a sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A
On his last night with his disciples, as Jesus was saying goodbye, he told them than he loved them unconditionally, and that he wanted them to love and support each other. But what does that look like?
If you look up the word “house” in the dictionary, the most common definition is something like, “a building that serves as the living quarters for one or more families.” That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But if you continue reading down the page, sooner or later you’ll find another definition– something more along the lines of, “a family including ancestors, descendants, and kindred.” This is the idea when we talk about the House of Windsor, in Great Britain, or the Houses of Montague and Capulet in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
The Arabic word for house is bayt, which refers to the structure, but in actual usage means something much, much more. It is not simply the building that a family lives in, but includes all of their relationships – the patriarch and matriarch, the sons and daughters, their children and grandchildren. It also includes their servants and associates, their business holdings and property. In his book, House of Stone, the late Anthony Hadid wrote, “In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying goodbye to his closest friends. The scene is the Last Supper. Even though he knows that one of them has betrayed him and one of them will deny him three times, he still loves them. So he washes their feet and shares a last meal, some bread and some wine. And he gives them a new commandment – to love one another.
Of course, the disciples really don’t understand what he’s trying to say, and they begin to worry. Without Jesus, what’s going to happen to them? Without Jesus, who’ll carry on with their mission? Without Jesus, how will they ever have a lasting relationship with God? But Jesus reminds them of their relationship with God and each other. “Trust me about this,” he says. “There is room for all of you in my Father’s house. If this weren’t so, would I have told you that I was going to prepare a place for you? And if I’m preparing a place for you, you know that I’ll come back for you. And together, we will all live in the house – the bayt – of God.”
How do we say goodbye to someone and still stay in relationship with them? We know that there are all kinds of goodbyes. There’s the kind that we say to our friends when we know we’ll see them again soon. Not really a goodbye, but more like, “see you later.”
There’s the kind that we say when we slam down the phone on a telemarketer – not only “goodbye” but also “good riddance.”
There’s the kind that we say when we drop a child off at summer camp or college. We want them to know that we love them and to remember everything we taught them – don’t talk to strangers. Brush your teeth. Do your best in your classes. Come home safe.”
But then there’s the kind of goodbye when things are more permanent; the kind that you say to someone when you know you won’t see them ever again. Or the kind that you say when you’re retiring from your lifelong career. Or the kind that we say when we are losing are ability to drive, or to life by ourselves. And this is what Jesus is dealing with today, that kind of separation. He told them that he loved them. He reassured them that he’d always be proud of them. He didn’t focus on the hows and whys of his departure. Instead, he reminded them of the very important relationship that they shared will continue even after he’s gone. He reminded them that he was of the House of God and that they were, too.
This passage of Scripture is one of the most commonly read at funerals, and for good reason. In it, God promises that our relationship with God will last forever – even beyond the grave. Earthly empires may fall. Human loyalties may shift and break. But our spiritual identity, our spiritual home with God, as we heard in 1 Peter, will last forever. God’s relationship with us will never be dissolved.
Of course, it is Thomas who asks the question that everyone in the room was afraid to ask. “We don’t know where you’re going, Lord. How can we know the way?” He wants specific directions. What do we do? Which way do we turn? Tell us, exactly, which way we need to go to find our way back to God’s house.
But Jesus doesn’t give him a road map. He doesn’t hand him an instruction manual, no “Finding God 101” book. He simply says what he has said from the beginning when he first told them to “Follow me.”
I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.
All of you are living stones that build up God’s house – stones like the ones you see in these walls, stones that are interwoven to make this house of God stronger. And when one in our midst has to say goodbye to someone they love and will never see again, or has to say goodbye to a strength they once had but now no longer can depend on, all of us other stones in God’s house that have to carry the weight. You are living stones that support one another in the household of God.
Jesus tells us that all that we need for a relationship with God is to follow him. And that means that all that we need to do is to wash each other’s feet, to love each other, and to support each other as we are saying goodbye to one phase of our lives and moving on to the next.
On his last night with his disciples, as Jesus was saying goodbye, he told them than he loved them unconditionally, and that he wanted them to love and support each other as living stones. He reminded them that regardless of whether he was physically present among them, they would still be living within the household of God by simply because they cared for one another.
Jesus teaches us that death and life is all about relationship. We live in relationship with God and each other, and those relationships continue even beyond the grave. And he promises us that through the power of the Holy Spirit that we will remain members of the household of God. By the power of the Spirit, we can heal as Jesus healed, and feed as Jesus fed. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we continue to do the reconciling work of being Jesus in the world.
Jesus has invited us all to live in God’s eternal household, not just after we die, but even now. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are invited to give up our concern for ourselves and turn our hearts outward – to each another here in this room, and to those outside our four walls. We have been invited to life in our Father’s house, and “to dwell in the House of the Lord, forever.”
Thanks be to God.