In a recent conversation, I had the chance to remind the listener that it’s still Easter. In the church, the Easter season begins on Easter Day and lasts for FIFTY days. Fifty! It doesn’t end until Pentecost. I wonder how many people would look at you a little strangely if you walked up to them today and said, “Happy Easter!”
The church’s timing is just different from everyone else’s.
For three Sundays, the gospel reading is still on the Day of Resurrection, and then just when you get it into your head, “Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!” it leaps backwards, to the night before the Crucifixion. We land smack in the middle of what is called the “Farewell Discourse” in the Gospel of John. In John’s Gospel, there is no story of the Last Supper (there are complex theological reasons for that, which I won’t go into now). Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, tells them to do the same for each other. Judas leaves to betray him, Jesus tells them all that Peter will deny him. And then he begins teaching them one last time.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. I imagine that’s hard for the disciples. They haven’t lived through the crucifixion and resurrection as Jesus was saying this. I think, though, that even if they had, it would still be a challenge. There is a reason this passage is read at funerals so often—we still need reminding that Jesus has taken away death’s power. That doesn’t mean people stop dying; it means we can hold onto the hope that there is life beyond this one. That there are “many dwelling places” awaiting our loved one on the other side of the veil. It is the hope Stephen had in that first reading. The hope that helped him through his death, helped him forgive the people who were killing him.
But for today, I want us to look at this passage from a different perspective. Not as the promise it holds for us in the ‘sweet bye-and-bye,’ some eternal life after death. One of the commentaries I read this week says that Jesus offered the disciples the image of the “roominess” of God. It is an appropriate counterbalance to the ways in which this passage has so often been used to defend a belief that God is narrow—narrow-minded, narrow-hearted, narrow-spirited. People have used Jesus’ beautiful words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” as justification for excluding or rejecting those who are unlike them. I don’t hear Jesus setting a limit here. I hear him extending an invitation. Others experience God in a variety of ways, but Jesus is inviting us into the same kind of relationship with God that he has: God the Father. (And yes, if he were saying it today he would probably be quite willing to say God the Mother!) Jesus invites us into that intimacy with God, because Jesus knows there is plenty of room for us all.
When Jesus says he is the way, he uses a word that means “road,” not “method.” Belief in Jesus is not some magic formula that gets us into heaven when we die. Discipleship is a way of walking through this world—following the path Jesus already set. It’s not always easy, it’s not always pleasant. But if you’re looking for life with a God who loves you beyond all measure, Jesus is the best way I know to find it. This is not narrow, limited life. It’s spacious. Roomy.
So what does God’s “roominess,” God’s spaciousness look like?
Probably most of you would start at the love of God. God’s love is so much more expansive than our own. God loves people we absolutely cannot stand! I amuse myself sometimes by thinking what fun God must have arranging the seating at the heavenly banquet—you just know you’re going to end up sitting next to the person you most avoided in this life! God’s love is roomy. There’s lots of space to move around in it. And that’s the point—we’re supposed to move, take risks, follow where it leads.
It will inevitably lead us through some hard places, times when we face hard truths about ourselves and others. And part of the roominess is forgiveness. We can only move easily on the way through the love of God if we look honestly at ourselves and others. The call to forgiveness is not so much a demand for self-sacrifice as it is a call to freedom. When we forgive the things that are holding us in one place, we are set free to move forward, to follow Christ.
In the first reading, as Stephen is dying, he forgives those who cause his death. Not to look good or to shame those who are doing this. It’s because he has his eyes on Jesus, and that’s what Jesus did as he died. There is so much more room in eternal life if you’re not carrying the burdens of this mortal one.
The same commentary I mentioned earlier offered one interpretation that might resonate with some of you. If God is eternal, that part of that roominess is time. God has time for you. I wanted to include this one, because I too often hear people say they don’t pray about this or that because “they don’t want to bother God” or “take up God’s time” with such things. The God that Jesus calls Father is the God who has time for us. Who makes time for us. And is delighted when we reciprocate, and make time for God. There is no judgment or shaming in that. Just deep pleasure that it matters enough to us to make room for God in the same way that God always makes room for us. Nothing that is weighing on our hearts or minds is too trivial to take to God. We may not always have things turn out the way we want, but we can always turn to God when our hearts are troubled. If nothing else, our spirits will be eased by the presence of the Holy One.
Eternal life is not just what happens after we die. The more we seek to follow the way of Jesus, the more we accept the truth—good and not-so-good—about ourselves and others, and respond with forgiveness, the more we will experience the fullness of eternal life even now.
We are nearing the end of the ‘busy’ part of our liturgical year, and this year I am thinking about this a little differently. We start the journey in Advent, waiting for Emmanuel, “God-with-us” to come to us and be with us. Then comes Christmas, when we celebrate the fulfillment of that promise. In Epiphany we see that God-with-us-ness expand beyond the limits we set on it, out to the whole world. In Lent we acknowledge the ways in which we get in God’s way, we keep God from being with us and the world, the ways in which we try to box God in and limit God. Easter celebrates that we fail in that attempt; God’s desire to be with us is too great to be thwarted. In a couple of weeks we’ll celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes to make the “God-with-us” status permanent.
But as I have been thinking about this idea of the “roominess” of God this week, I am seeing a different trajectory. Perhaps because I’ve been trying to draw a frightened little cat out of the confined spaces she has been hiding in, I am seeing that through Christ, the story of “God-with-us” becomes the story of “us-with-God,” as God draws us out. Out of all the narrow places, through the cross, into the great expansive love of God, the life eternal. The place God has dreamt for us all along.