‘Safe as houses’ is the expression I think of hearing these familiar words from John 14 this morning. Words that we usually hear at funerals – when we are seeking the assurance and comfort and promise that our loved one is safe in “our Father’s house”.
And during this pandemic, our houses, our dwelling places, have been promoted as places of safety. If we keep our distance, wash our hands and stay at home – we’re told – we and others in the community will be “as safe as houses” or as close to it as we can be!
I don’t know if you have put in extra measures at your house. In our house, in addition to washing our hands whenever we get home, we have turned Japanese (taking our shoes off at the door), limiting visitors to two (and not that often!), shopping for groceries just once a week and – there’s been inconsistency here – trying not to touch the mail immediately – apparently corona virus can only survive on online shopping for a few hours, but on water and gas bills for up to weeks!
What challenges me about our reading from John this morning, however, is that Jesus is not actually speaking so much about the physical security of houses or rooms or mansions (if you remember the King James). The word we translate rooms or mansions, monai, is a noun form of the verb, meno, meaning ‘abiding’ or ‘dwelling with’. The NRSV translates it rather well, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…” The promise Jesus is making is less about an actual place or an eventual location and more about a relationship, an ongoing relationship; a relationship that begins in life and continues through death and into eternity. As Jesus says in verse 23 – the only other time this same word is used in the New Testament – “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
You probably know that while we during this Covid 19 emergency have had lock downs and stay at home orders, the equivalent in the United States is called ‘shelter in place’, and I did not like the sound of that when I first heard it. It sounded much more vulnerable – like a bushfire or a tornado was just about to sweep through – that we should seek any port in a storm – rather than the security of a safe house – a safe house!
But I think what Jesus is saying to his disciples – and to us – comes closer to the concept of ‘shelter in place’ than ‘stay at home’. We are called to find shelter with Jesus, to shelter wherever Jesus is, even though that might take us into difficult, uncertain, painful, perhaps much less safe, places.
And the disciples don’t like it any more than we do! “What are you talking about? How do we get to where you are going?” Thomas asks. Or “This is not enough to go on,” from Phillip, “Show us the Father. Then we will be satisfied!” We would much rather have a life of faith that comes with full instructions, clear maps, total guarantees, four spiritual laws, twelve steps, ten commandments. And yet all that Jesus gives us is himself – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And the promise that in Jesus – now and forever – we have a place with God, a place to dwell.
Writer Debie Thomas puts it this way:
No, the way isn’t what we thought it was going to be. The way is demanding. The way is precarious. The way takes time. But…. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” Jesus tells his sorrowing disciples. Meaning: God is roomy. God is generous. God is hospitable. God can handle your doubts, your fears, and your questions. And God’s offer of belonging extends far beyond the confines of this mortal life. “I go and prepare a place for you,” Jesus says as he stands in the shadow of his own cross. You have a place with me. You have a place with God. You have a place.
There’s a second part to this message that we have a place with God, that in God’s house there are many dwelling places, that our God is roomy! (I love that expression!), and that is that we are now called, as people who have found a dwelling place in God – who have experienced God’s roominess! – to extend this shelter to others.
As our New Testament reading from 1 Peter says:
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
And earlier… “like living stones [then] let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”
We are called, not to stay in our safe houses, but to shelter in Jesus’ place – wherever we find him – and in doing so – to become a building block in God’s spiritual house. We are living stones, living stones of a living house.
It is interesting that this Covid 19 emergency has driven us out of our bricks and mortar spiritual house. Not entirely because that is where I and James and Simon and Aron are this morning, but it has mostly driven us out of our bricks and mortar spiritual house. It is a clear reminder for us, that the church is not this place, that the church is not bricks and mortar; that the church is living stones. Living stones that together, as we sang in our first hymn, “Build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live…” In our actions, our words, our giving and forgiving, our love, our lives that reflects the life of Jesus, we build God’s house.
It’s also interesting that with one stroke of a pen – or public health order – pretty much all our church rosters, responsibilities, jobs were done away with. Again, not entirely, but again a reminder that we shouldn’t reduce our work as the people of God, as living stones, to maintaining an institution. Of course, there are still tasks it is good to have done! (Thankyou to Linley and John Higgins who are still keeping attendance, and James and Roz and Matt who are playing and recording and mixing music, and the gardeners who cut a path through the underbrush to the front door!) but its quite lovely that our tech team are pretty much all called hosts or co-hosts, and perhaps that is how we should all think of ourselves – as hosts and co-hosts in God’s living house.
Jesus, too, reminds us that we continue the work of extending the shelter of God to others. Verse 2, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Do you find that verse extraordinary? I do! In fact, I can remember how extraordinary I thought these words were, forty or so years ago (I must have been nine or ten) when I heard my father preach. We were living in Bandung in Indonesia at the time and I was phasing in and out as we all do in sermons, but I have an extra excuse – that the sermon was being translated line or two at a time from English to Indonesian, and suddenly my father said, “Jesus tells us that we will do even more extraordinary things than he did! Do you believe this? Is here right in the Bible!” and I watched my reaction to that statement translate with the translation onto the gathering around me.
I don’t think I would preach the same sermon my father did. I think the key to what Jesus is saying is not “bigger miracles” as scholar William Loader puts it, but a “bigger mission”. I think the fact I was hearing those words preached in a church in Indonesia, two thousand years later, on the other side of the world, is a fulfilment of what Jesus is saying here, that the living church will keep doing the works that he did – that the rock of faith and vault of grace will keep being extended – that the work of this holy construction company goes on.
If I can finish on an etymological note, apparently ‘safe as houses’ didn’t originally mean what it has come to mean today. Some say it originates from the Victorian Railway Mania bubble of the 1840s when housing would have been a safer investment, but ‘safe’ at the time also communicated ‘certainty’ or ‘obviousness’. Something conspicuous was needed to communicate certainty or obviousness and so we speak not of ‘a house’, but ‘houses’ – i.e. ‘as plain as the nose on your face’ and ‘as safe as houses’.
And as certain and as trust-worthy as what Jesus says to us – “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…” The welcome of God, in life and in death, to us and through us to others is as safe as houses. Amen.
Before we pray this morning, we are going to watch a video from Baptist World Aid and I want to ask you to go and get a piece of paper now and to draw on it a very simple house – and to write – as you watch the video – one word on that sheet of paper – one word that is your prayer about what you want to see built in this world – your commitment to the kind of shelter you want to offer others.