Thursday, April 10, 2008

"In my Father's house": further reflections on John 14

A few weeks ago, I said I would post some thoughts on the following teaching of Jesus:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.                      - John 14.1-4
Having discussed Wright's reading of this famous passage in my introductory remarks, I'd like to tentatively offer a suggestion of my own. Where does God dwell? Heaven? The Temple? In Christ? The new heavens and earth? Yes, these are all true (in different senses), yet just a few verses later, another "location" is discussed.
Jesus replied, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."

- John 14.23

Jesus speaks of coming with the Father to those who love and obey him and making their home with them. "My Father's house" might therefore be a reference to the indwelling divine presence amongst the loving and obedient community of disciples. How is this achieved? Through the sending of the Spirit of truth – the Paraclete ("Advocate", or perhaps "Helper"): 
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in [or "amongst"] you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you."

- John 14.15-18

Thus, before we get to verse 23, if we were to ask where the Father "dwells" (what is his "house"), while the Jews might have said "the Temple", Jesus would have said "in me!" (14.10; cf. 2.19-21). The Father dwells in Jesus, and Jesus in the Father. In verse 23 we get a new movement: by the Spirit, both Father and Son dwell in the disciples (14.23), and so this community is also the home of God. Of course, the whole sequence can also be reversed: the disciples dwell in Jesus (by keeping his new commandment of love), and Jesus dwells in the Father.

Thus, could it be that the preparatory departure of which Jesus speaks in verses 2-3 is his death (and/or ascension), and that the return mentioned in verse 3 is not what is usually called "the second coming" (cf. John 21.22?) but is the arrival of the Spirit? If Jesus "goes" to the Father (verses 5-6), he (along with the Father) "returns" to his disciples through the presence of the Spirit. In the light of 14.23, if we ask where the post-Easter Jesus is, it seems he (and the Father) are with those who love him. Therefore, there are "many rooms" to his Father's "house" because there are many who do and will love Jesus. This is meant to be reassuring to the disciples: there is plenty of "room" in the church, always more space in the community of those who love and obey Jesus.

And what does it mean for the disciples to receive the Spirit of truth? On the one hand, it means a continuation of their love for Jesus by obeying his new commandment to love one another (John 13.34-35). On the other hand, it means that Jesus and the Father are not absent from the community. The disciples are not left as "orphans" because Jesus' Father becomes their Father (cf. 20.17), and neither Jesus nor his Father are absent from a community guided by the Spirit of truth into the love shared between the Son and Father. This will be how Jesus reveals himself to the disciples (though not to the world: v.22): through the very "ordinary" (though actually totally divine) experience of love. If they love one another, then this experience of community is itself the proof and the taste of being included in the divine life of self-giving love. They have been welcomed into the Father's house when they welcome one another in love. They know that Father, Son and Spirit are with and in them when they are with and in one another. And this, unsurprisingly, is where Jesus then goes in chapter 15.

In sum, I am convinced that John 14 doesn't teach the common Christian misconception of going-to-heaven-when-you-die in any straightforward sense (for more on this, see my earlier series). Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the impending violence, betrayal, confusion and bereavement of the next few hours will not leave them at a loss. Though Jesus is going, the Spirit is coming, and with him the common life of love with Jesus experienced by the disciples will continue.


Anonymous said...

Wacky-do! What a bizarre reading. You make a good case for it, but that comes out of left field for my head. I'll need to go back through and read the passage. Do you think he could really mean that? In my Father's house (all of youse) there are many rooms (for others to be included/you to be comforted)? Far out, new thoughts ...

Dave said...

That has been my reading of the passage. I fully agree with you. It is refreshing to hear it from someone else.

Anonymous said...


I like it. But it makes me feel funny—probably means you're right:)

Justin said...

Thanks for these two posts, Byron. Your comments were very helpful for my sermon last month. It was very hard to get across some of the complexity of this text in a 20 minute sermon. Esp since Jesus is telling his disciples to 'not let your hearts be troubled'. But I came close...

John McClean said...

i've just noticed your comments on John 14 and thought I'd throw in mine, if belatedly.

I think this is the right way to see John 14. it was Raymond Brown's commentary that got me thinking this way first, though he has a view about layers of editing with varying eschatologies.

The one thing Jesus does not say is "I will go there and wait for you to get to me"! So we have to ask how does he come back, and the obvious answer is, as you say, in the Spirit. Perhaps there is secondary reference to his coming in glory so that in a kind of prophetic foreshortening the Spirit and Jesus glorious return are treated as one - even if that is the case the coming of the Spirit is the primary thought.

Realising this did mean I had to shelve a useful funeral sermon - but it led me into a far more exciting view of John 14-16. I specially like the thought of John 16:7, where Jesus indicates that his going and the coming of the Spirit is a salvation-historical advance. The Spirit does not simply keep us in a holding pattern till Jesus returns.