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Dwelling Places

Text: John 14:1-7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 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? 3 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. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

John 14 opens with these comforting words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” I have spoken those words on countless occasions as a friend’s coffin was lowered into the grave. I have prayed those words for others when their life had entered a dark and unexpected tunnel. I have read those words as though they were addressed only to me when my soul was worn and aching and those soothing words anointed me like a healing balm.

John 14 also contains words that are often read in a divisive way, in a way that makes me want to scream. My most conservative religious friends read this chapter and rarely focus on the comforting opening words, the words that often bring me to tears. Instead, when they read John 14, they often gladly slap the words, “No one comes to the Father except through me” on everything from their T-shirts to the bumpers of their cars. And just as often, they use this same phrase, blithely and out of context, to put Jews and Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, and any other form of religious believers on notice. With this phrase as their mantra, my conservative religious friends are certain that NO ONE is “a” child of God who does not believe Jesus is “the” child of God.

And maybe, they are right. That, though, is not how I read John 14. Whenever I read, “no one comes to the Father except through me,” I am reminded those words were not addressed to modern Christians living in a global religious arena. They are words that were spoken to Christianity in its infancy, in a time when Christians were struggling to survive, barely existing on the margins of Judean society. Christians were being kicked out of synagogues because their strident faith in Jesus was objected to by many fellow Jews. Jesus’ words were spoken, then, in a time when Jews and Christians were in a heated family argument that spilled over into life in the Roman empire.

I am particularly grateful for Barbara Brown Taylor’s insight into John 14 when she writes, “Jesus here is not addressing some interfaith conference with Hindus and Buddhists present. [But rather] He is talking to his close friends at a tender farewell moment. This language … is confessional language, love language. Jesus is speaking to a small group of his closest friends on the night before he dies. He is up to his eyelids in trying to speak loving words to his brokenhearted friends. He is giving them everything he [can] think of to help them survive without him, and he [uses] the singular, exclusive language that people who love so often do.”

The language Jesus speaks in John 14 is intimate love language. It is the language that we use in our most tender and teary and pivotal moments. It is not subtle language; it is brash and bold love language: “You are the best mother in the whole world. No exceptions!” “You are the only woman in the world for me. No exceptions!” “No one has ever loved a child the way I love you. No exceptions!” Barbara concludes, “This is language from the depths of relationship, spoken only for love, [and for lovers to grasp.]” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Only Way To God, 1999).

“No one comes to the Father, except through me.” In this phrase, my conservative religious friends cling to the word “except,” claiming that here Jesus certifies he is our only path to God. But again, I would remind my friends that Jesus here is not speaking dogmatic language; he is speaking love language. So, while my conservative religious friends cling to the word “except” in this phrase, I cling to the family word, “Father” or “Dad.”

In this farewell conversation Jesus is having with his disciples, he uses intimate and personal words to impress upon them that our God is not some distant, remote disinterested Zeus nor a thundering Thor. Jesus does not say “No one comes to a generic, omnipotent, omniscient God, distant in the heavens, except through me.” Instead, Jesus speaks of God as a loving parent, a loving Father who shows us his ways, a loving Mother who gives us life. When Thomas responds to Jesus and speaks for every person who has ever been lost in the forest of grief, “How can we possibly know the way?” Jesus takes him by the heart and says, “You follow me and you will find your way to the bosom of your parent’s love.”

In addition to this debated phrase, Jesus speaks these words of invitation to his frightened friends, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places or rooms or mansions.” He does not tell them that there are a few, select “dwelling places” reserved for those who believe the way they are supposed to believe. Just when his disciples are feeling the most isolated and alone and absolutely terrified about what might happen next, Jesus tells them, “God has got you. God has a place for you. You can breathe again.” He tells them that there are “dwelling places” for us all in God’s expansive love.

In my life, I have found it to be true that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” I find tremendous comfort in his love talk that offers us a “dwelling place” in our parent’s love. It is the kind of love talk that has kept my faith alive and it keeps my heart growing and expanding. I take tremendous comfort in the promise of “dwelling places” especially in those moments when I feel the most isolated and disconnected.

That is why I want to scream when this grace-filled, intimate love talk by Jesus is turned into a hateful, iron gate to divide those who are entitled to live in God’s reserved “dwelling places” from those who are not. I weep when I hear people read these words of Jesus and conclude, “Believe in Jesus as the only begotten son of the Father and there is a dwelling place for you. Don’t believe in Jesus and well, out you go.”

Anne Lamott writes: “Sometimes love looks like Truth, and love gives us the option of pointing with the sword of truth, instead of jabbing with it.” God knows how many times I have heard Christians jab with the sword of “except” in John 14. No way to God, “except” through Jesus. Jab! No way Jesus intends his love talk for anyone “except” believing Christians. Jab! So, no hope for you Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists or for you “none of the above.” Jab! Whenever I hear such hardline, divisive talk, it breaks my heart and it makes me angry.

The love talk in John 14 is meant to draw us closer to God, not to put us on guard duty when anyone tries to come to God in another way. What it would it look like, then, if Christians did not read John 14 as instructions on how to compel others to believe exactly the way they believe, but as an invitation to share the love talk of Jesus with those who mostly have experienced the hateful and exclusive talk of some Christians?

What if Christians – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox – stopped trying to “fence” this communion table from those who do not believe in Jesus in the “right way” and instead invited anyone and everyone to join in God’s great eucharistic feast at which the risen Jesus is always the gracious host? What if the Lord’s Table were embraced as one of those “dwelling places” that Jesus promises his friends, a place that leads us all home?

What if Christians spent less time worrying about keeping any but “true believers” out of church and instead spent more time celebrating that the risen Jesus invites in anyone who will listen? What if we let ourselves fall full force into the loving arms of God as Jesus invites us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”?

What if there is room for all of us in the household, the dwelling place, of God? No exceptions.

I, for one, rejoice in that loving truth and give thanks. I, for one, am ready to fall full force into the loving arms of God and would love for you to join me.


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