“Let not your hearts be troubled” John chapter 14 begins, which in itself is very troubling! “Let not your hearts be troubled” is a comforting thing to say when it’s the conclusion to what you are saying but disconcerting when said by way of introduction!
Beginning a message with the warning ‘don’t panic’ doesn’t bode well for what follows, and indeed the teachings of Jesus that follow are as disconcerting as they are difficult!
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you, and when I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also!” (John 14:2-3)
There they are – troubling words indeed, though they’re generally not taken that way.
You are familiar with these words, I suspect, even if you are not a particularly devoted student of the Gospel according to St John. You will be familiar with them, I suspect, because they have been read at almost every funeral you have attended, as they have certainly been read at every funeral I have taken (and I’ve taken plenty of funerals).
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you, and when I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also!” (John 14:1-3)
Yes, we know what this means and as we mourn loved ones we find that this image brings us comfort and strength.
In our ‘Father’s house’ there are many rooms, and I’m sure the Father has room for dear old Uncle Fred! Yes, the man was a notorious wife-beater and alcoholic but there are plenty of rooms in our ‘Father’s house’ and I’m sure there’s room for Fred in there somewhere, though hopefully it’s a long way away from Aunty Ethel’s room!
You inevitably hear this verse quoted at funerals and the other context in which I often hear it used is at ecumenical or inter-faith meetings! I remember hearing a Catholic nun assuring her community “there is room in our Father’s house for the Protestant’s too! They get the room next to the ice-machine but it’s still a good room!”
The ‘Father’s house’ is a wonderfully useful image when you understand it this way as it allows us to think of Heaven in a very inclusive way while retaining a strict hierarchy. Us good Evangelical Protestants get the penthouse suite, but there’s room too for the Muslims in the basement and even the Mormons will get a room in there somewhere!
The basic idea is that the ‘Father’s house’ is a metaphor for Heaven, and the promise is that Jesus will ‘come to us’ on our death-beds to accompany us to that special place that has been prepared for us in Heaven.
It’s a lovely image and a comforting one if we hold fears for ourselves or for others regarding death or life after death. I’m convinced though that this teaching of Jesus actually has nothing to do with either death or life after death, and I don’t think it’s designed to bring comfort either!
“Let not your hearts be troubled!” We should take this warning seriously, for this is a teaching that is likely to trouble us!
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms”. Many ‘mansions’ was the more traditional rendering of the Greek word ‘mone’, which goes back to the Tyndale translation, though in old English the word ‘mansion’ just meant ‘dwelling place’ and not ‘palatial dwelling place’ as it later came to mean.
In truth scholars are radically unsure as to how to best translate this Greek word ‘mone’. Some suggest ‘dwelling place’ or ‘room’ or perhaps ‘stopping place’, such as a spot that one might stop at for a break when taking a long journey. Others suggest simply ‘place’. However we take it there is nothing in the word itself to suggest that we are talking about a place on the other side of death!
Moreover, the idea that Jesus was addressing each of His disciples individually and saying to them ‘when the day comes when you are going to die I will come back for each of you to accompany you over to the other side’ is simply ridiculous! Jesus is addressing the disciples as a group and He’s referring to a particular group event!
Of course that could mean Jesus was talking about the ‘second coming’ when the world as we know it will come to an end. Some Biblical commentators interpret the passage this way, suggesting that Jesus was promising to come back to the disciples soon, at which point the world would end and they’d advance together into the Kingdom of God.
That is possible at a textual level but the problem with that interpretation, of course, is that it didn’t happen!
And even if you took the position that Jesus got it wrong as to where things were going, the reality is that John’s Gospel was the last Gospel published, and was published after John had died, and we know that John outlived all the other disciples! In other words, if Jesus had really been talking about the second coming, why would those who compiled the Gospel have included a prediction by Jesus that had turned out to be patently false!
No, this passage is not about the second coming any more than it’s about Jesus coming to us on our death-beds. I’m sorry. Let not your hearts be troubled, but if we’re going to understand this passage I think we are going to need to look at it in context, which means looking at where this dialogue takes place and what else is said in the dialogue.
John chapter 14 is in fact a part of the final discourse Jesus has with His disciples at the last supper.
In John chapter 13 Jesus washes His disciples feet and He warns them that one of their number was about to betray Him. In the same chapter it is recorded that Judas leaves the room, heading off to do his dirty work, leaving a sense of foreboding behind him. Jesus speaks of ‘where He is going’, and warns His disciples that He is going somewhere where they cannot immediately follow him! (John 13:36)
This is the context in which Jesus says to them ‘I go to prepare a place for you’. Where Jesus is going then is not to Heaven as such but to His destiny – to the cross, to suffering and to an ignominious death! The idea though that Jesus might be going to Golgotha to prepare a place for us alongside Him is a rather disturbing one. Certainly it is a long way from the more familiar interpretation of this passage!
In taking the passage in context though we must look not only at what precedes Jesus’ words but also at what follows them – at the rest of chapter 14 – and what follows is far more encouraging than what goes before! What follows Jesus’ predictions regarding where He is going is His promise that He is also going to come back to His disciples in the form of the Holy Spirit!
“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 you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:16-20)
Let me cut to the chase here and suggest that there are striking parallels between this promise regarding the coming of the Spirit and the one regarding the house with many rooms. Indeed, I want to suggest to you that the promise regarding the many rooms may simply be another way of talking about the mysterious coming of the Holy Spirit!
In both cases Jesus is talking about the mystical union He is going to share with His disciples. In both cases He is talking about comings and goings too (or rather about going and coming) though there is a key difference. In one case Jesus is talking about how He comes to be with us and in the other case it’s about us going to be with Him!
I believe that it is indeed the reality of living in union with Christ and the Spirit that Jesus is talking about, and I believe that the contrast as well as the parallels is really important to take into account!
On the one hand we have the wonderful promise that Jesus will come to us to be with us. He loves us as we are and will come to us if we open our hearts to Him. He will indeed become a part of us and live in us and with us. That’s one side of the mystery!
The other side of the equation though is that we have to keep being drawn away from where we are to go and be with Him! We sit comfortably inside our cosy church building but Jesus is out there on the battlefield. Let not your hearts be troubled but he warned – He is going to come to us and take us to Himself, so that where He is we will be also!
Perhaps this understanding requires us to re-translate ‘in my Father’s house there are many rooms’ to something like ‘in my Father’s office there are many workstations. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a cubicle for you?’
That would work as a translation, I think, except that the workplace Jesus has in mind for us is evidently something less clean and clinical than any corporate environment populated by well-suited, white-collar workers. Jesus is going into the ghettoes to prepare a place for us! He’s heading to Damascus! He’s going all the way to the cross!
In short, Jesus is heading in a direction that we don’t want to go in. ‘But let not your hearts be troubled. You can trust me on this one! Believe in God. Believe also in me. I will not leave you orphaned. On the contrary, I will come to you and take you with me so that where I am you may be also!’
I appreciate that this may be a disconcerting and dissatisfying interpretation of John chapter 14. If so, I think that’s an indication that we’re on the right track, for the response of the disciples is one of dissatisfaction too.
“Show us the Father and we will be satisfied” Philip says to Jesus (John 14:8).
Philip speaks on behalf of all the disciples, of course, as the general feeling there is that none of them are satisfied. They want a more intense religious experience before they are going to venture down this ignominious road!
There’s something bizarre about that, of course. When we feel spiritually dissatisfied we often think ‘Oh, if only I had been a part of that Apostolic band and seen Jesus in action first-hand!’ The disconcerting reality seems to have been that the Apostles themselves did not feel spiritually satisfied with what they had!
Of course those men had had intense religious experiences with Jesus. They’d seen His miracles and they’d been there on the mount of transfiguration. Even so, by the time of the ‘last supper’ all that must have seemed an awful long time ago.
They’d spent three years with Jesus now and the intense days of ‘I want you, I want you’ were well behind them. No doubt some of them were experiencing that three-year Messianic itch. ‘Maybe he’s not the right Messiah for me after all?’
‘Show us the Father’ says Philip, ‘and we shall be satisfied’.
‘Sorry’, says Jesus, ‘but I am as much of the Father as you are going to get!’
It’s all rather dissatisfying and disillusioning, isn’t it? We want a spectacular religious experience! ‘Sorry’, says Jesus. We want our own mansion in Heaven! ‘Sorry’, says Jesus, ‘all I can offer you for the moment is a cross’!
This is the heart of that final conversation between Jesus and His disciples at that final meal before everything fell apart! Jesus was warning them – trying to help His people brace themselves for what was about to happen.
Life was about to get very rough, but ‘let not your heart be trouble. Believe in God. Believe also in me. I will not leave you orphaned. I will come again and take you to myself. I will be with you, and where I am, you will be also!’
Yes, the path of discipleship is hard and lonely and so often far from spectacular, and yet this is our testimony – that a day on the Via Dolorosa with Jesus is worth more than a lifetime in a mansion without Him!
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. For I am the way and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through me.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 18th of May, 2014.