May 18, 2014
A creative writing teacher I had in college gave an assignment in which we were asked to describe a home that was significant to us. It could be the home we grew up in, or the home where we lived at the time. It was our choice. Whatever home we chose, we had to pick one room to begin with and start describing. His purpose behind this was that as we began to describe the rooms, memories would be stirred; memories that could be used in our writing. He was right.
If I were to be given this assignment today, I would write about the kitchen in my childhood home in Nashville. It was not an extraordinary kitchen. It contained all of the elements you expect in a kitchen: stove, refrigerator, shelves, cupboards, and a built-in cutting board that slid out like a drawer. My mom used that board for rolling out cookie dough and kneading bread dough, and you get the idea. A lot of baking happened in that kitchen. I didn’t quite grasp cooking in my childhood, nor in my adulthood, but I did learn to bake. The kitchen table we had then is the table I have in my house now. We ate meals at that table. At Christmas we made homemade candy at that table. When our variety of friends would come over, we always seemed to end up in the kitchen, at the table, talking, laughing, eating. When my friend Cynthia and I were playing at my house, we would take over the entire table for the elaborate variety of baked goods we made out of playdough. Family, friends, neighbors were in and out of that kitchen on a regular basis. I know my friends knew their way around our kitchen as well as I did. My sister and brother’s friends were the same.
The memories I have of that kitchen are endless. But what I remember is not just what we did in the kitchen, it’s who was there. It’s the relationships that were built and lived out in that kitchen that I remember most vividly. The kitchen was indeed our dwelling place.
The idea of dwelling place is central to this passage from John. I suspect that it’s also the most misunderstood aspect of these verses in John’s gospel. Yet, in order to fully understand what’s happening in our passage, it’s important to see what’s taking place in the larger context. A colleague pointed out that chapter 14, indeed chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17 of John’s gospel, constitute what we might think of as a commencement speech from Jesus to the disciples. This is a fitting analogy considering it is graduation time for schools, colleges and universities. In these chapters, in this commencement speech, Jesus spells out to the disciples one last time everything about who he is, who God is and who they are in relationship to one another. He makes it clear to the disciples what must happen to him in order to fulfill God’s will on earth. Once we reach Chapter 18, Jesus will be betrayed, arrested and will make his way to the cross. So Jesus is telling it all to the disciples. It is his commencement speech. But unlike other commencement speeches we would hear at graduations, it is not directed to the disciples because they are leaving. It is Jesus who will be doing the leaving. And the Jesus of the fourth gospel does not hesitate to go to the cross. He is “keen” to do so. John’s Jesus is ready to go. The cross is something that must happen to fulfill God’s ultimate plan. So he is keen to make his way. Jesus is keen to return to the Father. But his leaving does not mean that the disciples will be forgotten. Jesus’ leaving means that now it is the disciples’ turn. Upon Jesus’ leaving, it will be their turn, their responsibility to continue the work and the ministry that Jesus started. They will not be alone in this. Jesus promises them in the verses immediately following these that they will receive the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will be with them forever.
But even before they learn of this Advocate, Jesus gives them reassurance. He reassures the disciples that he has a home for them. As I stated, this is a misunderstood idea. Whenever I’ve read this passage in the past, and certainly the way I’ve heard it interpreted by other preachers time and time again, is that Jesus is referring literally to his home in heaven with God. It is a geographical location. “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Or in other versions it is “many rooms” or “many mansions.” Yet whatever word is used, it is commonly understood as location. Jesus is going to join God in a place called heaven. In that place called heaven, Jesus is preparing a place for them and for us. It is geography.
It is no wonder that we hear this passage used in funeral services. When someone we love dies, we all want to be reassured that we will see them again. So hearing that our loved one has gone to live in one of the many rooms or dwelling places that Jesus has prepared gives us comfort. The idea that my grandmother is sitting in a heavenly kitchen waiting for me keeps me going. But this is John’s gospel. John wrote in metaphor. To John, the idea of a dwelling place was not a room in a house or a spot on a map. A dwelling place symbolized relationship. Jesus spoke of his intimate relationship with God the Father. Jesus told them about his origins in God the Father.
When Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he wasn’t referring to the guest rooms available in heaven. He wasn’t speaking of a divine bed and breakfast. Instead he was referring to his intimate relationship with God. Jesus was making it clear to the disciples that an intimate relationship with God was available to those who seek God through him.
Jesus came to make this intimate relationship with God possible. In John’s gospel the incarnation of Jesus, the Word made flesh and living in our midst, changes forever humanity’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with God’s children. According to commentator Gail O’Day, Jesus, in John’s gospel, “is the tangible presence of God’s love in the world.” So Jesus going to the cross is what must happen. Again, John’s Jesus is anxious, keen, to go to the cross. He is anxious to go to his Father. Because going to the cross is what will make it possible for the disciples and all who know Jesus to have this intimate relationship with the Father.
So in order for the disciples to commence their work, they must believe. “Believe in God. Believe also in me.” The grammar behind Jesus’ words is important. In the Greek, there is an implied condition of fact. When Jesus tells the disciples, “Believe in God, believe in me,” what he is really saying is “Believe in God, which you already do.” “Believe in me, which you already do.” Yet it would seem that the disciples don’t trust their belief. When they hear Jesus speak of them knowing the way to the place where Jesus is going, they take him literally. There must be an actual path they have to follow to reach this destination of which Jesus speaks.
But Jesus speaks to them again in words that have a deeper meaning. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This is probably the second most misunderstood, misinterpreted statement in this passage. We hear Jesus’ words as words of exclusion and judgment. But Jesus is reminding them that he is the incarnate Word of God. He is God’s love made flesh. God’s love. If they believe in him and they do, if they know him and they do, then they know the Father. If they have seen Jesus, they have seen the Father. But if you still can’t grasp all this, Jesus says, then look at the works that I have done. Believe in me because of what I have accomplished.
Jesus goes on to tell them that even if the disciples only believe because of Jesus’ works, they will still do greater works than even Jesus has accomplished. They are to commence. Go into the world, the world that Jesus is leaving but not abandoning, and bring the good news. Go into the world, trusting in Jesus, Father and Son, because of the good works they have seen him accomplish. Go into the world knowing that their good works will be even greater than what Jesus himself has done. They must commence.
They must commence because they have and will continue to have a deep and abiding relationship with God through Jesus. This relationship isn’t just something that will occur in a future place and time, it is right now. They have already been in intimate, loving relationship with God, because they have been in relationship with Jesus. Yet this intimate relationship with love incarnate, this dwelling place, is not the end. It is the beginning. It is the foundation on which their works are built. It is because of this relationship that they are able to commence.
That is just as true for us. It seems to me that when we see a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus as the goal, we miss the point. Our relationships with Jesus are necessary, vital, but we aren’t called to rest complacently in that relationship. We are called, as the disciples were before us, to commence. It is in our relationship with God through Jesus that we find the courage and strength to go out; to do works that witness to God’s love for the world. Each of us must trust in the dwelling place, the home, we have with God. But we can’t simply think it will come at a later date. We have that dwelling place now. We have that home now. Our call is to open our home to all of God’s children. Let us commence. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.