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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 5th Sunday of Easter

John 14:1-14

There is Even Room for You

No Room in the Hotel

With the sagging US dollar and fuel costs steadily climbing, we would expect the hotel chains to be suffering from low occupancy rates and in many cities that is true but not in New York and along the Pacific Rim in the high end luxury market. Supply just has not kept up with demand. There is just not enough room in the hotel for the luxury traveler. Later this year, the Mark Hotel will open in Manhattan. The cost of one night's stay--$1000. Travelers to New York should not expect to receive any discount offers from the Mark Hotel either. The owners are anticipating that the demand will continue to remain high. In the gospel reading today, John records Jesus talking about the availability of heavenly rooms for the spiritual traveler. His message is designed to offer words of hope and comfort for his disciples because they would soon be in need of both.

The promise of many rooms in his Father's house comes after Jesus has just shocked his followers by predicting Peter's denial. The impact of that foretelling can be seen if one reads between the lines. Peter is not one of the two disciples to ask Jesus a question. He is silent during the rest of this conversation. This is completely out of character for the apostle who was constantly susceptible to the proverbial foot-in-mouth disease. Peter had a reputation for talking before thinking. Yet, in this particular interaction Peter says nothing. Not only that, he is not even mentioned until chapter 18. The entire band of men were undoubtedly startled to learn that the foremost among them would fail in his moment of trial. If Peter could not stand firm in the faith, who among them would have the strength and wisdom to remain loyal. I wonder if Jesus could see the fear and anguish his words produced in their hearts? I wonder if he could have heard the quiver in their voice or seen the looks of panic on their faces? He must have detected something because Jesus then moves to the message of hope and reassurance that forms the substance of this morning's passage.

Jesus begins by telling his band of followers that they should not let their hearts be distressed and then essentially gives them two reasons why they should not fear. First they were to trust in God. The NIV paraphrases the Greek text to read, “Do not be afraid, but trust in God.” These were not cheap third person words of advice. Jesus had personal experience with fear and a distressed heart. Jesus told them that his own heart was troubled just knowing what events were before him. But that he could face them because of his trust in God. This trust was not simple, wishful thinking or a positive outlook on life but had a solid foundation. Jesus had seen on numerous occasions God the Father demonstrating his power through His Son. Demons had been silenced at his command. Crippled men stood up and walked for the first time because of his words. A woman had been healed just because she touched his garment. Storm winds obeyed his commands. Jesus had put God to the test and the Father had delivered. He was not asking his disciples to hope in hope or have faith in faith. He was telling them to rely on someone who had already demonstrated his trustworthiness.

Jesus also reminds his disciples that not only are they not to be afraid because they trust in a trustworthy God, they are not to be afraid because God the Father has many rooms in his house for them. Scholars have debated the meaning of the term that we translate to “rooms.” Some would seek ways of interpreting very broadly so that all the religions of the world; all the people of the world would be included in the Father's house. While such a interpretation is reassuring, it is not consistent with what his subsequent response to Thomas is in which he limits access to the Father by saying “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” it is also not consistent with the message he is trying to convey to his disciples that they should not have any doubts, God has a place for them.

The best sermon that I ever heard on this passage from John 14 occurred this past winter. I have shared it with you some months ago, but would like to briefly retell the story because that tragic event belongs with this passage from the Bible. My friend, Jeff Barstow and I, were coming come from skiing up at Crystal Mountain when a car accident happened right before our eyes. It was a terrible, awful tragedy in which two little girls, Jessica and Jennifer R., ages seven and three, Smiley 1 and Smiley 2, were severely injured if not killed. As the aftermath of the accident unfolded and the helicopters took off for the hospital in Tacoma with the bodies of the two little girls, Jeff and I ended up in my car with the two parents of the girls and their surviving son. We were to take them to the hospital in Tacoma. At that moment, none of us were sure if their little girls were dead or alive. None of us will forget that terrible day. As time evolved, Jeff and I vowed we would attend the funeral if either child died. Both children died. It was awful, one of the worst days in our lives, in that family’s life.

It was the day of the funeral and it was packed with children and families and friends. The preacher that day preached on the story where Jesus said: “I am going to prepare a place for you in heaven.” He then asked all the children who were up on the chancel area, (what seemed more than a hundred children), “Who has their own bedroom?” Most of the hands of the children went up. “How many of you share a bedroom?” The rest of the hands shot up. “How many of you like your bedroom?” All the hands of the children shot up. The pastor then told how Pat Rhoades, the father of Jessica and Jennifer, was not only a youth pastor but a builder of homes. He told the story of how Pat, the father, recently built the first floor of their new family house where everyone lived, and then he started on the second floor of the house, upstairs, where he went all the time to build the three children their three bedrooms. Pat, the father, built the bedrooms for his children because he loved them so very much. About that time in the sermon, there was a loud booming noise of hammering coming through the walls, and before you knew it, you remembered that you were in the middle of a children’s sermon and suddenly there was a carpenter like Jesus with a carpenter’s apron around his waist and hammer in his hand, standing before all the children. The Jesus-carpenter began to speak and tell all the children that he was up in heaven, preparing a living space for each one of them, like a bedroom for each one of them. Jesus asked the kids, “Do you think I am preparing a nice bedroom for you in heaven?” The kids all nodded “yes.” It was stone quiet as Jesus spoke. And the children? They believed. They trusted. No doubts. Not one trace of doubt. They believed that Jesus was preparing a place for them to live someday in heaven; that he had already prepared a place for their good friends Jessica and Jennifer. They believed. They trusted. They knew Jesus was true to his word.

In the 17th Century, the Puritan pastor, the Rev. Richard Baxter wrote a tract for his congregation entitled The Saints Everlasting Rest, in which he encouraged believers to meditate on heaven. The booklet also contained instructions on how to do that. Baxter believed that the pastor's role was to prepare his people for eternity. After all we shall be spending more time there than here. Baxter believed that by contemplating our heavenly home, we would enjoy that reality more and more in our lives. However, meditating on heaven has fallen out of vogue. In his article, “Heaven Can't Wait,” Phillip Yancy gives three reasons why meditating and talking about heaven is seldom done.

1. Affluence has given us in this life what former generations longed for in anticipation of heaven. We now have (most of us in the Western church, at least) relief from pain, plentiful food, and surroundings of beauty and luxury. The biblical promise of such a state has lost some of its luster.

Karl Marx criticized religion as the "opiate of the people" because it promised the lower classes "pie in the sky" in order to lull them away from wanting it now. Marx's critique sounds quaint today, because few people are promising pie in the sky anymore; religious organizations such as the World Council of Churches and evangelical relief agencies instead encourage us to redistribute the pie here on earth.

2. A creeping paganism invites us to accept death as the culmination of life on earth, not as a violent interruption in an eternal life. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (who happens to believe in an afterlife) described five stages of death, with an implicit assumption that the "Acceptance" stage is the most healthful and appropriate.

I have watched in hospital groups as dying patients worked desperately toward a calm stage of acceptance, denying the impulses of their instincts and conscience to reject the unnatural act of death. Strangely, no one ever talked about heaven in those groups; it seemed embarrassing, somehow cowardly. What convulsion of values can have us holding up the prospect of annihilation as brave and that of blissful eternity as cowardly?

3. Older images of heaven, the biblical ones, have lost their appeal. Walls of emerald, sapphire, and jasper, streets of gold, and pearly gates may have inspired Middle Eastern peasants, but they don't mean much to the world of Bauhaus. And religious leaders and artists have failed to create satisfactory new images. What will heaven be like? A place where "all a body would have to do was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever" sounds as unattractive to most of us as it did to Huck Finn.

I think that we need to recapture the practice of meditating on our heavenly destination for several reason. The most obvious is because we will be spending more time in heaven then we'll spend on earth. Secondly, we need the reassurance that God has a place for us. People don't always look out for one another. It is easy to be caught in a strange city and all that you see on the hotel sign are the words “No Vacancy.” We need to be reminded again and again that God has a place for us. In a world of economic instability, political turmoil, and as we were reminded, this physical upheaval there are few completely safe places. Yancy in the article that I previously cited explains the difference our understanding of heaven makes in our perspective on life.

I have seen the electrifying results of what can happen when the concept of heaven comes alive. My wife, Janet, works with senior citizens in a part of Chicago recently judged the poorest community in the United States. About half of her clients are white, half are black. All of them have lived through harsh times: two world wars, the Great Depression, the waves of social upheaval that have affected major cities. And all of them, in their seventies and eighties, face the inevitability of death.

My wife has observed a remarkable difference in the way the whites and blacks face death. There are exceptions, of course, but the trend is this: many of the whites become increasingly more fearful and uptight. They complain about their lives, their families, and their deteriorating health.

The blacks, in contrast, maintain a good humor and spirit of triumph even though most of them have greater reason for bitterness and despair. Their lives were three-fourths over by the time the civil rights bills were passed.

Janet believes the difference is hope, a hope that traces directly to the blacks' bedrock belief in heaven. "This world is not my home, I'm just passin' through," they say. These words and others like them came out of a tragic period of history, when everything in this world looked bleak. But black churches managed to instill a vivid belief in a home beyond this one.

Somehow, these neglected saints have learned to anticipate and enjoy God in spite of the difficulties of their lives. When we get to heaven, many of us may be shocked at what it means to enjoy God. For others, such as these elderly blacks, that joy will seem more like a long-awaited homecoming than a visit to a new place. Who knows, they may save a few hundred years' awkward transition.

ChrisitianyToday ran a story several years ago on the most Frequently Asked Questions about eternity entitled “What will heaven be like. They sought to answer important questions like:

  • How do we know anything about Heaven, anyway?

  • How do we get to heaven?

  • Is Jesus the only way to heaven?

But they also tried to answer the unimportant like:

  • What age will we be in Heaven?

  • What language will we speak in Heaven?

  • Will there be privacy in Heaven?

  • How do you think all these questions and answers will look to you in Heaven?

In reading through those questions I was reminded of the only question with which I am personally concerned. Is there room for even me?

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