Jesus and the Promise of Home

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:9-12

The Comforts of Home

Every afternoon, when I am worn out by the day, I look forward to the moment when I can walk out to my car and silently comfort myself with the thought, “Let’s go home.” And in my life, home has been a moving target.

Like many people in a modern society, the story of my life frequently contains the phrase, “And then I moved.” When I was very young, we moved twice to get a better home in a better school district. And then we moved across the country because my dad worked for IBM, which stands, I’m told, for “I’ve been moved.” When I was in graduate school, IBM moved my parents overseas and I lived the kind of unsettled life that many young adults do, hopping from place to place. Then when Sheri and I married, I started serving churches in the United Methodist connection. We United Methodists describe our ministry system as an “itinerancy,” a word that should tell you about the life of a Methodist preacher. Sooner or later, the bishop says it’s time to move on. When I joined the Army, the Chief of Chaplains took over the role of deciding where I should live. The Army calls it a Permanent Change of Station. Let me tell you, there is nothing permanent about it. All-in-all, I think I’ve moved 30 times, and that doesn’t count dorm rooms in college. And I’m still not sure that the place where I’m living now is my forever home. After a lifetime of moving, I’m not even sure what a forever home would feel like. But it sounds nice.

Now a home is different than a house. Whenever you move from one place to another, it takes a while for a house to feel like a home.

Your home is not only a place to lay your head at night, it’s where you put on comfortable clothes, sit in your favorite chair and relax your mind. A home comforts you. A home makes you feel like you belong. A home makes you feel secure. And a home is not just a place; it’s the people you share it with. A home is where you are loved. A home is where you can be yourself. A home is filled with memories.

So even though I’ve had many houses, in a sense I’ve only had two homes: the home I had with my parents and sister, and then the home my wife and I made together with our children.

God Promised Abraham a Home

My world is very different from that of the people we find in the Bible, but I wonder if there aren’t some points of similarity as well. The people we encounter in the Book of Genesis, for example, were also on the move. Abraham and his family lived in tents and were constantly moving from place to place on the outskirts of civilization. And do you remember why they were living in tents? Because God told them to leave their father’s house and to go the place he would show them.

The story of Israel begins when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home in Haran and walk south. And God made them a promise that basically boils down to this: land and progeny. They would have a place to call home and a people to call their family.

Someone has said, quite accurately, that the whole story of the Old Testament is about the land and the family that lived on it. How the family gets the land. How it is supposed to live on the land. How it can keep the land. And how to get back to the land when they find themselves in exile.

Jesus is the Home God Promised

At first hearing, the Gospel of John doesn’t sound very much like that story of a family hoping to live forever on its ancestral homeland, but listen again. At least part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is in John 15 is about finding a place to live. But to hear it, we need to deal with a challenge in translation.

If you’ve read this passage in your own Bible, you might find that in John 15:9 Jesus says, “Remain in my love.” Or your translation might say, “Abide in my love.” There’s the challenge. The word John uses has a range of meanings. It can mean to remain in one place. We might translate the word, then, as “stay,” as when I tell my dog Tobey to “Stay” – usually with no effect. It can mean to remain connected with something, as in Jesus’ image of the branches remaining connected to the vine from which they draw their nourishment. And it can mean to live somewhere, as in a home. English language Bibles will often translate that sense of the word as “abide” or “dwell”, both of which sound rather old-fashioned. I don’t think I’ve ever said to someone, “I abide in Nashville. Where do you dwell?”

As we frequently find in John, Jesus’ words have multiple layers of meaning and he says them in different ways at different points of the story. And when Jesus calls us to abide in his love, his intent here encompasses the whole range of meaning. Don’t leave. Stay connected. Live your lives in me.

Jesus, then, is essentially telling us that he is our heart’s true home.  Live in me, Jesus says. Make your home in me, and I will live in you.

In making this promise, Jesus is saying that the whole history of Israel finds its fulfillment in him. “You know that homeland that the Lord promised you? It’s not the dirt you’re standing on. It’s me. I am your home. Dwell in me. Abide in me.” The promised land is no longer a “where,” but a “who.” It’s not a place, but a person. Jesus is the true homeland that God promised to Abraham.

Communion and Community

So how did John experience Jesus as his heart’s true home, and how might he show us the way to share that experience?

The first place to look, John says, is at the communion table. John 6 is the great chapter on Jesus, the bread of life. As John brings that chapter to a close, Jesus declares, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56) This is the first occurrence of the phrase “Abide in me” in John’s gospel. If you want to live in Christ, dine at his table. That seems simple enough.

But of course, we don’t eat there by ourselves. We come to the table as part of a community. To live in Christ is to live in community with our brothers and sisters.

Our text this morning is part of a long discourse that runs from John 14 to John 17, and which begins with the great declaration, “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2) The whole speech, then, pertains to dwelling in the Father’s house. To put it another way, Jesus says, “Come on in and spend the night. We have plenty of room and I’ve already made up the bed for you.”

If you are reading from the King James version, the word “mansions” is misleading. Jesus is not promising me a fancy house in heaven to live in by myself when I die, but a place in the Father’s one house, today and forever.

That there are many places in God’s house is good news, because that means there’s a place for me and a place for you. But it also means that I must share the house with everyone else who belongs there.

Have you ever shared a house with a group of young single men? It’s not always very pretty. You share the same kitchen and bathrooms and laundry facilities. Occasionally, you need to clean the place up, cut the grass and take out the trash.

Living together can be messy, but even in the mess of church life our Lord is present. His house still has room.

Commandments and Contemplation

And if we experience living in Christ through communion and community, let me throw in a couple of more “C” words: commandments and contemplation.

In John 15:10, Jesus associates keeping his commandments with abiding in him. In one sense, this leads us back to community. The only explicit commandment Jesus gives is that we should love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12). Obedience to his commandment is clearly part of what Jesus meant by abiding in him.

In another sense, though, his commandments are everything Jesus said. In John 12, Jesus says:

For I did not speak on My own, but the Father who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore, the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me. John 12:49-50

Jesus’s words are God’s commandments, and his words are life. Commandments, then, are not just rules. Not even in the Old Testament. The commandments are part of a living relationship between God and his people. In Psalm 19, the Psalmist praises God for his commandments that refresh the soul, give joy to the heart and give light to the eyes. John finds that same experience in telling the story of Jesus. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

I experience this aspect of abiding in Jesus in several ways: in the church year, with its festivals and seasons, where we live with Jesus through the seasons of his life. In the lectionary, where we rehearse the story of Jesus year after year. In prayerful study and meditation on the gospels, where Jesus’ life is revealed to us.

In fact, Jesus’ whole life was about coming to dwell with us. Before John tells us that we should abide in Jesus, he tells us that Jesus came to abide with us. The Gospel of John begins by telling us that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14) This word for dwelling is slightly different, here, and refers to a tent. It’s the same language that the Old Testament uses of the tent where God met the Israelites in the wilderness. There, “the cloud [of God’s presence] covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:34)

Seeing the Father’s glory in Jesus the Son takes a different kind of seeing, and I can’t tell you how to see it. But every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory and it just overwhelms me. Sometimes, at this table, I see what the angels and archangels and the whole host of heaven see and I just want to fall on my face. I want to melt away. This, too, is part of what it means to abide in Christ, to know the glory of the one in whose presence we live, and who lives in us. That’s what I mean by contemplation; it’s the way of seeing Jesus for who he really is, enthroned at the right hand of God the Father, before whom every power in heaven and earth bends the knee.

Constancy

Communion, community, commandments, contemplation. And finally, constancy or faithful allegiance. This returns us to the first two meanings of “abide” – to stay, or to remain connected. In John 16:1, Jesus tells us, “All this I have told you so that you will not fall away.” Earlier in the gospel, when several of his disciples turned away, Jesus asked those who remained, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, as I pray we do, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Make your home in me, and I will make my home in you. Jesus offers us a home we can taste in bread and wine and touch in the hands of our brothers and sisters. It is a home we can experience by the power of the Holy Spirit in the story of Jesus, the life of the church and the path of faithful living he has prepared for us. It’s not just a home waiting for us at the end of the age, and it’s not just a home we visit on Sundays. For those with eyes to see, Jesus is our true home – more welcoming, more secure, more filled with love, more real and more permanent than any house in which we have ever lived. And now that we’re all home together, let’s get ready for dinner.