April 8, 2012

The Way Home

He is risen!  This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.  What a great morning to be together and worshiping our Lord.  This is the morning we celebrate the reason we are here doing this.  I mean, without what we celebrate this morning—the resurrection of Jesus the Christ—we wouldn’t be here.  So if you don’t normally come to church and your wife or mom or even kids made you get out of bed early and dragged you here this morning, don’t be mad at them, be mad a Jesus for getting back up out of the grave.  Pushing this idea just a bit further the resurrection is important beyond churchy stuff: Did any of your parents meet at church?  You should be doubly glad about the resurrection because without it you probably wouldn’t have ever been born.  My own marriage and family are the direct result of the resurrection.  Lisa and I met while working for a church camp.  We would not have met otherwise.  She’s from South Carolina and I’m from Missouri.  I had visited Charleston and Myrtle Beach once apiece, but I didn’t have any plans go back and she hadn’t ever been further west than Clemson.  Ours are not paths that would have crossed apart from the resurrection.  No resurrection, no church.  No church, no church camp.  No church camp, no wedding bells.  No wedding bells, no wonderful boys.  Yes, this is a day worth celebrating!

But, in the midst of our celebrating, let us remember that this is not an easy celebration for many.  In fact, given the message of the resurrection, there are those for whom it is downright hard.  And I’m not talking simply about people who are committed to religions other than Christianity (although it certainly is hard for them).  I’m talking about people who have been raised in a culture which is ostensibly Christian but thoroughly compromised by American cultural values (which are not necessarily Christian values).  I mean, the very message of the resurrection is that while we needed saving, God knew we couldn’t save ourselves.  Our power was insufficient and so God acted on our behalf.  Well, if we’re honest, most of us don’t like having someone act on our behalf.  We want to do it on our own.  We want to be seen as good enough, strong enough, smart enough, rich enough, pretty enough…enough enough.  Don’t raise your hands for this, but how many of you have refused someone else’s help in order to do something on your own even though it was going to take you twice as long and you might not have even succeeded because you didn’t want to risk being seen as even the slightest bit incapable?  Well, the very message of the resurrection is in part just that: you’re incapable.  You don’t have what it takes. But God does and He loves us enough to help. We just have to be able and willing to both recognize when our own power isn’t sufficient and accept a generous offer of help from someone who’s is.  And by the way, if we’re not willing to do that (usually because of pride) in other areas of life, by what logic do we think we’re really going to do it in this one?

Well, in order to prepare us for the difficulties of this exciting day, for the last four weeks we have been taking a look together at some of the hard sayings of Jesus.  While it would have been really nice if Jesus had stuck to easy-to-swallow platitudes like “for God so loved the world,” He didn’t.  He said a whole bunch of things that are just hard to deal with.  As we talked about Friday night, they are hard in all kinds of ways.  Some of them are hard to understand, like Jesus’ calls to hate our family (which really meant that our devotion to Him should dwarf our devotion to our family).  Some are hard to believe given our cultural situations, like Jesus’ assurance that His followers are going to experience persecution and hard times.  Some are hard at a personal level, like when Cody set us face to face last week with the fact that our natural inclination to puff up our résumés so people will think about us in the way we want them to think doesn’t accomplish anything with Jesus.  And as we saw this past Friday night, some are hard emotionally as we come to grips with the all-surpassing power of the cross to wash away the sins of anybody who grasps Jesus’ identity and comes to Him in humility.

This morning we are going to look at one last hard saying of Jesus.  The difficulty of what Jesus says in this last passage draws from all the other kinds of difficulties we’ve encountered so far and even adds one to the tab for good measure.  In addition to all the others this statement is hard culturally.  Taking up the position Jesus lays out in our passage this morning will likely be one of the things that garners us the persecution we talked about a couple of weeks ago.  Here’s why: we live in a pluralistic culture.  Let me explain what that means.  We live in a culture in which if you want it, it’s available.  You can define “it” there as broadly as you’d like.  Food?  Sure.  Entertainment?  Definitely.  Physical pleasure?  Absolutely.  Worship?  With impunity.  In our culture, the only thing that doesn’t go—and this is what really marks a pluralistic society—is intolerance.  And intolerance is defined as projecting a condemningly judgmental attitude on the personal preferences of other people.  If it’s personal to them, you need not stick your nose in it.  And if you do, well then the government will just have to pass a law to tell you you can’t.  I’m not saying any of this by way of judgment, merely observation.

This is why when we read stories of Jesus saying things like we are here in a minute, we’re just asking for trouble.  Yet read we must because this is one of those passages that communicates to us one of the fundamental parts of Jesus’ identity.  The story comes from the Gospel of John, a few verses before Jesus’ guarantee of persecution.  It takes place not long after Jesus and the twelve had finished sharing their last supper together.  The tone of the evening which had undoubtedly begun with a celebratory mood had taken a decided turn for the somber when Jesus started talking about being betrayed.  Then to make matters worse, He started talking about them running out on Him in His hour of greatest need.  He even went so far as to predict that Peter—the de facto leader of the group—would actually deny Him.

After all this crazy talk, Jesus had the disciples’ attention.  He had finally said enough weird stuff to get them really interested in trying to make sense of it.  And there seemed to be this urgency about Him that said they didn’t have a lot more time to get their questions in.  So they began to ask.  And as they did, Jesus gave them some instructions and encouragement to get along when He wasn’t there anymore, because He wasn’t always going to be there like He had been. With all of this in mind, grab your Bibles and open them to John 14.  I’ll start reading at the beginning of the chapter.

“Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.”  Jesus starts by laying some groundwork.  Just like they trusted in God, they needed to trust in Him.  As He would make clear a bit later, He and the Father are the same person.  From here He starts talking more about His leaving and the importance of it.  Stay with me in v. 2: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.”  Let me stop just a minute here and explain something.  Jesus was not the only rabbi in his day to have disciples.  There were lots of teachers doing the same thing He was doing: traveling around teaching some religious philosophy and attracting followers whom they sought to shape in their image.  This was a common thing.  And in the culture of this discipleship, disciples went everywhere with their masters.  Their one, consuming goal in life was to be exactly like their master in every way, from how he ate to how he spoke to how he dressed even to how he used the latrine.  For Jesus, then, to have even started talking about going somewhere they couldn’t immediately go with Him was really unsettling for the disciples.  His assurance that He was going to prepare a place for them to eventually join Him at some point in the future would have been most welcomed news, but it didn’t do all that much to ease their minds this evening.

I should also note a translation detail here.  If you are using a KJV Bible this morning, where I read the word “rooms,” you see the word “mansions.”  Indeed, many of you probably first heard this passage quoted using the word “mansions.”  You may have had Sunday school lessons or heard sermons in the past about the mansions we have waiting for us in heaven.  There are popular hymns that talk about our mansions in the sky.  The idea that we have a lavish place waiting for us when we get to heaven is enshrined in our culture thanks to the King James Version of the passage.  The word “mansion” itself appeared because a guy named William Tyndale, one of the first people to translate the Bible into English, used it when doing his 1572 translation of the Bible from Latin.  The relevant Latin word is mansio.  Sounds like mansion.  The problem is that the word mansio in Latin and even mansion in 1572 English, while both referring to a dwelling place of some kind, didn’t make any reference to the size of the place as the word does now.  Word meanings sometimes change over the course of half a millennia.  Surprise.  Unfortunately…or maybe it’s actually fortunate…the idea that we can all look forward to living in something like the Biltmore Estate when we finally enter the kingdom of God is not biblical.  The word many modern translations use, “rooms,” is a much more accurate translation.  The point is that we who are among Jesus’ followers are going to have a room in His house.  I must confess: that’s good enough for me.  If being shorted a few square feet of living space in heaven is enough to keep you from the kingdom, you’ve got bigger problems than square footage keeping you from the kingdom.

Well, after Jesus says this, Thomas, who’s kind of known for being the skeptic among the group, plays his part.  Jesus has been talking about this place He’s going and how they’re going to get to be with Him some day, and then tells them that they already know how to get there.  This is too much for Thomas who, like most of us probably would have, thought Jesus was talking about a physical place.  But Jesus hadn’t ever said where this place was.  How were they supposed to know how to get there if He hadn’t even told them where it was?  At the risk of looking like he had dozed off and missed something important, Thomas asks in v. 5: “Lord we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  This would be like my telling you about this great party you’re invited to.  It’s going to be a lot of fun and everyone who’s anyone is going to be there.  I can’t wait to see you there.  Only I never actually bothered to tell you where it was.  You’d stop me quickly and ask the same question Thomas did.  On the other hand, this is another one of those places where, with the crystal clear hindsight of history, along with everything Jesus had tried to teach them thus far, it seems like Jesus would have been beating His head against a wall in frustration over the disciples’ consistent inability to understand Him.  Yet, Jesus is much more patient than I am and so without the slightest bit of sarcasm or frustration, Jesus looks at Thomas and drops a bomb on not only him, but the whole world: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, that’s a remarkable statement.  But, in the culture into which Jesus spoke it, it sounded even more remarkable.  You see, the culture of Jews in Jesus’ day was defined by what it for us the Old Testament along with a variety of other more popular-level works that purported to explain it or otherwise offer interpretations of it.  Because of this, Jesus could make subtle references to the Old Testament and these other works that the disciples would have been able to pick up on (even if they didn’t always understand the references) much like if I started talking about cutting down cherry trees honestly, most of you would immediately think about who?  George Washington and the virtue of honesty.  Whereas folks in other cultures or other times wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about.  Well, most of us don’t know our Old Testament nearly as well as they did and we haven’t even heard of any of the popular stuff.  So let me fill in some gaps.

When Jesus talked about His Father’s house in v. 2, He was making an oblique reference to the Temple.  When He started talking about them joining Him there, He was referring to their joining Him in the Temple.  Well, the Temple—which is where the Jews believed a person could access the presence of God—wasn’t a place that was open to just anyone.  It had walls and clearly marked entrances.  There were places into which pretty much everyone could go in the outer court of the Temple, but in order to gain access to the Temple building itself, there were requirements that had to be met.  The interested worshiper had to be faithfully observing all 613 laws of Moses—and if he wasn’t, he made a stop by the altar in the outer court and made the proper sacrifices before going any further.  Once those were made, though, there were still more sacrifices that had to be offered to get into the Temple building itself.  Even if all of this was done, however, there were still depths of the Temple, such as the Most Holy Place, which were restricted.  These were only available at certain times and for certain people who gone through an exhausting series of mental, physical, and spiritual preparations.  Just to make the point clearer for anyone who had made it into the inner sanctuary of the Temple, there was an enormous veil separating this place from the Most Holy Place that was woven so thick as to be able to hold up against four horses pulling at it with all their might in different directions.  This was a physical reminder that unless you had met all the requirements, you weren’t good enough to get to God.

There’s one more image that’s important here which would have rang in the minds of the disciples alongside the Temple imagery.  It would have struck a chord of longing in their hearts because one of the chief desires of many then was to be close to family, to have a place at home.  In the culture of the day, when a man got married, he didn’t just go out and get a house somewhere for himself and his new bride.  Instead, he would usually add on rooms to his father’s house.  They would have created enough space for his new family and not much else, but they would have remained close to his source of support and strength.  As his brothers got married they too would have built onto their father’s house.  In the end, the complex would have resembled a villa centered around a common courtyard where the family fellowshipped together.  The compound grew with each bride that was added to the family and there was no upper limit on how large it could become.  In fact, in even more ancient times, whole villages, cities, and tribes developed this way.  But as much as someone from the outside may have wanted to become a part of the family, there was only one way in: through the son.

And so Jesus came along and said, “You know what: All that law and temple stuff was good.  It served its purpose.  It helped people gain some meager access to My Father in the absence of a better system.  But we need a better system.  And so here’s how this is going to work.  I’m going to go to My Father and prepare a place that’s just for you and me.   I’m going to build a room so that we can live there together, so that we can be home.  And when you are connected to My Father’s house, you are going to have perfect access to Him.  You and I will be able to fellowship with Him together and enjoy the sweetness of His presence.  But here’s the thing: I’m the bridegroom.  I’m the Father’s Son.  So the only way you can access My Father’s house is through Me.  I’m the way.  The truth of the Father is revealed in Me.  I am the life that you’ve been longing for.  I’m the way home.”  Indeed, Jesus is the way home.

When Jesus looked at Thomas, then, and said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” was He being exclusionary?  In a word, yes.  And in an insanely inclusive society, this isn’t a popular message.  This is a hard message.  It’s hard to convince others of.  It’s sometimes even a little hard to believe ourselves.  I mean, what about!…fill in that blank however you need to.  Yes, Jesus was exclusionary here.  Christianity is in a sense a very exclusive religion.  But in comparison to other religions in which in order to gain access to God’s house you have to do these five practices or keep those 613 laws or empty yourself of…yourself or what have you, the path Jesus paved for us is incredibly inclusive: anyone can simply give ownership of their life over to Him and waltz right on in.  That’s it.  Jesus died and rose from the grave in order to make it happen.  And He did.  Jesus is the way home.

Now, I could defend for you that Jesus is right in saying He’s the only way to get to God, and I could talk about how Christianity is right in comparison to all the other religions in the world in this regard, but I’d rather take our few remaining moments to unpack all of this in a more personal way.  If I were a wagering man, I’d figure that probably 90-95% of the folks in this room would identify themselves as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus.  But of that group, probably 60% or better were born and raised in Dinwiddie County.  Let’s speak the truth in love for just a minute.  One of the cultural values that’s really important to a lot of folks in Dinwiddie County is the value of self-sufficiency.  Dinwiddians are great helpers of the people around them, but when it comes to themselves, the goal is to take as little help from other people as is possible.  If there is a job needing to be done and you are even remotely capable of doing it on your own, regardless of the work and time and expense involved (to a point), you do it on your own.  Now at some level, this value is present in a pretty good portion of the global population, but it tends to be more pronounced here.  And for most things in life, this is okay, even a positive good.  But when it comes this area of life—our attempts to gain access to the household of God—it’s a definite liability.  It’s a liability because the plain truth is that there simply isn’t any other way to join the household of the Father than Jesus.  I don’t say that to sound judgmental or belittling of your genuine efforts to do good and be good, but apart from absolute surrender of yourself to Jesus, you won’t ever be enough.  You aren’t enough on your own.  Look, I know you want to be home.  There’s a strong longing for home among Dinwiddians—both for ourselves and for other folks who we count as from here.  But in this area, we’re not going to find our way home through any other means.  Jesus is the way home.

Just like in marriage a bride gives over her identity to join with that of her husband such that in the union both of them are more than either of them was apart, when we join ourselves with Christ, we become a part of the family of God.  We leave behind what was in our past and we look forward to what’s ahead of us.  And when that happens, we arrive home.  But Jesus is the only way we’re going to get there.  Until we divest ourselves of all of our plans and hopes and dreams and aspirations and efforts, all the things we rely on in order to make ourselves fit for the kingdom—coming to church, giving, praying, helping people, singing songs—are merely a religious show put on for the people around us.  More than that, all the things we rely on to help us through this life—our money, our abilities, our possessions, our jobs, our cars, our retirement accounts—are impediments to our ability to enter the Father’s house, to go home.  They serve the same function as the Law of Moses did at the time of Jesus.  They are hoops we carefully define and expect the people around us to jump through in order to be counted as enough.  But then we get close to home—we reach the outer court or even the inner sanctuary—and find a huge curtain separating us from the presence of God because when we’re relying on that kind of stuff there’s always one more requirement we didn’t quite fill.  We want to go home, but we’re on the wrong road.  Jesus is the way home.

So if you’ve found yourself lately running from one expectation to the next in a desperate attempt to make yourself good enough for God because the thought of giving over control of your life to someone else goes against everything in you there are two things you need to know.  First, you’re not alone.  You and everybody else around you are running around trying variations on the same themes to be good enough for heaven.  The idea that good people go to heaven, as popular as it is, should be absolutely terrifying to us when we give it more than half a second’s worth of thought.  What on earth counts as good enough?  When instead, though, we take up this hard saying of Jesus and make it our own, we can experience the sweet freedom of grace.  We can finally rest in the arms of our resurrected Savior and be at home in the presence of God.  Second, it’s time to give up.  It’s time to acknowledge that you can’t do it on your own.  You can’t provide for yourself adequately.  You can’t love the people around you enough to shape their lives in positive directions.  You can’t by force of will make yourself good enough for God’s house.  You aren’t enough on your own.  You’re traveling on the wrong road.  It’s time to embrace the truth and take the way that leads to life.  Jesus is the way home.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  And if we ever want to get to the Father, He’s the way it’s going to happen.  Not through good works.  Not through herculean effort.  Not through dressing right or voting right or working right or saving right or spending right.  Only through Jesus.  Jesus is the way home.