Saturday, April 12, 2008

God's House

Acts 7.55-60
1 Peter 2.2-10
John 14.1-14

Jesus had warned that his followers would have to carry their own crosses in order to follow him. And now this is confirmed by the first Christian martyrdom. Stephen is stoned by a lynch mob of people enraged first by his preaching about the Temple, that God does not make his special home in a place built by human hands, and then by his uncompromising assertion that the people of Israel took wrong turns throughout their history before killing the prophets and then, finally, the Messiah. The fact that Stephen claims to have seen Jesus standing at God's righthand, affirming that his version of history is right, is the final straw for the furious crowd.


Stephen not only imitates his Lord in the manner of his death but also in his forgiving attitude and in his apparent readiness to let go of life to be with God. This is the kind of thing which, with hindsight, Jesus' friends saw that he must have been warning them about when he talked about thieves coming to attack the sheepfold. And Stephen was to be the first martyr of many. Even Christians who were not killed often went through other ordeals, as Paul so vividly describes in his second letter to the church at Corinth. Like the early Methodist preachers they were routinely imprisoned, beaten, ridiculed and mobbed. We might think that Stephen's message was a bit provocative, but his death serves as an encouragement to be faithful and an example of endurance to the end.

The Jewish people believed that God is everywhere, but they saw heaven as his throne and the Temple as his footstool, a place where people could especially meet God and discover his will. Stephen alludes to this in his sermon, and the theme is picked up by the writer of 1 Peter. Although the first Christians had spent much of their time in the Temple, Jesus had described his own body as the Temple of God and Christians quickly developed this teaching into the idea that the Church, as the continuing body of Christ on earth, is the place where all nations can come to meet God and discover his will for them. They also developed the parallel idea that each Christian's body is God's dwelling place or Temple, because of Jesus' promise that his Spirit would be within them.

The writer of 1 Peter develops these ideas. Jesus is the cornerstone of the new Temple that is being realised in the Church. He is a cornerstone that many people, like the persecutors of Stephen, have rejected. But those who recognise the true significance of Jesus are allowing themselves to become part of God's living interface with human beings. The Church is not just a community where individual Christians can come to develop their own personal spirituality, it is supposed to be a place where all people can be enabled to have a special encounter with God. And that is an extraordinary responsibility for Christians to carry. We are a royal priesthood - God's representatives in the places where we live and worship, and to the people we meet.

John's Gospel takes the idea of the Temple as God's dwelling place and plays with it in even more creative ways. During his earthly ministry Jesus had described the Jerusalem Temple itself as his Father's house, and John's Gospel faithfully reports this, but in today's Gospel reading his Father's house is definitely not one that is built of human hands. In the first instance Jesus appears to be talking about Heaven, but the many dwelling places which he goes on to refer to need not necessarily conjure up a vision of a stately mansion or a crowded city. It could just as easily be a reference to God's many dwelling places on earth - within the heart of each believer.

Jesus promises that he is going to his death so that he can prepare a place for his disciples to be with him, and with the firm intention of coming back again and taking them to be with him in that place. But, if as John also says, the Spirit of the risen Jesus is going to dwell within believers after his resurrection, the place to which he is going to take them could be a place within themselves. It could be that Jesus is challenging them to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery that will end with the realisation that they are already dwelling with God here and now. This is because no one is able to come to the place where they can truly meet and dwell with God except by allowing the Spirit of Jesus to live within them. Another way of putting it is to say that when we accept Jesus into our lives we will meet God in a new and far more complete way than would ever be possible otherwise.

The phrase, 'No one comes to the Father except through me' has caused huge controversy because it can be taken to imply that other religions and spiritual paths do not reveal anything about God at all. But this is surely to overstate the case because such a radical interpretation is only possible if we ignore the context of these words. Jesus is talking about the kind of pure and complete meeting with God which contemporary Jewish people thought was only possible in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. In so far as other faiths believe they can offer such a pure encounter with God - for instance, in the pages of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam - Christians believe that such claims are wrong. Jesus is unique in his ability to bring us directly into the presence of God, or to reveal the mind of God to us. But that is not the same thing as saying that other religions are entirely false and cannot help us to understand God better. It is not an exclusive claim to all truth, just a claim that the final truth can only be known if we follow the way of Jesus.

Interestingly, the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sachs, chose to use Jesus' image of a house with many rooms or dwelling places to describe his own vision of God and the relationship between the different world faiths. His view is that each faith has its own room or dwelling place within the whole, but we can meet one another in the shared spaces in God's house - the corridors, dining rooms and so on. In other words, each faith has its own distinctive insights and understanding of God, but we also have much that we share in common.

If this is a valid way of interpreting Jesus' words then, intriguingly, Christians would probably want to go a little further and argue, from this passage in John's Gospel, that the followers of other faiths are actually meeting God in Jesus, even when they do not realise it. This could either be because the Spirit of Jesus is the inspiration behind all true reflection on the nature and will of God, or because Jesus himself is the shared space - the corridors, or the glue even - which brings and holds the different faiths together. Could this be what Jesus meant when he called himself The Way, the Truth and the Life?

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