Texts: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
The verb “to trouble” is used three times in John’s gospel to describe Jesus’ own troubled heart, and each time it is used to describe how he is troubled by the power of death and evil at work: once at the death of Lazarus, once at the prospect of his own death, and once when Judas leaves to betray him.
When Jesus says to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it is not just a teacher trying to comfort his friends before he leaves them. Jesus is sitting his disciples down to explain that he is going away, but the troubling of their hearts that he is speaking of is not just grief or sadness. These words were written almost 100 years after Jesus’ ascension to the Jewish Christians who were finding themselves kicked out of their religious communities for following the teachings of Jesus. They were likely feeling scared and angry, alone and unsafe. In other words, they felt like many people in our own country are feeling now. To this community, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God, and trust me.” Then, to these spiritually homeless people, he says something remarkable: “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms… I go to prepare a place for you.”
We most often read this story at memorial services, and Jesus’ words conjure in our mind’s eye an image of heaven filled with rooms or houses waiting for the arrival of God’s beloved children. If you grew up reading the King James Version, you might expect something a little fancier, “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions…” While I’m not in any position to say whether or not that’s true, I do know that Jesus isn’t interested in telling these scared and isolated disciples of his about what to expect when they die. The message he gives them is hope as they live their lives, not for when they eventually die.
Rather than referring to heaven, then, “my Father’s house” refers to the place where God abides; and as Jesus says, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” If we keep reading, we will also hear Jesus tell his disciples to “abide in me as I abide in you” (15.4). The noun that gets translated “rooms” or “dwelling places” or “mansions” is derived from the verb “to abide;” the “rooms” Jesus is talking about are not rooms far away in heaven, but relationships in which Jesus and the Father abide: Jesus and the Father abide in us, and we in them. We are the rooms.
What Jesus is saying here is monumental. Previously, people only had access to God through the priests and religious authorities. One related to God primarily through prayer and sacrifice performed at the temple, and through the community of the synagogue. When these followers of Jesus were cut off from their Jewish communities, they were cut off from God; but here Jesus says that they cannot be cut off from God because God abides in them. As 1 Peter says, we are the stones with which God’s house is built. The community of the Church and the hearts of every believer are the places—the relationships—in which the Father abides.
This is not just good news for these long-dead Jewish disciples of Jesus, it is also good news for us. In the midst of our own fears and anxieties, God dwells with us through the love of Christ. In the midst of a harsh and punishing world, there are many rooms—hostels of holiness—where God welcomes us in to shelter from all the things that trouble our hearts. When Jesus says, “do not let your hearts be troubled,” he’s not telling us to “man up” or “keep a stiff upper-lip,” he’s inviting us to come in out of the rain for a while; to take off our shoes and rest in the safety of God’s love. He’s opening the door for us to the room that God has prepared for us in the relationship we have with god through one another.
It gets better: these holy hostels are not just for us, but all humankind. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” Jesus has always said throughout John’s gospel that the works he does do not come from him, but from the Father; and Jesus guiding purpose is laid out in the prologue: “No one has ever seen God: it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known” (1.18) The works the Father has given him to do are nearly completed, but whoever trusts Jesus will continue that work of revealing God to the world, of opening the doors to these rooms of refuge to all who are weary.
This is the truth that Jesus offers us: not that the evil of the world will never touch us, but that when it does, we have refuge abiding with God in the community Jesus has created among us. It’s tempting to read Jesus’ words of comfort as an excuse to stay safe and warm within our cozy little church building and let the world rage outside the doors, but that is not at all what Jesus is saying. Instead of being free to ignore the pain of the world because it cannot touch us, the gospel of Christ frees us to go out in the world and suffer for the sake of the world in the Way of Christ, knowing that the suffering of the world cannot subdue us. Christ the Way not only shows us the truth that love is greater than evil, but also gives us access to the life that is greater than death, the life we share with the resurrected Jesus. There is nothing on this earth so powerful that it can cut us off from the gift of life that we have through Christ.
While I cannot honestly say that my heart is no longer troubled, this passage gives me hope. We are reminded to place our trust not in political parties or economic systems, not in governments or militaries, not in self-help schemes or charismatic preachers, but in the one person who has risen from the dead. The Jesus we meet in water and word, in bread and wine reveals to us a God who is broken to feed us so that we might be broken to feed the world with the love and life of the resurrected Christ. The God revealed to us through Jesus is not a tribal God of the Christians, but the loving Father (or Mother) of the whole world; and together, we are God’s house, the living stones chosen by God to be the people through whom God may dwell with the world, a house and a home for all whose hearts are troubled.
The truth is that all our understandings of God fall short of what and who God truly is. All the images we have are metaphors, and all metaphors fall short. Metaphors are also highly contextual. "Father" worked in Jesus' context because of the social and cultural understanding that word had, and when he applied those understandings to God, it introduced a new level of relationship to people's faith. Now, neither "Father" nor "God" have the same meanings they did to those first readers of John's gospel. Our cultural and social context have changed, and the beauty if metaphors is that they are able to change, too. This is why I chose to read the text referring to God as "Mother," and why I think it is not only a valid theological reason, but one that honors Jesus' original intentions.