“I go and prepare a place for you . . . that where I am, there you may be also.” These are the words of comfort that we often hear at memorial services, an assurance of our loved one’s safety and rest in God’s eternal home. We hear these words and think “heaven.” But Paul Escamilla suggests that Jesus has another end in mind: he is cultivating a present-day spiritual orientation, one he articulates as the discourse (in John) unfolds. The “place” he goes to prepare is, in part, right here among his followers. It is the beloved community on earth, in real time, in which fear is dispelled (14:1, 27), great works are accomplished (14:12), the Spirit is . . . “a very present help” (14:26), love is foundational (15:12, 17), and joy is complete (15:11).
And then Jesus tells his followers that they know how to get to this place—the beloved community. If they have seen him, then they have seen God. If they have seen Jesus’ work, then they have seen God’s work. And they do know this! Because if they have been part of the work that Jesus has done, then they have been part of the work that God is doing. His Spirit will remain with them so that they may live in the same relationship with God and with one another as they have with Jesus.
The greater Christian Church in our part of the world is asking the same questions that Thomas and Philip asked. What does it mean to be the church? Why doesn’t what we used to do work anymore? Maybe it still works for those of us gathered this morning, but it doesn’t even seem to be of interest to the 75% of our neighbors who claim no faith tradition. None! You can almost hear congregations shouting, “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going. Show us the way!”
But these things still matter: dispelling fear; doing important, even great work; being loved; and experiencing joy. Those things do matter to our neighbors. If you have seen Jesus, then you have seen someone who knows how to build a community around these values. If you have seen Jesus then you know these values reveal God’s character.
The answer is Jesus. If we want to move toward God, the answer is Jesus. If we want to know how to live, the answer is Jesus. We watch Jesus and we study Jesus to know how to live as God’s people. Jesus moved into God’s heart and then back among his disciples. He tells them they know how to do this! Now the real challenge to the disciples, and to us, is to live our lives in such a way, as imitators of Jesus, that people can see God through us. How do we live our lives in the beloved community, this church, in such a way that people have their fears dispelled, can engage in important, even great work, can know themselves to be loved, and experience real joy? If we are doing anything less, or anything else, we are not fulfilling our mission. It is our job to reveal God’s uncompromising love to each other and to our neighbors. That is why we exist.
The walls of our church become permeable when we understand our mission. Permeable: A substance, substrate, membrane or material that absorbs or allows the passage of water. Think of the living water that sustains all of creation, as it’s described in the 47th chapter of Ezekiel. The water of life flows from the altar in the temple, out through the land becoming at first a stream and then a mighty river that teems with abundant life and supports the trees that provide fruit and healing that grow along its banks.
The church is permeable. The water of life flows through its walls into the world.
We come in to learn and grow in our faith, we go out to live what we’ve learned.
We go out to learn about the world, we come in to lift our world to God in prayer.
We come in to rest and be renewed, we go out to do God’s work.
We give our work to God and reap the rewards in joy.
(Take the mike around.)
We come in to be fed and nourished, we go out to feed and nourish the world.
We come in to be loved and accepted, we go out to love and accept others.
And the Holy Spirit grows us and sustains us in being the beloved community.
Thomas and Philip wanted more instruction. They didn’t feel ready to step into the role of spiritual leadership. Most Christians that I know feel the same way, whether they are teenagers in high school or life-long church members. It seems to me that we would think it was crazy to enter a trade union and to always be an apprentice. At some point we would become a journeyman, quite capable of doing the work of our trade. After years of practice, we would become masters and be able to mentor and guide those who are just learning. Before my recent surgery, the young nurse in training tried to start my IV in my hand. She got it started, but the vein rolled and she had to take it out. So her supervisor took over and deftly inserted the IV, but again the vein rolled. The two nurses wrapped my hands in heat packs and called an anesthesiologist who was a master after many years of experience. The nurses watched intently as he slipped the IV in with no trouble.
As Christian disciples, we need to practice our spirituality, hone our prayer practice and life of service, so that we can be windows through which others see and experience God’s love. And as we grow in wisdom from experience, we need to mentor others as masters of spirituality. We don’t need to know a thing about religion, our neighbors have rejected religion as irrelevant and often harmful. But they are constantly seeking spiritual nourishment. They know their spirits are hungry. You have the bread of life. You have the wine of joy and wholeness. If we have been fed, it is our responsibility to share our food. And if we are not finding that here, then we need to stop everything that we’re doing and reorient ourselves to creating the beloved community in which people have their fears dispelled, engage in important, even great work, can know themselves to be loved, and experience real joy. We do not exist for ourselves, but for the world.