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Revd Dr Christopher Armstrong: In here not out there

14 May 2017
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Revd Christopher Armstrong
Acts 7: 55-end, John 14: 1-14

The first verses of today’s Gospel reading are much used at funerals, or used to be in my experience. The reason seemed to me obvious and the clue I long ago had from one of my theology teachers who stated flatly that what Jesus meant by “many dwelling places” or, as we used to say, “many mansions” was quite simply that in his house or home there is “lots of room” i.e. Jesus’s house is big enough for everyone.  A comforting thought at a funeral where even some of those attending may have doubts whether they are living up to their smart funeral clothes.

This is the kind of translation of New Testament Greek that we can all understand and it is because we understand it so well that we like it at funerals. It is good in relation to the departed; obviously. Whoever they are or were, and whatever their lives, God is merciful and is not pushed for space in his heaven. It is good in relation to us, since few of us feel entitled, whatever our rank in society, to an automatic place among God’s elect faithful people.

But plain speaking does not always do justice to the thought of Jesus. Of course we all know that heaven is not a house. We are all dimly aware that if Jesus lives anywhere other than Nazareth or Bethlehem, it must be where he came from. St John’s gospel is definite about this. Jesus comes to us “from the Father”. He is always even when in some sense walking on earth, “apud Patrem”, a useful but vague Latin phrase which even as a school-boy I knew meant “in the house of”.

People like to have a place explicitly reserved for them. I remember causing a small but pleasing revolution in the way the Mothers’ Union of those days laid out their dinners by suggesting that name labels should be put at all the places laid on the table ready for the meal. For each and every lady a place and a name label to show that it was for her.

The home or place of Jesus is with the Father. The ancient Hebrew expression was in the bosom of the Father or “in Abraham’s bosom”, since closeness to God was in a sense a particular prerogative of that particular patriarch.

Jesus in our gospel passage is speaking of the end time when all are gathered in as we know he wished all his friends, all his compatriots, everybody, to be gathered as her brood of chicks is gathered together under her wings by a broody hen.

Jesus in speaking of such mysteries uses a language closer to poetry than to direct speech or plain English (as we say). We know that the place where Jesus is to be found is to be found is not a place such we understand “place”, a defined area, measurable and more or less adequate or challenging to our needs. I have been immensely impressed by recent astrophysical view of the world of what one has to call astro-physics. Such scenes are not comforting or re-assuring. They exceed normal human expectations and dimensions. The dimensions of our universe, let alone our universe as multiplied or extended by further universes, of which there may be many. There is nothing human about this. Hard indeed to believe that there could conceivably be anything like “home” in all that.

The saints of God who were followers of Jesus have always stuck close to their kind, to people such as us; people loved by Jesus Christ using a familiar language of mutual knowledge and common experience. However lofty their achievements in so far as these can be appreciated by people not gifted with extraordinary talents, they have stayed within the context of the daily and the familiar. Abraham Lincoln is credited with the observation that God must love ordinary people because he has made so many of them”; perhaps in all modesty, he should have said, “so many of us.”

Augustine famously wrote that “God has made us for himself; and our hearts are restless until they rest in him”. Given the present context of Jesus’s words at the last supper and on the eve of his death, in the context of sharing food, washing of feet, and the teaching of mutual love, all ritual gestures indicative of intimacy and mutual commitment as between Christ and his friends and disciples, it does seem to me that the word of Jesus cannot really be summed up without reference to all that is totally in contrast with the lofty distances and astronomical grandeurs, as we must describe them, revealed to us in the cosmos as such. Wherever we look and however much, we are inclined to be over awed by the magnitude and scale of the universe as we apprehend it, the last word must always go to intimacy, closeness, inner realization of what we want instinctively to call a “spiritual” kind. This understanding places us with the need to seek and to understand our need of a divine reality which is much more accurately described as “in here” than “out there”, in-dwelling rather than cosmic. Let enjoy the spectacle of cosmic nature in full display but control our perception and interpret it so as to include, never exclude, the gentle love displayed by our Saviour. I have a few lines from one of my favourite poets to help say what I mean:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me –
The simple News that Nature told
With tender Majesty
Her message is committed
To Hands I cannot see –
For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen
Judge tenderly of Me.

(No.441 Everyman’s Poetry: Emily Dickinson)