Texts: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
We didn’t take the opportunity back in April to have a holy humor Sunday. It’s an old tradition among some Christians to tell jokes for the sermon on the Sunday after Easter. The origin of the idea is supposedly that Easter was a grand joke on Satan who was certain that Jesus was dead and gone forever. But then the tomb was empty! Surprise! Alleluia everybody! (Though don’t you wonder if preachers did this to avoid writing a sermon just after Easter.)
Things have been mighty serious all around us lately, and perhaps it’s not a bad idea to begin with a little levity this week. (Apologies to the bible study group who heard a version of this already.) A Catholic died and went to heaven. St. Peter welcomed the wide-eyed new arrival and said, “Follow me, I’ll show you to your place here in heaven.” They walked along a series of long corridors, Heaven is a huge place as you would expect it to be.
Along the hallways were many rooms. Various muffled sounds issued forth from them. Some sounded quite riotous! As they were passing by one door the Catholic started to ask St. Peter a question about the noises. But Peter said “shhh!” and motioned for silence as they walked by. After they were well beyond the door Peter answered the Catholic’s questioning look, saying “That was the Lutherans in there. They think they’re the only ones here”.
I know, I know. This old joke has been around for a very long time. There are lots of variations on the theme. But do you recognize the description of heaven from a conversation between Jesus and the disciples one day? “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…”
There are various translations of this text, including an even more mystifying version that says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” What could Jesus have meant?
A rule of thumb in tackling ancient writings is to go for the simplest explanation first. In this case, we get the idea that heaven is a Very Big Place. Another rule is to study the social situation of the text. So, what are houses like in Israel/Palestine today, and how were they different in gospel times?
Visiting the area several decades ago, I saw endless homes under construction, built of concrete and rebar. The lower level was complete on many of the buildings, and were even occupied. But the upper stories were unfinished, bristling with rebar around the edges.
I assumed that the owners were building upwards as they had the means to do it. But the guide told us that virtually all the houses were considered complete. It’s just that people added rooms upward over the years as their families expanded.
In Jesus’s day most houses were single-level, growing outward. But social practices were the same. A newly married couple would live in the house of the family patriarch. Widows would be brought to live in the home of the eldest son as well. And so rooms were added on. The greater the wealth, power, and generosity of the patriarch, the more the house grew and became filled with people from infant to elder. [Photo depicts the house of Peter at Capernaum. A church has been constructed just behind it.]
This is what Jesus was talking about that day. And it’s not a description of heaven at all. It is the description of a very large, endlessly expanding family. The Father’s house is composed of all the honored guests of God the true Patriarch of humankind. Remember how in Scripture, a family is called a house, comprised of all generations, both living and dead?
Jesus tells a story of incredible hospitality. The house of God endlessly expands up, out, and infinitely to accommodate God’s children. This house is populated by relationship.
This is why Jesus promised that he was going to prepare a place for the disciples. It was a very personal promise, and very reassuring. To be with Jesus in his Father’s house! Which was a good thing, because this conversation happened in very difficult circumstances. It’s easy to assume that Jesus was saying these things as he was preparing to ascend into heaven. Wasn’t he already risen from the grave and free from all the limits of being human?
No, Jesus said these things to his followers when he was on the way to Jerusalem and death. The disciples’ hearts were troubled because Jesus had just told them he was going to die. Peter’s response to that was, hey, I’m ready to die with you! But Jesus said that dying for him was not the plan. Jesus would continue on alone. Later they would be with the Teacher again.
According to Jesus they already knew the way that Jesus was going. This perplexing claim led to more conversation, with the disciples confessing they didn’t know the way. Jesus responded with a discourse on himself as the way, the truth, and the life. They did know the way!
Somehow that morphed into an “only us” faith claim. Jesus’s invitation to grace is limited, and halls of heaven are restricted to his honored guests. Which seems completely opposed to the message of endless grace and reconciliation that Jesus was. However did this happen? I can only guess that it comes from our primal fear of scarcity. Heaven only accommodates perfected souls. Knowing God is only by claiming Jesus as your personal Lord. Keep out the riff-raff!
But here’s the thing. Jesus explicitly said that his job was to be transparent to God. Everything he did was to glorify the Father who is in heaven. Seeing Jesus was seeing God. Not because God was a human man living in first century Palestine. But because to look upon the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus was to see the generous way of God’s love, the truth that God is love, and the astonishingly courageous life that reflects God’s love. There’s no only here.
Jesus was talking about his oneness with the Father. He describes the community that he is bringing into being. A house full of people whose relationship is through blood. But not the blood that runs through our veins. By the blood of Jesus, that flowed from his passionate love for all creatures and all creation. In our loving, we belong to God, and dwell in God’s house.
Following Jesus means being transparent to him as he, in turn, was transparent to God. It’s the story of Stephen. His way of following Jesus was to tell the story of Jesus’s love, testifying to his resurrection - God’s mighty acts. When Stephen’s testimony brought out the haters, he just loved them more, acting out of untroubled trust in God. Stephen was stoned for doing what Jesus and died, calling out to Jesus his teacher, his Lord. He got the truth Peter didn’t get – it’s not to die for Jesus, but to enlarge God’s house with love. What a way to go! Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.