What do we mean when we say “Church”?

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

Year B 2021

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

‘What do we mean when we say “church”?’

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’

I wonder what you think that those words of Jesus are about?

Not long before our grand-daughter Abigail was born into the world for her brief life, people started dropping by Ben and Hannah’s house with matching soft toys for Abigail and her sister Naomi. For some reason rabbits featured highly – despite their being soft toys, they did what rabbits do and threatened to swamp the small terrace house in Sheffield. Someone brought a Panda for Abi – Naomi already had a panda – and Naomi made special friends with Abigail’s panda, or ‘Abi Panda’ as she calls it.

Shortly after Sarah left to return to the UK, Naomi was overheard talking with Abi Panda –  ‘Granny has gone on a big airplane – to heaven’. Heaven obviously being a place where you went where you couldn’t be seen, rather like her sister Abigail had gone. Children have disarmingly simple and largely untroubled logic – which is why they see the Kingdom of heaven . . .

So I started out with a short passage not from today’s gospel, but from the beginning of the previous chapter. It’s the passage you most likely have heard more than once, when someone ‘dies and goes to heaven’, because of course that’s what Jesus is talking about, isn’t he? People have ‘this life’, they then ‘die’, and depending on your theological persuasion all, or some ‘go to heaven’, to be with Jesus . . .

Suffice to say, if you’ve been paying attention at all through Lent and the Easter season, you’ll probably guess that I’m going to suggest that that isn’t the case, that Jesus is not talking in the terms we assume at funerals. Rather he is establishing the church as a community who to use the words of our gospel today ‘abide in him, as he abides in them’ – that is as a colony of heaven breaking out upon Earth. That ‘My Father’s house’ is the Church, not the building but a living breathing body of Christ.

John, as I hope we are aware uses his words very carefully. When he says, ‘The Word became flesh’, we are alerted to the only time Jesus speaks of his flesh, in the sixth chapter, where he says ‘my flesh I will give for the life of the world’. The Word becomes flesh according to John, upon the Cross, where if you look carefully, you can see the empty tomb – life pouring out from Christ – that is His Spirit. Further, you might say that the flesh of Jesus becomes Spirit upon the cross for again as Jesus says in John 6, The Spirit is Life, the flesh avails nothing.

So, when Jesus says, ‘in my father’s house’, again we remember the only other use of the phrase ‘my Father’s house’ in John in chapter 2 where Jesus says ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ So ‘My Father’s house’ is the Temple, but then he says,  ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body

So when Jesus says ‘In my father’s house’ there are many dwelling places – what he means is – in my spirit breathed body, in that community which makes me up, the church, there is space for many . . . or if you like, I am establishing in my body the place my father’s house, where my Father lives . . . which is of course, ‘heaven’

As we have seen these past weeks the death and resurrection of Jesus calls into question how we look at so much. What do we say of God if Jesus who is the revelation of God is recognised by his wounds? What does it mean for our humanity if Jesus, the true human is raised bodily from death – if he isn’t a ghost?

And for the church? What does it mean if the risen body of Jesus IS the church? After all, does he not breathe out His spirit on the disciple body, bringing it to life, before he disappears from view? Does Jesus not give His Life to the disciples? Just as in the beginning God breathed his life on Adam, but then Adam chose his own ‘life’ over the life of God and so became ‘mortal’?

Let’s just ponder a moment that thought about heaven, and the church. That the Church is constituted by Jesus as his living body, the House of the Father, or ‘heaven’. Certainly it was not uncommon in the earlier years of the church to refer to local bodies of believers as ‘Colonies of Heaven’ – Colonies of Heaven . . . Now perhaps like Sara, the wife of Abraham, on hearing she would have the child Isaac, she laughed; we might also laugh that God intends the Church to be a colony of Heaven within the realm of Earth, but perhaps we too might be rebuked by the LORD for doubting his Word. But what if rather than doubting, we believe?

Through the weeks after Easter we always have readings from the Acts of the Apostles. Why? Because the Church is the outworking of the Resurrection of Jesus. Not simply a group of people who happen to believe in the Resurrection, but a people who are brought into being, a born again body, by the Risen Life of Jesus breathed out.

For two or three Sundays our focus is on the Risen Jesus, but then in our gospels it shifts to the relationship of Jesus with his flock, and then today to how that relationship will continue. Abide in me as I abide in you. Similarly our epistle readings from John’s first letter continue that theme of the continuation of the life of the disciples with Jesus and their fellowship with the Father. As we read at the top of the letter – We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 

Our fellowship is with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ . . .  isn’t that a description of the heavenly life. This fellowship – to use the much stronger word ‘koinonia’ – lived participation in the Life of the Father and the Son.

In my father’s house, in my body, there are many dwelling places, Abide in Me, as I abide in you. As we explored last week, coming home to Jesus is coming home to ourselves. In the same way a community of people who have come home to their home in Jesus, abiding in Him, is the church

Insofar as we truly the body of Christ – that Life of Christ is amongst us.  As we heard today ‘Beloved, let us love one another for love is from God; whoever loves is born of God and knows God.’ And again as John told us last week, the test is simple – ‘if you see your brother in need and have the capacity to help but do not, how does God’s love dwell in you’

God’s love just flows. If God’s love, if Jesus lives in you, then you will lay down your life for your brother or sister, and again this week ‘We love because he first loved us’ – God is the source of Love – ‘Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ 

When we do not love all the members of the body of Christ we cut ourselves off from the body of Christ. When we have those supposed private conversations within ourselves, or worse amongst one or two, about this or that person in the church, we cut ourselves off from Christ and the church . . . (Which is the sin against the Holy Spirit mentioned in our sentence this morning . . . )

John says something which to our ears might be utterly amazing, Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.

As He is, so are we in this world . . . we are like God. To encounter the Church is to encounter God, it is to touch on the realm of heaven. . . . That is what the Church is in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Waking up to that is the stirring of the Life of God amongst us

That is why in the early church people freely shared everything they had – for they had but one life, the life which Jesus had breathed out upon them, so to use again the words of the wedding service – they in effect said to one another’ All I am I give to you, and all I have I share with you, within the Love of God’

What if ‘Colony of heaven’ was the way we not only thought of church but indeed acted as if it were true, as if Jesus has breathed His life upon us? What if we made it our business to live as if those words of Paul were true, ‘you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God?’ As if we had but one life, and all we had we shared with one another? What would that say to the wider world?

To be part of the church is simply to be able to say All I am I give to you, and all I have I share with you, to every member. It is to recognise Christ in one another, it is to live the heavenly life, the life of God now. It is to lose our lives and in that way, find them. It is to Abide in Christ, to dissolve the barrier between heaven and earth for in Jesus, that barrier is dissolved . . . Or we can just go back to the old story of a separate heaven, and hope it’s true instead . . .  Amen

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