18 May 2011

Dwelling Places

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In 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? 3And 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.

4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus 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’? 10Do 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. 11Believe 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.

12Very 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. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.     John 14.1-14

For years, whenever I’ve read this scripture, I’ve wondered:  What kind of dwelling is Jesus preparing? 
I’ve lived in a lot of different dwelling places in my life, and they all have some connection, it seems, to a dwelling place where Jesus might be working on my behalf: 
For five summers I lived outdoors (sort of) at a church camp in Nebraska.  I spent my days running around in the trees with kids, singing silly songs, cooking meals over open fire, swimming in a lake, and building a high mosquito tolerance.
I’ve lived in three different dormitories in my life.  For me, my dorm room was my first little house, the place where I really started to live like I wanted to live.  I was the one who said where things went: my fridge goes there, coffee pot goes there, chair goes there, tv goes there.  I would nest in my dorm rooms, even when I shared them with roommates, because they were my place.  They were home for me.
Our beautiful little house in Barrett, MN
Before we moved to Iowa, my wife and I live in a beautiful little house by Barrett Lake in Barrett, Minnesota.  We could watch the sun rise over the trees and the lake in the morning, we went for bike rides in the country; it was rather romantic and we generally liked it very much.
I’ve always wanted to move into a big old country house I could renovate, maybe because I grew up in a farmhouse and have always loved the privacy of country life.  Or I could always keep the dream of a great retirement home in Florida – a big beautiful house on a golf course, where I would shoot a 65 every day instead of on every hole. 
These are all dwelling places from my life or from my dreams, and no matter how much I try, I can’t get any of them to fit the vision Jesus seems to be giving to his disciples. 
So:  what kind of dwelling place is Jesus talking about?  Well, in his own time, there was something like what Jesus is describing, a time when one person would prepare a place for another:  it was what a groom would do for his bride before they were married.  Here’s how it worked:
During the betrothal period, when the bride and groom were promised to each other, the groom would often build an addition onto his father’s house for himself and his wife.  When this new dwelling place was ready, the groom and bride would be married, and return to their ‘house’ to begin their life together. 
I think we’re on to something here.  This is the dwelling place that is being prepared for us – a family house, and we are the bride for whom the dwelling place is being prepared!  God is making a family of his disciples!
We are Christ’s betrothed, and it’s not a bad image when you think about it.  After all, don’t husbands and wives promise love forever, in “richer, poorer, sickness, health?”  Even more than that – they take what the other gives as part of the deal.  And Martin Luther once said that this was exactly how Christ claims His beloved, the church, as His bride. 
All that Christ has – love, righteousness, grace, mercy– all that is ours from Him.
And all that we have – sin, fear, pride, death – he takes it all for Himself.
This is the “happy exchange” that we the bride of Christ received on the day when we were baptized.  But like most fiancées, a lot of us have focused too much on the wedding day and have forgotten that there’s a lifetime together after the wedding day (baptism), and true love often comes with bedhead and morning breath. 
I think that eventually we find that in John 14, Jesus isn’t really talking about a dwelling place at all:  Jesus is talking about making a life together, like couples, families, and even friends often do.  He’s talking about a relationship formed between people so intimately close to one another that they become one flesh, one body, one being.  Couples and families build their lives together over time, through shared experiences, weathered storms and unbreakable loyalty to one another, not by building houses together.  Actually, according to some marriage experts and my brother- and sister-in-law, building a house together can be a really stressful and dangerous time for a relationship! 
Perhaps George Carlin put it best:  “a house is a cover for your stuff.”  But a home is a place where love and commitment set boundaries and give blessing to life together.  In the same way, a church building is a cover for our stuff, isn’t it?  Hymnals and Bibles and coffee pots and all the ‘stuff’ that a church needs to do its work.  But a church is more than a building:  it is a collection of sinners called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit – a place where love and commitment set boundaries and give blessing for life together.
Being married, I’m always learning new family stories from my in-laws in Oregon – I’m learning a shared narrative.  My in-laws have stories they can tell with one word, and so does my family, so my wife is learning stories as well.  This is part of the process of building life together. 
What happens to people that live together in long-term committed relationship?  Eventually, when you talk to one, you talk to them all:  they speak with one voice.  My friend Matt and I have known each other for 18 years.  Our first dwelling place was a canvas tent at staff training in the summer of 1993.  We now have 18 years of close friendship – surviving time, distance, broken relationships – to the point where we now have entire conversations with very few words.  We share a voice and we know the other’s heart most of the time. 
This one voice thing:  does it sound familiar? 
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”
“I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
This is one voice speaking and creating life together through the words of Jesus Christ.  One voice creating eternal life by inviting others into the shared narrative of God.  Jesus prays in John 17.3:  “This is eternal life:  that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus his Anointed One, whom you have sent.”  Again in 17.21:  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”  God is creating a family out of us:  one voice to speak clearly to the world.  We have been invited, though the work and life of Jesus Christ, to learn the shared narrative that exists between God the Father, Jesus Christ his Son, and God the Holy Spirit: we have been invited to learn their shared narrative and to speak it through our own voices. 
In every church around the world God is taking buildings and making them into homes of faith.  God has
taken you, a blushing bride who only had eyes for the wedding feast, and continues to create a life together with you.  It’s not always pretty, this home of faith.  There will be dirty dishes and there will be toothpaste squeezed from the middle of the tube.   There will be underwear left in the bathroom and used Kleenex all over the floor.
There may even be toilet paper hung the wrong way in the bathroom. [gasp!]  There will also be harsh words spoken in moments of weakness.  There will be loud fights over the most trivial things.  There may also be broken homes – places where God and God’s people once lived together but cannot do so any longer.  But the creation of these homes of faith goes on, and the shared narrative continues to grow larger. 
These homes of faith are the places where God has come in the word of Jesus Christ and created a place where love and commitment set boundaries and give blessings for life together.  These homes of faith are the places where Christ has come among us through the preaching of God’s Word and the administration of His Sacraments.  As Christ Himself said: the dwelling place He prepares for us is prepared so that where He is, there we may also be.  Our hearts turn homeward when we gather to hear His Word and receive His blessing; in our very life together the Spirit is creating a home for God and for us.  We have received a promise far better than any blushing bride could ever expect:  an addition to the heavenly house of faith, created for us by the Father’s Son so that we might live together with Him and learn to speak with His voice, to proclaim the shared narrative of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   

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