins our reading by telling them not to let their hearts be troubled — which is kind of a strange thing for him to do here, because there’s not too many people whose troubled hearts have actually been made less troubled by someone telling them not to let their hearts be troubled. But who am I to question Jesus?

To be fair, Jesus is dealing with a complicated situation here. He needs to makes his disciples understand that, even though he will soon be departing, he still abides with them. It is a problem to which Christians throughout the ages can relate: How do we continue to sense Christ’s presence despite his absence? How do we know that Emmanuel, God with us, is still, with us?

The answer lies inside God’s house, which is not exactly the place that it might first appear to be.

There’s been a tendency throughout the ages to read this passage and to assume right off the bat that God’s house must be heaven, and this is totally understandable. When Jesus refers to a house with many dwelling places, it’s kind of hard not to think of it as being an actual location — like some kind of hotel or apartment building or mansion — to which Jesus is headed and to which we will be going someday. After all, we hear something that sounds like this every single week when we recite the very first line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Creator, who is in heaven” — it kind of makes you think that you might be able to address a letter to someone named “Creator” in a place called “Heaven” and actually have it get there.

But what if the house that Jesus describes here is neither only in heaven nor in any other single specific place? What if Jesus’s reference to a house with “many dwelling places” means that God’s house, our true home, is really any place in which we sense God’s presence among us?

If someone were to ask me where home (in a secular sense) is for me, I could come up with any number of viable answers. I might say “New Jersey,” where I was born and raised; I might say “New England,” where I lived longer than anywhere else; I might say “Utah,” which is where I live now; I might say “Twenty-seventh South,” because that’s where my house is.

All of these answers are correct, but none of them excludes the range of other possible answers; my point is that home can, in fact, be a bunch of different places. The one thing that all of these places have in common is that they’re where I’ve been able to live with people I love. You see, it’s not where home is but what home means that really matters.

And the same can be said of our church home. Many of us are here in this  sanctuary this morning, as the people of HUCC have been for decades, but many of us at home or somewhere else, watching this service in different kinds of sanctuaries at different times. Our house of worship isn’t quite the same as it did a few years ago, but it’s still God’s house; and, in God’s house, we are united as the body of Christ in this world.

Because living in the God’s house has never been about where we are, it’s always been about who we are; it’s always been about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.

Our Creator might, at least in some sense, be in heaven, but Jesus’s whole point here seems to be that our Creator is not just in heaven. Jesus came here to live among us in order remind us that there is nowhere that God won’t go to reach us;

Jesus came here to to remind us that God’s love and God’s presence cannot be confined to any one place and time;

Jesus came here to show us what matters to God;

Jesus came here to show us what God calls us to do.

So when Jesus tells his disciples, “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,” he’s not standing at the threshold of an actual place called “The Father’s House, inviting people in as if he were checking IDs at the entrance to a club; he’s extending his disciples a completely different kind of invitation.

Jesus is saying, “If you want to see what the God is like, then watch me. If you want to see what the God’s house is like — what God’s kingdom is like — then remember what I’ve done amongst you. And if you actually want to experience a little bit of God’s kingdom right here and right now, then go and do likewise — “go worship God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”; go “love one another just as I have loved you.” Go and do these things everywhere.

Because this is where we will encounter God;

this where God’s house really is.

And so maybe we need to think about God’s house a bit differently than we ever have before too.