Vicar's Sermon - All Souls Sunday
Jesus said ‘In my Father’s House there are many dwelling places’.
I have read those words at any number of services down the years but the other week I was shown a picture of one of these ‘dwelling places’ mentioned by Jesus. My mental picture of what Jesus was talking about has always been of a great mansion, a place filled with room for all of His people. Something akin to a Georgian Country House or Spa: but, of course, Jesus lived in a different culture and a different time so my imaginings possibly say more about me than they do about Him. I wonder what picture comes into your mind when you hear the words? The old translation of the phrase ‘many dwelling places’ was indeed ‘many mansions’ – which perhaps suggests a picture of some form of ‘gated community’ where every one of Jesus’ followers lives in Holy isolation from the others in a whopping great house. The translation ‘many rooms’ at least puts us all in the same place as one another – whether we want to be or not. But what is Jesus talking about?
Apparently a particular Greek word is used in the New Testament for these ‘dwelling places’ or ‘rooms’ which takes us away from the idea of a great house out into the desert places of the Middle East. Imagine for a moment a dry, arid landscape with travellers journeying together along sandy roads all those years ago riding on horses, donkeys or camels. Dotted along the main routes there are ‘monnai’: that’s the Greek word used here in John’s Gospel. These monnai are staging posts, ancient motorway service stations…places that are given to travellers to refuel, to rest, to pause before moving on. In the desert they are a few tents, gathered around a well, under the shade of a palm tree or two.
In my Father’s House there are many ‘staging places’, monnai, many places where you can gain refreshment on your journey into God’s company. ‘I go to prepare a place for you’, says Jesus. Back on the journey out in the desert the custom was for a group of travellers to send someone on ahead of them to prepare for their arrival– the formal word for this person was a ‘dragoman’. The dragoman would have to know exactly the route to the next staging post. He would go on alone, ahead of the travellers. He would make all things ready for their comfort and then, importantly, he would return to them on the journey to bring them safely to the staging post.
Jesus, in our bible passage tells his disciples that he is going to go on ahead of them to prepare a place for them. He also says that he will return to collect them so that ‘where I am, you may be also.’ ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’ he assures them.
Hang on, say his disciples, ‘we don’t know the way. Or at least we are not confident of the route we should take.’ ‘I am the way’ says Jesus. Again, in the Middle East, if you ask for directions you may well be given instructions to turn left or turn right…but you may equally come across someone who says ‘follow me: I am the way’: Jesus’ statement is an invitation to us all to stay close to Him. ‘Stick with me’, he says ‘and I will lead you to your destination, I will lead you to a place of refreshment and rest.’
Well, so much for the background to our passage. So far, so interesting but what is Jesus saying to us tonight, most of us here in church gathered to remember someone precious to us who has died in the last year or so?
It is more than possible to read these verses as referring us all to our ultimate journey into the presence of God. I have no doubt that when they are read at a funeral service that is what we hear: Jesus promises to bring us home, Jesus gives us an assurance that there is a place for us in God’s presence – a place of safety and welcome ‘in our Father’s house’. This is true. At every Christian funeral service we commend our loved ones to God’s safe keeping and I am convinced that He holds us all, safe and secure, in His embrace.
But the words as spoken in John’s gospel are addressed to Jesus’ disciples on the night before he is to die. The disciples are understandably anxious and fearful: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ he says, ‘neither let them be afraid. Believe in God, believe also in me’.
As Jesus contemplates the next stage of His own life journey, knowing full well that he is to die, he invites his closest followers to stay faithful, to stay true. ‘Just come with me one step at a time’ he seems to say. ‘Trust me’. He will indeed leave them for a while, but, like the dragoman on the journey, he goes in order to return, to bring reassurance. The disciples will feel his loss. They will indeed be fearful without him, but he will make the journey into death itself in order that they need not fear it themselves.
Those of us who have been bereaved know only too well the sense of fear and anxiety that engulfed the disciples all those years ago. Fear can paralyse us. It can rob us of any faith we once might have had in the goodness of God. This bible passage is for you. It is a gift for your soul – a reminder to stay faithful, to keep pressing on in your own journey of faith and an encouragement from Jesus not to fear but to place our trust in Him. Bereavement can result in the end of faith – it shakes us to the core, it strips us of any sense of purpose and meaning in our lives as the void left by our loved ones aches to be filled - Jesus says ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. I haven’t abandoned you. I can help you on your journey. If you feel that I have left you it is only so that I may return to help you. There will come a time when you will know rest and peace and refreshment. I go to prepare a place for you.’
This place is not just a place in heaven for us. It is spiritual nourishment in this life too. Found by those who hold close to Jesus, the one who says ‘I am the Way’. Here tonight we express our faith in Him again and pray for grace to be faithful in our following of Him. We do so in the words of the affirmation of faith you will find in your order of service, words that express our sense of weakness…but reaffirm our trust in our loving Lord.