Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's a Big, Big House

It’s a Big, Big House

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Fifth Sunday of Easter: April 20, 2008
I Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Home. It is a recurring theme in I Peter. The idea that the household of faith is the new believer’s home runs throughout the letter. An old friend of mine once gave me a unique definition of home. He said it is the place where you can make it from the bedroom to the refrigerator in the dark. A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poetic line that home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in. It comes from a poem in which a man comes home to die, though his real family has moved away. Nevertheless, the family living in the house takes him in, proving the New Testament’s frequent observation that home is sometimes more a matter of a chosen family than a biological one.

I think Yogi Berra once said, in his original way of stating the unmistakably obvious, that “Things are more like they are now than they have ever been before.” That’s a little like one of my favorite definitions of home. To me, home is where you feel more like yourself than anywhere else. Some people prove this in a backward way by going to any lengths to keep away from their houses at night, so little do they feel at home there. The cast of characters in the old TV series, Cheers, dramatized that sad fact. Of course, the corner bar isn’t the only substitute for home. Many people feel more at home at work than in their houses. Others may be more at home at the ball park where they are free to say loud and obscene things to players and umpires, behavior frowned upon in many homes but not at many sporting events I have attended.

If our ideas of home are varied, so are the limitations on those who are able to be at home around us. Remember the family or families in the neighborhood where you grew up who always seemed to have 3 or 4 extra children with their feet under the dinner table at night? In my neighborhood, they were the people who could never feel at home unless everyone else in their neighborhood felt that way too. I also remember the cool white house across the street and a few doors down from my family home. From my childhood memory, it was inhabited by pasty-skinned people who always wore starchy-looking clothes. My parents said it was an immaculate home, though I couldn’t verify that. Children, as far as I know, were never allowed inside.

Some folks think of home as a place where ancestors are celebrated. I remember a high school history class in which we were each asked in turn to say something about one of the ancestors in our families who were celebrated by some well-worn family story. I told a few details about the only truly famous ancestor I know, my great great great grandfather Tompkins, who was Vice president when James Monroe was president. The boy seated next to me followed my story with a strange sort of one-upmanship. His great grandfather had been hung for stealing horses. You’ll never guess which story made a bigger impression on the class.

Even though Matthew and Luke go to some trouble to list extensive genealogies for Jesus, I think they knew in the backs of their minds that Jesus was the Son of God whose real family, as he himself said, were not related to him by blood, but rather were those who heard the will of God and went about doing it.1

In John 14 it appears that in Jesus’ view it isn’t human fathers or mothers that matter when it comes to salvation. My friend with his horse-thieving great grandfather and I with my blue-blooded ancestor each have equal access to the only parent that matters, our Father in heaven. It is no wonder that people have found John 14 to be such a source of comfort for centuries. When folks gather following the death of a loved one, as often as not, John 14 is read to comfort them. Why do you suppose that is?

These were the first words spoken by Jesus to his disciples after he had told them that it was necessary that he die soon. Harsh words of reality were then followed by words of comfort about the household of God. “Don’t be worried and upset,” says one translation of these famous words, “believe in God, and believe also in me.” If they believed in God, Jesus said, then believing in him should be as simple as falling off a log. The God who had taken the slaves of Egypt and brought them through the Exodus to the renewal of the promised land, the God who had seen his people carried off to Babylon in exile yet returned to the land he had given them, for this God, redemption seemed to be his hallmark. If we believe God is capable of bringing life where there had been death, redeeming what we had feared was hopelessly lost, time after time making new that which we were certain was done for, if we believe in the God of the Exodus, then we can believe in Jesus. If we believe God brings dead nations, people, ideas to life again, then we can believe that there is more to the life of Jesus than that short 33 years of it which he knew in first-century Palestine.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus told us that we are his true brothers and sisters. There is ample space, then, for the whole family in the great household of God. If we want to see how big the family is, then we need only to look around. These are our brothers, these are our sisters. If we are in Christ, we are at home with one another, whether our grandaddy was a horse thief or a politician — or both.

In John 14 Jesus said, “there are many dwelling places.” There is no housing shortage for this home. Our home is the wide heart of God — room for plenty more than the ones who have made themselves at home already. All those bad and sometimes tasteless jokes about Saint Peter at the gates of heaven administering a final exam, or asking folks to wait, or placing some high and some low in heavenly condominiums, all these are just that: jokes. They bear no resemblance to the picture Jesus painted of God’s kingdom as a place of endless spaciousness.

We may be like Thomas. We want to know the way to this place Jesus describes. We lack a road map, a compass. How do we get there, Jesus? Like Thomas, we fail to see the forest for the trees. Jesus said, “I am the way.” No need for a map. If you are with Jesus, you are there. So we want to know how to be with Jesus that we may be there already. For this we need only remember the household of faith. If we are in the company of brothers and sisters in faith, we are in the very presence of Jesus. That is his promise.

Over a decade ago now I helped build houses on a mission trip to Mexico with the youth from our church, and they introduced me to a song, popular at the time, by a Christian rock group called “Audio Adrenaline.” Their music, I can testify, more than lived up to the name. But while their music might not be for everyone, the lyrics to the song they taught me struck me as clearly true for the Christian community of faith. The chorus goes:

It’s a big, big house — with lots and lots of room
It’s a big big table — with lots and lots of food;
It’s a big, big yard — where we can play football.
It’s a big, big house — it’s my Father’s house.2

Do you feel the spaciousness of it? Big house, big table, big yard. Big house for worship; big table for the Lord’s Supper; a big yard: a big world in which to live and serve. Plenty of room for everyone, plenty of family for everyone, plenty of work to give everyone’s life meaning. That’s our Father’s house. Welcome home.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Mark 3:33-35.
2 Don’t Censor Me, “It’s a Big, Big, House,” Audio Adrenaline, © 1993, Up in the Mix Music, BMI.