John 14:1-14 Easter 5, May 14, 2017
Thirty-seven years ago, around this time of year, a giant hole was dug around 100 feet just west of the house my grandfather built when he was around my age. In that hole, a concrete foundation would be laid that would be the beginning of Lois’ and my new home. I hadn’t done a lot of building by my early 20’s, but I knew enough to know that I had to get that foundation right If we were going to have any hopes of living in that house any length of time. Although I haven’t seen that foundation in all those 37 years, it must be doing what it was intended to do, for the house still stands, and there’s no visible cracks in the drywall, or signs of the building sagging or going out of square.
As I read through the lectionary texts today, two themes came to mind; solid foundations and houses/homes. Although I rather expect cement (or something like it) was around in Bible times, when it talks about solid foundations, it usually refers to rocks or stones. The psalm for today uses exactly that imagery in stating; “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,”. That image is a common one throughout the book of psalms, and even used by our Lord in one of his parables about two builders, with one building on the sandy land, and the other on the rock. One might well imagine they could build a house on the sand, or close to the river bank, and that could work for a season, but as soon as the rains comes, the outcome for that house is predictable.
The text from 1 Peter also uses this same imagery of rocks and stones and houses. Here Jesus himself is identified as the cornerstone, the stone from which all others must take their orientation. It is he alone that serves as the foundation for this structure, and we as “living stones” are gathered together and crafted in place around him. It’s an unusual metaphor, for stones and rocks are not often seen as animate, or “living” objects. Most likely Peter is thinking back to the rock which was struck in the wilderness when the people were experiencing great thirst, and from that rock sprang living water. St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians identifies that rock from which the living water flowed as Jesus, “and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ”. 1 Cor 14:4. From that one rock, all drank and were satisfied, and from that same rock, we the individual members of the church are animated into living stones.
That same rock however that brings life to many, can be cause of stumbling, “To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” 1 Peter 2:7,8. Not only does this rock cause the unbeliever to stumble and fall, according to the gospel of Matthew, it can actually crush them, “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” Mat 21:44. It’s imperative that we find ourselves in the right orientation with this “cornerstone”. If not, the very stone that protects and gives life, can also crush and destroy. Even those who have not had that experience personally, can well imagine having a massive stone fall on your toe, or your entire body. If we’re crushed by this rock, it’s not the rock that’s at fault, but rather our orientation to it.
The text from Acts also reveals this theme. Here we meet Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Although chosen as a deacon to make sure that the apostle’s time was not consumed with the day-to-day duties of caring for the material needs of the widows, he soon finds himself proclaiming his new-found gospel to those who were hostile to it. Within the course of that proclamation, he is hauled before the very court that Jesus faced, and received a similar fate…not crucifixion, but rather his death came from the stones of his accusers. As with our Lord, this was not to be his ultimate end, but rather a new beginning as heaven is opened wide, and its divine inhabitants are ready to greet him. And that leads to our last house described by Jesus in John 14.
Of all the Bible verses I have read and used in sermons over the years, undoubtedly this one is used most often. It was read here only yesterday at the funeral of Ingrid’s sister Brigitta. It is a portion of a larger text often referred to as Jesus’ final discourse, his last words and testament to his disciples before his death. These words were spoken on the Thursday as Jesus met with them to celebrate the Passover, and initiate the first Holy Communion. This text begins with what is undoubtedly the most common expression in the Bible…” don’t be afraid”. Although I’ve never fact-checked this, apparently that, or a similar phrase, is used some 365 times in the Bible. There is plenty to fear in this life, but each of our fears are met with the voice of calm and assurance, “don’t be afraid”.
The reason for the disciple’s angst should be obvious. Jesus was about to be killed the following day, and their fates seemed equally precarious. Where is he going? What will happen to us once he’s gone? His response has brought comfort to them and countless millions over the centuries, as he tells them that he is going back to the place from whence he came, to heaven (or the “Father’s house). He then assures them that he will make a place for them there as well, so that they will one day be able to join him. The disciple’s response is predictable, but perhaps one of the rare instances where it has been recorded where a man admits to the fact that he is lost, and does not know the way. The “way” that Jesus describes is not directional in nature (take the first left after you get the North Star, go a million miles, and heaven will be first right after that), but rather relational. Regarding heaven (like getting your first job), it’s not so much “what you know” …but rather “who you know” that counts. Jesus himself is the “way, the truth, and the life”, and he alone can issue us in to the presence of the Father and our heavenly dwelling places. Some think this perspective to be far too exclusive, and thus unacceptable. There is no question that it sounds exclusive (for it is), but perhaps the better question we should be asking is whether or not it’s true? For if it is, then it matters little we think about its exclusivity. Like the nature of a massive rock, perhaps we would do well if we found ourselves in the proper orientation with that rock. Rocks will be rocks after all…. whatever we might think of them.
So, we consider the spiritual themes and implications of stones, foundations, and houses today. On what am I building my foundation? Will those materials last in and through the storms of life? Where do I find myself in orientation to Jesus, the cornerstone of all of reality? Am worried about many things in this life? Am I worried about what comes after this life is over? Jesus not only has answers for those questions, he himself is the answer. Come to Him, that solid rock, and find life. Amen