Our Gospel readings from John at the end of the Easter season give a brilliant example of the older and newer reading of our Christian message. Let's begin with a beloved passage that gives much comfort at a time of loss, a passage that is often read at funerals. Jesus, on the eve of Good Friday, says to his disciples,
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many abiding 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." (John 14:1-3)Even though "heaven" is not mentioned here, the older reading of this passage is that it's about Jesus taking us to heaven when we die -- a message of immense comfort when we face death, either our own or our loved ones. It is truly a "Blessed Assurance" that God holds us in life when our earthly bodies die.
The newer reading of this passage does not take away or diminish this assurance but extends it to this life -- not just to when we die. It is about the new possibility of "heaven" coming to us through the cross and resurrection, not us waiting to go to heaven someday in the future. The abiding places that Jesus prepares for us? First himself, and then you and me. The many abiding places of God's house become us!
This way of reading comes from the wider context of John's Gospel -- "my Father's house" and his specialized use of "abiding." "My Father's house" appears only one other time, in John 2. When Jesus is taking prophetic action in the Jerusalem Temple, he says, "Stop turning my Father's house into a marketplace" (2:16). Here "my Father's house" means the Temple, the traditional locus of God's presence in the world.
But Jesus is about to change the traditional thinking. When the temple leaders confront Jesus about his authority to cause such a stir in the holy place, Jesus responds with a baffling statement: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19). No further explanation from Jesus. Only John the Gospel Writer tells us the reader, "But he was speaking of the temple of his body" (2:21). In other words, the three days of Good Friday to Easter worked the miracle of, among other things, changing the place of God's presence in the world from the temple to Jesus' body. That's what he means when he later says, "I go to prepare a place for you." The basic place of God's presence in the world is no longer to be sought out in a building. The place has shifted to a human body.
But not to just one body, Jesus' body, because Jesus, in being raised up on the cross and on Easter morning, is "ascending to my Father" (20:17). And so in John's 'Pentecost' scene, on Easter evening, this happens:
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:21-22)This is the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, that Jesus promises to send us in John 14-16, the same passage where he also steps up all the talk about "abiding." Laced throughout these chapters are multiple ways of Jesus talking about spiritual abiding. Jesus is in the Father, and the Father in him. Using the image of the vine and branches, he tells us that he will abide in us and we in him. This is all topped off with a lot of talk about love. We are to abide in Jesus' love and his love in us. And the giving of the Spirit is involved in all of this abiding.
Do you see? Yes, when we die -- when our loved ones die -- we/they abide in God's power of life. This is true! It is certain! It is a great comfort! But it's also all true because the abiding in God, and God in us, has already begun since the first Easter. In going to the cross, Jesus went to prepare a place for us and in us. He makes it evident that God's abiding Spirit is not limited to a holy building. The place of God's abiding in the world is first and foremost in human beings. It's supposed to have been that way from the beginning, as we were made in God's image to be God's image bearers. Sin got in the way, and so Jesus was sent to go to the cross as the way to make happen what was always God's intention. God's abiding Spirit desires to abide in us that we may bear God's loving presence to others, and to the whole Creation. Even as the Father sent Jesus, so now he sends us -- with God's Spirit abiding in and among us, so that we do the same work as Jesus, and even greater work (14:12). God wants to help us come alive in new and fresh ways right here and now. God wants us to be part of God's work of making everything come alive.
Wow! But what does that mean on a practical, everyday level? This is where I think our older way of reading these passages has gotten in the way. It has put the focus of our hope on what happens after we die, such that our work in the present has been focused on believing certain things about Jesus as the key to getting to heaven someday. Yes, we are assured of life after death. But the really important message is that God calls us to come alive today. We are to follow in Jesus' work of battling the powers of sin and death in God's work of making everything come alive.
What does this look like? Since the newer readings are new, what this looks like is still in the process of coming into focus, of emerging. I think the new Pope is onto something in taking the name of one our Christian history's greatest saints, Francis of Assisi, as one benchmark in the past for understanding our task today. One of the most important guides for me in recent years has been the Franciscan priest and teacher, Fr. Richard Rohr. His Center for Action and Contemplation names for me the twin foci of what this will look like, naming, too, what we have seen in our Gospels from John 14-20. Action names the work Jesus talks about throughout John's Gospel, the work of loving one another as Jesus loves us, a work that heals us and makes us come alive in new ways. It is a work of God's Justice and Peace, of bearing God's presence to Creation as we were made to do from the beginning. Contemplation names the spiritual abiding in John's Gospel, the process of God's Spirit coming to abide in us that sends us out to do Jesus' work. Rohr often says that the most important word in the name of his Center is and. Action and Contemplation always accompany each other.
Finally, in recent sermons I promised to say more in my newsletter column about Dan Harris' recent book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works -- A True Story. I chose to begin here with reading our Easter Gospel texts. Harris' book comes under what Rohr names as Contemplation. So I'll promise to say more in next month's newsletter column. For now, I leave you with suggestions for summer reading: Harris' book, and then two coming out this summer: Brian McLaren's We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, and Richard Rohr's Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi.
Have a great summer!