The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017
The Very Rev. Paul Blanch
(Rector, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Redding CA)
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Today we have in our Gospel a portion of scripture that is used very frequently at funerals, why, because it talks of heaven. Jesus says, I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be also. It makes sense that this Gospel has become a favorite at the time of the death of a loved one. That said, perhaps we do get fixated on heavenly the destination, often forgetting that the journey lived is as important.
Just imagine a traveler is standing at the crossroads to the road to heaven and reading directions. One arm of the sign reads, “Road to Heaven, Islamic way.” The other sign reads, “Road to Heaven, Christian way.” Road to heaven – Jewish way” which one should he follow? What is truth? Every person comes to a point where he needs to make a decision. What is the true road to heaven? I would suggest that this is totally the wrong way to go about the question. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said famously when discussing the stairway to Heaven: Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. By definition, every choice in life can be crucial; even life-altering; and every choice must be made without complete information.
So where can we start today and make sense of this Gospel?
I am preaching and presiding at this Eucharist today because it just so happened that your Rector is away, and I am in Rome with a group of Californian Episcopalians. Brave, don’t you think for an English priest to risk all and lead a pilgrim group from the Wild West to the Eternal City?
So we are here because we are on Pilgrimage! As a priest I have led pilgrimages to Rome and Assisi many times, as well as to Lourdes, Santiago de Compostella and the Holy Land as well as to the north of England in the footsteps of the great Northern saints – Cuthbert, Aidan, Bede, Hilda and so on.
I love pilgrimage because years ago I came across some words of Victor and Edith Turner in their amazing book “Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture” published by Columbia University Press – The Turners put it like this – “ We go to the far off place to make sense of the familiar” so here we are a long way from California doing just that.
But in today’s Gospel I also sense something of the talk of heaven and the fear that goes with our deep concerns about what happens when we die. Yet this is the heart of human pilgrimage. It’s all about the spiritual journeying, the travelling and learning, the differentiating between destination and journey.
The gospel presents Jesus as the pre-eminent guide in life, as the ‘way, truth and life’. The Christian focus must always be the person of Christ. Our work for Jesus and our love for people, no matter what our calling in life, flow from this. Mother Teresa was once asked why she did what she did, and she simply said ‘for Jesus’. This focus always holds, it cannot be unhinged. It is a deeply personal relationship: we are led by Jesus ‘one by one’, known by name, not as just one of a group. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.
We follow him as one we know, not as a stranger. On our journey of discovery we study his life and teaching, getting to know the places and events of his life, becoming familiar with the gospels and getting to know him in the heart in prayer is the way of keeping our focus of conviction and motivation strong, just as we do on a pilgrimage. As this happens freedom grows and we begin to find him everywhere. Not just in holy places such as Rome or Assisi, or Lourdes or at Becket’s Shrine in Canterbury, but literally everywhere!
You cannot be a Christian without also being a pilgrim, travelling light through the world. The Bible itself is full of pilgrimage.
The concept of pilgrimage is tremendously important to the Christian, giving guidance on the believer’s stance in all circumstances of life. Without this concept we become unnecessarily sensitive to all the problems and trials of life.
That most famous book “The Pilgrim’s Progress” powerfully takes up the pilgrim term. We remember, too, how Jacob spoke of ‘the days of my pilgrimage’, and that David said, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner.’ He was a king over his people, and yet he declared himself to be a foreigner and a temporary resident. The apostle Peter also referred to believers as ‘strangers and pilgrims’. Is this term true of us?
The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 ‘all died in faith, not having received the promises [in their earthly lifetime], but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them’. They made the promises of an eternal home the engine of their lives, declaring by their lifestyle that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
One of our big problems today is that we worry so much, we allow fear to take over on this journey of life, when the journey should be a time of joy and exploration. Going to that far off place to make sense of where we are now.
Once of my biggest gripes about the way in which the Church has approached the doctrine of heaven is that it makes it a very fixed and final place, it becomes just the destination! When really it is the entirety of our human and spiritual existence.
Let me tell you about St. Angela Merici, she was an Italian religious educator and founder of the Ursulines whose deep prayer life and relationship with the Lord bore the fruit of mystical encounters with God. She was born on March 21, 1474 in Desenzano, a small town on the shore of Lake Garda in Lombardy. St Angela is sometime depicted in art as a pilgrim, carrying a pilgrim’s walking staff with her kerchief of meager necessities attached. Angela was a pilgrim, literally, journeying from Brescia to faraway places: to the Holy Land (where she became temporarily and ironically blind, of all things!), to Rome to see the Pope, and to Mt. Varallo in Italy, a sort of medieval Christian “Disneyland” where dioramas of Christ’s life depicted major events thereof for the pious who could not get to Palestine in person.
But actually, Angela was always a pilgrim, always on a journey with and toward God, always treading sacred ground, finding that each and every place is a Holy Land because Christ is there. She was unstoppable, seeking out a different way to honor and serve God, beginning a community of women who would live and be for others and for God in an unheard of, original way. That’s a pilgrim.
All of us, of course, are on pilgrimage to God. We can expect to be guided and challenged by all we encounter on our journey, recognizing sacred ground, wherever we stand; of hearing God calling us to answer a need of our time with our talents, skills and gifts; of tapping into the blessings we have of courage, steadfastness and hope in God for the sake of others.
May we take up our pilgrims’ staffs now, boldly and biblically, “to do justice, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6.8) The pilgrim spirit demands it.
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms”. Many ‘mansions’ was the more traditional rendering of the Greek word ‘mone’, which goes back to the Tyndale translation, though in old English the word ‘mansion’ just meant ‘dwelling place’ and not ‘palatial dwelling place’ as it later came to mean.
In truth scholars are radically unsure as to how to best translate this Greek word ‘mone’. Some suggest ‘dwelling place’ or ‘room’ or others see it as a ‘stopping place’, such as a spot that one might stop at for a break when taking a long journey. Others suggest simply ‘place’. However we take it there is nothing in the word itself to suggest that we are talking about a place on the other side of death!
Yes, the path of discipleship is hard and lonely and so often far from spectacular, and yet this is our testimony – that a day on the Via Dolorosa with Jesus is worth more than a lifetime in a mansion without Him!
Nowhere does the Bible refer to heaven as “My Father’s house.” However, Jesus called the temple “My Father’s house” in John 2:16. “Mansions” translates from a word that means dwelling places. Built around the exterior wall of the temple were many chambers for the priests to use when counseling worshippers privately.
The people hearing Christ were familiar with the temple and therefore would have immediately associated His words in this passage with those chambers. Jesus told His disciples that He was going to prepare a “place” or position of service for them. Where will Christ be when His disciples rejoin Him? He will be on earth, thus fulfilling a prophecy given to the apostles by angels in Acts 1:11. His return also fulfills a multitude of prophecies of the Kingdom of God in the Old and New Testaments.
“Heaven doesn’t make this life less important; it makes it more important.” Billy Graham