People in southern California have a habit of talking incessantly about real estate. It seems to make no difference whether or not they are looking for a house or selling a house, the topic of real estate is in idée fixe in southern California: a preoccupation they can not let go of. No wonder the reality-TV industry is full of shows about real estate: how to improve your property value, your curb appeal, your neighbor’s curb appeal; how to add a rental apartment to your house, how to flip a house, how to unload a house you can’t seem to flip, how to be a first-time buyer, whether or not to put your house on the market, etc., etc., etc.
You would think southern Californians have other things to talk about – like what to do when they run out of water – but nothing fascinates them like real estate. And it drives me crazy when I go there to visit family and friends and the conversation inevitably turns to real estate – a topic I have no desire whatsoever to hear about and about which I have absolutely nothing to say.
Except that once, and once only that I can think of, Jesus chimed in on the theme of real estate. We heard it today in the newer translation, but I admit a preference for the older one: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
If you think about these things at all, you probably do not think about this as a discussion about real estate. If this text has made any impression on you at all it may be because you heard it at a funeral – this is a very commonly read lesson at funerals. In that context, Jesus is making the ultimate sales pitch – Have I got a place for you to spend eternity! The real estate in question is literally heavenly: Jesus is promising that there is a place prepared for his followers in the realms to which he must travel first. And the poetic King James translation deliberately stretches the imagination with its promise of a house that comprises many mansions.
Jesus is not only making a sales pitch, he is also making a promise: there is a place for you wherever I am going; do not let your hearts be troubled. Among all the mansions of my Father’s house there will surely be one that’s right for you. But very quickly, Jesus tires of the real estate conversation. “And,” he says, “you know the way to the place where I am going….” Eventually landing on his signature line: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” We are not talking about real estate any longer. And here’s why: Jesus is not peddling a faith that is primarily about securing heavenly real estate. Jesus is gathering a community that needs to do the work of the kingdom of heaven on this side of the grave.
Now remember, Jesus has already promised the real estate: in my Father’s house are many mansions. OK – that’s the stuff in the life to come. But nearly all of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is about what we do with our lives on this side of the grave. For the kingdom of God is at hand.
And when Jesus speaks with his disciples about his Father’s house with many mansions, he is preparing them for his departure from this world, not theirs. He is teaching them about how to get on with the work of the kingdom after he has gone, because that work must continue here on the ground. And if those were important lessons for the first disciples, then they are even more important for us, since we continue the work of the kingdom here on the ground, long after Jesus ascended into heaven. And it would not be surprising if we felt a bit like Thomas, who says to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas thinks he is asking about a reward that awaits him. He thinks he is asking about real estate. He wants to tell Jesus that wherever he is going, he’ll follow and meet him there. He thinks he’s asking for directions – How do I get to the mansions?
And Jesus’ reply essentially shifts the topic – Let’s not make it about the mansions. Let’s make it about the Way; let’s make it about Truth; let’s make it about Life. And let me define all those for you, since when you try to define them you are likely to make them all about the real estate.
The difference here is about what becomes important to us. Because when you are fixated on real estate, then your appliances and your paint colors, and your hardwood floors, and your bathroom fixtures become matters of great importance.
But when you are more concerned with the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then other things matter; things like: who you are traveling with, and how prepared you are to treat someone’s wounds, and whether or not you can share your food with a hungry traveler who has lost hers, and whether or not your opinion really is the final definition of truth, and whether or not you can help alleviate a friend’s pain, and how to let someone die with compassion and dignity – these become real and immediate concerns. And when these kinds of questions become real and immediate concerns, then your faith is shaped less by the promises of real estate in heaven, and more by the urgency that the kingdom of God is at hand in the here and now.
Of course, when you stop to think about it, the term “real estate” is meant to define something concrete (so to speak), more or less immoveable, permanent, and lasting. And we want to proclaim that the kingdom of God is, if not concrete, then immoveable, permanent, and lasting. This partly explains the church’s own penchant for real estate like this bit of property on Locust Street, about which we care a great deal. But if our own real estate (or anyone else’s) became our chief preoccupation then we would probably be forgetting to make our lives about following the Way, standing up for the Truth, and finding real meaning in Life.
Jesus promises us that in his Father’s house there are many mansions. This is promise of life in the world to come that we can count on. But you would think that as Christians in a world full of pain and suffering and confusion and injustice that we might have a few other things to talk about before we spend too much time and energy talking about the real estate in heaven – which comprises many mansions: surely one to fit every style and need.
Jesus tells us that we already know how to talk about the way to address the pain and suffering, the confusion and injustice, and everything else that troubles us in the world. Talk about him. Make Jesus our idée fixe, our great preoccupation, the thing about which we just can’t stop talking, who just keeps coming up in conversation after conversation, about whose words and teaching there is much to be explored. Then we might begin to discover the Way; we might begin to learn Truth; we might begin to live Life.
And let not your hearts be troubled, when at last we shall be with him in the world to come, there will be a mansion prepared in one of the many rooms of his Father’s house.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 May 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia