Between our children’s moves to college and moves to various apartments, Bruce and I have schlepped our share of furniture up and down stairs. We are apparently still in the moving business, as we seek to find places for various furniture items from my Mom’s house.
One of the last things I would do before leaving Meredith or Alex in their dorm room or new apartment is make their bed for them. It was as much for me as it was for them, but in the midst of all the chaos of boxes and bags and suitcases, I wanted them to have one place that was ready for them at whatever hour of the night or morning they finally collapsed. I remember one dorm advisor observing as I crawled over the bed to tuck in a corner, “It seems like the Moms always want to make sure the bed is made.”
“I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus told his overwhelmed disciples. Just like a mother. “In this gospel passage,” Nancy Rockwell writes, “Jesus is declaring the obvious and hospitable nature of God. And all sorts of feminine imagery is employed, by Jesus, about himself, especially, and about God, often.” [Bite in the Apple, 5/6/17]
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus begins our passage, right after he has predicted that Peter would deny him. This whole section of John’s gospel is part of a farewell speech, placed by John in the setting of the Last Supper. Jesus has washed his friends’ feet, Judas has left to betray him, Jesus has given them a new commandment–to love one another as he has loved them–, Peter has confessed that he will lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus has told him that, alas, he will deny him.
Then, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Well, that’s easier said than done. Have you listened to the news lately?! “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
“Trust in God,” Jesus said, “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.”
“In my Father’s house are many mansions,” the King James Version says. Such an image! The inspiration for songs and paintings–heavenly mansions!–and jokes–”Don’t tell the Baptists that there are other rooms,” St. Peter says to a newly arrived resident of heaven. “They think they’re the only ones here.”
But the root of the word that has been translated as “rooms” or “mansions” is one that John uses throughout his gospel, most often translated as “abiding.” “Abide in me,” Jesus tells his disciples. Stay, live, in me. He’s not talking about a geographical place, but a change of heart. “Abide in me, and I in you,” Jesus says. I am the vine, you are branches. I am the heartbeat of your circulatory system, the breath through your lungs. A heart space, an abiding, not a geographical location.
But you can’t really blame the disciples for being confused. “And you know the way to the place where I am going,” Jesus tells them. And Thomas, speaking for all of us, says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him,”I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”
–possibly one of the most misunderstood and misused verses in the Bible. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It gets used to justify Christian exclusivism. The emphasis is on the I–Jesus–, when it can’t be torn apart from the I– am John uses throughout his gospel, a clear reference to God’s self-identity as the I am in the burning bush, John’s constant use of I am on Jesus’ lips–I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, the gate, I am the vine, I am the light of the world. It’s a confession of faith, that in Jesus John’s community experienced God. And it was literally life-giving for them.
John’s community had been “ex-communicated,” if you will, kicked out of the synagogue for confessing that Jesus was the messiah, so, as Biblical scholar John Pilch says, they had “been deprived of a community and a place that were dear to them. [And] it raised doubts about whether they really could meet God anywhere else.” [The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A] It was thought that the Temple, first, and then the synagogue, were the dwelling place–the abiding place– of God, where God’s chosen community gathered, so now that those places were both closed off to them, where could they meet or experience God, the Life-giver?
“If you know me,” Jesus told his community, “you will know my Father also….I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” John Dominic Crossan translates that, “I am the authentic (truth) vision (way) of existence (life).” –”I am the authentic vision of existence.” If you live like this, you will definitely encounter God, who is Love.” [Pilch, op cit.]
Love, the theme, the melody, the bass note of John’s gospel. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus says. “Beloved,” John writes in a later letter, “let us love one another, for love is from God…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them….” [1 John 4:7, 16] “I am the authentic vision of existence….If you live like this, you will encounter God, who is love.”
“If you lived here,” the sign on a real estate property says, “you’d be home now!” If you live here, in the Jesus Way, abiding in that authentic vision of existence, you’re always home. There’s always a “place” prepared for you. “Home becomes a moveable feast,” as Gayle Landis says. “Even on those nights when we cannot fully trust ourselves or one another, there is a place prepared. And that makes all the difference in the dark.” [Edgy Exegesis, on Patheos, 5/11/14]… in the dark of foreboding news stories, in the dark of the unknowing and the waiting for diagnoses, in the dark of loss and death, in the dark of depression and despair, in the dark of not belonging. “I go to prepare a place for you.” “If you live here, you are home now.”
I have just finished reading a novel by the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen called, Waking Lions. Set in modern-day Israel, the story revolves around an Israeli doctor and an Eritrean woman whose husband the doctor hits and kills on a dark desert highway. It’s not really a murder mystery, because we know from the first line in the book who killed the man. But it is a suspenseful, complex weaving of lives that are infinitely more complicated and multi-layered than one initially imagines.
What is excruciatingly clear by the end is the devastating effect of not having a home, of feeling like you are not welcome and you do not “belong,” like these Eritrean workers, like the migrant workers living in our midst on dairy farms or apple orchards, like the refugees from war-torn, devastated countries, so far from “home.” Our very definition of what it means to be human becomes distorted and deeply wounded. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said, knowing that wherever his followers were, in the midst of whatever persecution, trial, or hardship that lay ahead of them, they would need to have a sense of home. “If you lived here, you’d be home now.” “Abide in me.”
“Jesus is the way out,” the great African-American preacher Gardner Taylor said. “We are all captives and slaves…” to systems and assumptions and culture. Jesus is the way out, the way through hardship and trial. “I am the authentic vision of existence. I am the way and truth and the life…If you live this way, you will encounter God, who is love.”
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “the one who believes [into] me, who trusts in me, will
also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…I will do whatever you ask along these lines–”in my name”–so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Astounding, isn’t it? It is a promise not to gratify any desire or whim–not “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” as Janis Joplin sang, but rather a promise to be with us when we do the works of Jesus, which are the works of God, giving life, restoring and enriching meaning. So, as John Pilch says, our challenge “is to engage in life-giving activities rather than death-dealing ones, putting meaning into life rather than sucking it out.” [Ibid.] Imagine, even greater works than Jesus! But only if we live in that authentic vision of existence, only if we abide in him, ask “in his name.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told them–and us. “Trust me. I am preparing a place for you. If you live there, you will always be home.” May that be truth and vision and courage for us for the living of these days. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark