HEAVEN IS OUR HOMELAND
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON May 9th, 2010
John14:23“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
For me, one of the best parts of going away on a trip is flying back into San Diego. As the plane passes over Bankers Hill and breathtakingly glides down to our airport, the city springs up on your left – so close that you can almost touch the buildings. There is the harbor – it’s a wonderful sight. The water is sparkling, but even more so at night, when all the lights are glistening in the city and the reflection is on the water. My heart always lifts because I am home again.
The word, home, does not just mean a familiar place. It means a place of comfort, and a place of belonging. So it was a wonderful promise that Jesus made when he said to the apostles, the Father will make his home with us – if we love him and keep his words.
The Father will make his home with us. It’s usually the other way, isn’t it? We try and make our home with God – daily, by being good Christians. And Sunday by Sunday we try and make our home with God. But Jesus said, God will make his home with us. We will belong to him – and God will belong to us.
This gospel reading is from St. John’s record of the great discourse that Jesus gave at the Last Supper. It is long, and somewhat complicated in parts, as Jesus talks about many things. More particularly, he talks about going away and the gift of the Spirit, the Counselor. We think of this particular discourse as something that happened after Jesus rose from the dead. We don’t associate it with the Last Supper. We think it’s what Jesus said to the apostles now, in these days between Easter and Ascension. But that is not the case. Jesus told them this before he was crucified.
What he told them about the his ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit was all bound up with his teaching that he was to be betrayed, given up into the hands of wicked men, suffer death on the cross, and rise again. It was also within the context of the Last Supper when he gave us the Eucharist for the first time, when he washed the apostle’s feet as a sign that they should be servants.
There are various themes and teachings in this discourse that John records. We could say that the whole of our lives as Christian disciples are contained in those four or five chapters. Above all, through these chapters of John there flows a continual teaching from Jesus that we should love God and love one another.
It must have been very hard for the apostles to understand that Jesus was going away. In those days of Eastertide they had seen him die on the cross and rise from the dead, as he promised. They ate and drank with him, and he taught them many things. Surely, they must have thought that, as he was no longer constrained by death, he could live forever.
Why would he want to go away if he had now risen and conquered everything that restrains life? That is why he told them in advance that he would go away and that they should rejoice – because, when the time came it would be difficult.
“I told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe.” Of course, they didn’t understand that his ascension would be followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They had to believe it was a good thing – even though they probably doubted. When Jesus had gone away from them, it was all clear to them. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they received that powerful presence of God’s Spirit. They knew then that Heaven is our homeland, and Jesus had now returned to that home from whence he came. But a part of that heavenly homeland was now given to them in a tangible sign that they could feel – the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This happened on the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised – the Counselor, the Comforter – came upon them. Also on that day, as Jesus promised, the things he taught them were brought to their remembrance. The Holy Spirit taught them everything that Jesus had already taught them. We call that tradition.
We celebrate that great event on the Feast of Pentecost. But for now, like the apostles, we are in that waiting time. And when we come on Thursday to celebrate the Ascension, we will begin that nine day period of prayer – the first Novena of the Church, when Mary and the Apostles waited for the promise of the Spirit.
It was rather fortuitous that last Sunday we celebrated the sacrament of Confirmation. In a sacramental rite of the Church, the Holy Spirit was given to three members of our parish family. Now that’s the same thing that happened to the Apostles at Pentecost. We did not see any speaking in tongues, and they didn’t jump up and shout Alleluia – but we can be sure that the promise of Jesus was 100% true, and they did receive the Spirit.
In John chapter 14, Jesus tells us that peace is the sign of the Holy Spirit. On Easter night, when Jesus appeared for the first time to the Apostles in the upper room, he said, “Peace be with you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Just as in confirmation, the Holy Spirit came in a peaceful way. For the ultimate gift of the Holy Spirit is peace in our hearts.
That is why the Holy Spirit moves about quietly in the church. He moves quietly as the Counselor and the Comforter. Now we might think the word comforter means that the Holy Spirit makes us feel good, and that when troubles happen we’ll survive. But if you know your Latin, you’ll know that ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’. When Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is the comforter, he is telling us that the Spirit will strengthen us.
The sacrament of confirmation was also very relevant at this point in the church calendar, as we prepare to anticipate the Feast of Pentecost.
When Jesus had gone, the apostles had to get on with the work of being his church. That is what they were charged with. They had been chosen by Jesus to be the twelve foundation stones of the New Israel – the people of God. The book of Revelation describes heaven as the New Jerusalem, where the Lamb who was slain is now enthroned in glory. This is not only an image of heaven, but it is an image of our worship here on earth.
Here we worship the Lamb that was slain – albeit in a symbolic and sacramental way. But the Lamb who was slain – Jesus – reigns on our altar, as surely as he reigns in heaven. There he reigns in person, and here he reigns personally in the sacrament.
The Church is not only meant to be a representation of Jesus in the world – the body of Christ acting through you and I – the Church is also meant to be a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom, particularly when we come to worship.
With all the flaws and the sins of its members is not always obvious that the Church is a foretaste of heaven, let alone, the Body of Christ in the world. Where the Church does prove to be a foretaste of heaven is when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, where the Lamb is worshiped and we receive – in a sacramental sign – a taste of heaven. Here at All Saints’ we have a window into heaven, where Christ reigns because he rose from the dead.
Here with the angels and all the archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify his glorious name.
At the altar we receive the very body of the risen Christ so that we can become the body of Christ in the world. Of course, we can only receive the body of Christ because Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Now in heaven he has both the power and the authority to come to us in forms of bread and wine. Only the glorious resurrected Son of God has the power to come back to us in such a simple and humble sign. If Jesus had not ascended, if he had remained on earth, he could not be present with us in this sacrament.
Now he has gone he comes to his people through the Church and in his sacraments. Not just the sacrament of the altar, but through baptism, confirmation, anointing, ordination, confession, and marriage. All of these are sacraments of the presence of the risen Christ, which are purely for our benefit.
That is what Jesus really meant when he said, “We will come to him and make our home with him“. That’s what happens in the sacraments.
Heaven is our homeland, and Heaven is here. That is why he said to the Apostles that they should rejoice.