Parish Eucharist 14th May 2017
In my fathers house...
My wife had a dear uncle, a long retired naval officer by the time I knew him, whose hobby, and livelihood was the constant buying and selling of his home. He would buy a house, do it up to his latest taste, live in it for a year or so and then sell it for another, and so on. You don’t have to be very familiar with London’s residential property market over the past 50 years or so to see that, a few hiccoughs apart, one could make quite a good living this way. At his funeral, we heard this Gospel from John, and there were many smiles at the thought of Uncle Michael taking full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the heavenly property market.
But there was a deeper and more poignant meaning behind the promise of a house with many dwelling places. Uncle Michael was a homosexual. The Wolfenden Report and the legalisation of same sex relations did not happen until his early thirties. The exploration, discovery and fulfilment of his sexuality- for the lucky among us, a time of such excitement and joy- was for him clandestine and dangerous, certainly career and even life threatening. He was also Roman Catholic which added guilt to already muddy whirlpool of emotion.
There was, of course, a great relaxation in the 1970s, but although that Spring brought hope, we have yet to witness a high Summer which can expunge the memory of that long Winter of secrecy, guilt and repression; in our own Church of England homosexual relationships are still frowned upon, and worse, in some influential quarters. For Michael, it was comforting to have the hope of a Heaven, future, where he could be his real self and be accepted as that self. A heaven where each individual can find a home suited to his or her individuality- a place where one is accepted just for what one is, is indeed deeply encouraging. And this reading is rightly popular at funerals.
It would be even more heartening however, if to think that Jesus wasn’t just taking about the after-life in this passage, but how we should behave now, and what we may aspire to in this present existence. That God's will might be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
The context of Jesus' words in John suggests that he is referring to post death existence- “the place that I am going” does seem to mean the afterlife, as Jesus is clearly contemplating his own death. This is not, however, what Thomas and Philip necessarily understand, or rather fail to understand with that ironic naiveté which characterises John’s Gospel.
Thomas asks how they are to know the way when they do not know their destination; that doesn't suggest he means where we go after death.
Philip asks, with a tired frustration, to be “shown the Father”. Seeing the Father has become in the Christian tradition, a metaphor for virtuous death, deriving perhaps from the account we have just heard of Stephen's martyrdom (a spectacular example of religious exclusion and one Christians would shortly be emulating). Seeing God in his Glory isn’t something we would expect to experience as part of ordinary living. And yet Jesus’ response to Philip is to say that the disciples have already seen God at work in himself. And even further we are even promised that we shall become like Jesus, and so like God, if we do the works that Jesus does. This seems to speak chiefly to the past and present, and in that it speaks to the future, it is a future in this life not one that follow s death; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be talking about good works in the after-life.
This is, of course, just an instance of the ambiguity which runs through the Gospels, and presumably ran though Jesus' teaching too; is salvation, the experience of the Glory of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven something which has already arrived with Jesus, or is it something that we will experience in the afterlife, or here on earth after a second coming?
This ambiguity is acutely obvious to our own condition; we should, and do, rejoice in the risen Christ, and I believe we should live as people saved, people who have arrived at their destination. But plainly there is also a bit of work to be done. Not all the lame can walk; not all the blind can see; there are many waiting for release from the prisons of disability, poverty, envy and fear and a hundred other shackles and fences that their own anxiety or well-founded fear of others, have constructed.
Lucy’s uncle Michael might have been imprisoned by guilt and fear of social stigma, but he found some consolation in the actuality, rather than the promise, contained in these words: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” It was, surprisingly perhaps, a Dutch Catholic priest in Great Missenden who, heroically, in my opinion, gave Michael that reassurance and peace. That priest was I believe, doing God’s work in a way which sets an example, and a challenge, for all of us but most especially as we gather in this church, which is, of course, God’s house. How well have we ensured that it contains many dwelling places?
We are told that we are created in God’s image; is it surprising then that God’s house should have many dwelling places? Those carrying his image are far from uniform in colour, shape and size-never mind temperament, interest or orientation- if we are to recognise the divinity in others we must do so by accepting those differences, by giving them space to co-exist and enrich each other. That space is each individual’s dwelling place. Attempts to enforce uniformity, like attempts to close the church door, are frustrating God’s purpose for us. We will not, of course, succeed in frustrating his purpose, but we may do ourselves damage, shrinking our experience and narrowing our vision in the attempt.
This church has in the past declared its inclusivity and we are currently considering how best to do so again. There is certainly an argument that strident statements and manifestos may not be the best way; personally I think they do serve a purpose as you need to shout quite loudly to wake those who are so soundly asleep. But at the heart of any such declaration, whether obstreperous or quietly assuming, must be the reality of inclusion. If we do not recognise each other’s’ distinctiveness and uniqueness and cannot see that it is just those differences that make us valued as children of God, then we will have no foundation on which to build a true house of God, with many different rooms and space for all. Amen