Acts 7:55-60, John 14:1-14
As I was doing some research on the passages for today, I went to a website I hadn’t visited in quite a long time. The website is “The Edge of the Enclosure.” Suzanne Guthrie, its creator, is a modern mystic. Each week she reflects on the scriptures in the Lectionary and suggests a journey of meditation and prayer related to them.
I was intrigued by her meditation on the passage from John’s gospel. She looked at the passage and focused, not on the dwelling places, but on Jesus’ departure. He will be leaving –yes, to prepare a place, or places for his disciples—but what they will know first is his absence. Guthrie wrote, “Christ prepares a place, but just as I get there he disappears, just as he did at Emmaus. For he is going to prepare the next place for me For in the house of the Holy One there are many mansions/dwelling places/resting places/rooms.”
I have to admit that I’ve tended to hear in this gospel passage a description of the promised place as one where people are “divided” from one another. Individuals or groups live in “separate” dwellings. After all, there are many dwelling places! I might think of the old jokes about heaven where different denominations are “inhabiting” different spaces.
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, "Denomination?" The man says, "Methodist." St. Peter looks down his list, and says, "Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. "Denomination?"
"Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."
A third man arrives at the gates. "Denomination?"
"Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."
The man says, "I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?"
St. Peter tells him, "Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they're the only ones here.
Guthrie had a very different idea about what the dwelling places are. She drew from the book Interior Castle by 16th century mystic St. Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa used this imagery of the dwelling places or mansions. But these weren’t “permanent” dwellings to which we aspire. The dwellings were places on the journey to the most interior dwelling of all – the Holy of Holies – the place where God’s very presence dwells. And, these dwelling places are accessible to Jesus’ followers – accessible through an ever deepening awareness of God. She wrote, “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” Once inside she said that the soul “must be allowed to roam through these mansions” and “not be compelled to remain for a long time in one single room.” Guthrie took this concept and suggested that Jesus remains ahead of us, preparing each place toward which we should aspire as deepen our discipleship.
I was reminded of an afternoon I spent on my porch in Pennsylvania. I saw and heard a cardinal. As I looked further, I noticed a baby cardinal, just out of the nest, sitting on a branch. The mother (I’m assuming) was a few branches away, tweeting furiously, until the baby spread its wings and flew the short distance. The mother immediately moved to a new branch and started the encouraging tweets again. Sometime later the baby flew to the new branch – and the mother moved away – a little further this time. The process was repeated again and again. The mama bird moved on, encouraging the baby bird to follow. And that little bird learned to fly!
St. Teresa’s book is beautiful, providing guidance for strengthening our relationship with God – for moving from the easy, quick assertions of faith to a deeper awareness of God’s glory and love. We read the book in seminary. It was given to us in a course called Faith Formation--- required in our final year. The students always noted that the faculty had spent two years challenging our faith. It seemed that they recognized the need to start putting the pieces back together before they sent us out into the world. Perhaps they chose her book because, in the church, it is easy to get caught up in institutional life. The demands of being an institution can crowd out our awareness of God’s call to each and all of us. We forget that the church is a means to being grafted into the ways, the desires, and the call of the One who loves us. Perhaps, the church is merely one of those dwelling places on the way to encountering, more fully, the glorious Creator who, through the Christ, has redeemed us. The church is not the end.
That’s hard to remember, as we gather in our church building. Our life is organized around a place where we gather. We are shaped and caught up in the ways of the institution that is the church. Yet Jesus was always on the move. He traveled around Galilee, into Samaria, and down to Jerusalem. Early in his ministry, he sent his disciples out. Jesus said, responding to someone who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The early church continued this sense of movement. Those who believed the good news of his resurrection carried that news as they went out from Jerusalem.
The church is not the end. We speak of the church triumphant, but, the Biblical witness, instead, speaks of the day when there will be no more need of church. In the 21st chapter of the Revelation to John, the writer says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”
I’m not advocating that we abandon the church. Yet, if we consider St. Teresa’s approach to the dwellings – that they were “on the road” to a fuller and deeper relationship with God – and if we consider Jesus’ own ministry and the vision presented in the Revelation to John, we need to remember that the church, itself—that is, the body of believers, not the building—should always be on the move toward a deeper commitment.
Guthrie wrote, “Christ prepares a place, but just as I get there he disappears, just as he did at Emmaus. For he is going to prepare the next place for me For in the house of the Holy One there are many mansions/dwelling places/resting places/rooms.” Jesus moves on, like the mother bird, calling us to venture forth, to venture out and find the world beyond and within—those sacred places where God’s presence is discovered. God’s people are always invited to move beyond what we know, what feels safe. Mark Twain may have understood why. He said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and any of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of [people] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth all one’s life.”
We are blessed, in this place, by an abundance of experiences and perceptions. We gather from many places and bring the awareness that God’s ways are broad. This is not the place to land, but a new “resting place” in which and through which we seek the God who dwells among and in us. And, even in this resting place, we are to look for new “travels” into God’s world, heeding the invitation and loving call of the one who always goes before us.