Feast of St. Michael & All Angels (trans.), St. Michael’s Church, Cookeville

“This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17).

In the ancient world of the Hebrews, “the house of God” and “the gate of heaven” were distinct places within a single sacred precinct. Imagine for a moment a large pyramid, like those built for worship in Mesopotamia, the land from which Jacob’s family had come. At the top of the pyramid was “the house of God”, the symbolic divine dwelling place. At the bottom of the pyramid, close to the earth, was “the gate of heaven”, the place where the gods appeared to humankind, to do their business and to receive offerings. The gate was a narrow place, no doubt to discourage would-be invaders. Between the gate and the house was a “ladder”, that is a staircase or ramp, that led from one place to the other, allowing the god to descend and then re-ascend.

In Jacob’s vision, he sees angels, divine messengers, going up and down the ladder that lies between “the house of God” and “the gate of heaven”. The reader knows, even if Jacob doesn’t, that the place of his vision will later be the site of the great sanctuary of Bethel, nor longer a lonely and deserted place but a busy center of religious pilgrimage. God speaks, identifying himself as the God of Jacob’s family, the One who has promised to give them the land on which Jacob is standing, and who has promised to bless them. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15).

That’s the contrast: between “the house of God” where God dwells, and “the gate of heaven” where God reveals himself, on the one hand; and on the other hand the place of pilgrimage where Jacob journeys on toward the land that God has promised. Jacob and his family were shepherds, and that meant they were always moving on. Jacob and his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham were itinerant, and their travels took them far from Mesopotamia where they’d originated. They did not have a settled place but continued to journey on. Jacob himself is actually headed back to Syria, to the land of his grandfather and of his mother, in order to take a wife and to begin a family, so that God’s promise can be fulfilled.

We know that the place where Jacob was standing would eventually become Bethel, a settled shrine in the heart of the land that God has promised, but the reality of Bethel still lies in the future. At the moment it’s just a way station on the road, a place where Jacob has only a stone to lay his head; but it’s also the place of vision, where God reveals himself.

You might find yourself identifying with Jacob here, and you would be on solid ground if you did. Christians too are on pilgrimage. We’re on a journey in this life, with stones for a pillow and no settled habitation. Even if you were born and have lived your whole life in this town, you are still a pilgrim in Christian terms. You are on the way, and you have not yet arrived at your destination.

Your journey began the moment you were created. There have been some significant way stations along the path. There is the moment of your baptism, whether you remember it or not. It’s significant because when you were baptized God remembered you, called you to mind and blessed you. Our heavenly Father incorporated you into the Body of his Son Jesus Christ, the One who died and rose again, and gave you a new life in him.

On this journey you’ve also been fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, the powerful signs of his life within us. God provided for the children of Jacob when they left Egypt to continue their journey to the Promised Land; he’s also providing for us in our journey as we move to the altar rail to receive this sacrament. This place of celebration is also a way station, “the house of God” and “the gate of heaven”.

For some of us today, this moment is also a significant marker along the path, as we celebrate baptism, confirmation, and reception here at St. Michael’s Church. We too can catch the vision of God and encounter him as we renew our baptismal vows and pledge ourselves anew to continue to walk in the Christian way of life. All of us who witness these vows have the chance to renew our own baptismal vows and to have our faith strengthened as we follow Christ.

For St. Michael’s Church, this is a time of transition, when we are conscious that we are wayfarers moving forward into a new chapter of the church’s life. It’s a time of renewal for the whole church community, and a time of new life. May God give us the vision that he gave Jacob, and show us that this place is also, “the house of God” and “the gate of heaven”.

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee