May 10, 2020
William G. Carter
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 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? 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.
And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Back when cell phones were still new, a good friend called me from his car. He was laughing so hard, I could barely make out what he was saying. “What’s so funny?” I asked. He replied, “I’m on my way home from the cemetery.” That was strange, so I said, “Is everything all right?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “We bid farewell to a wonderful lady who passed away in her sleep.” Then he started laughing again. What was this about? Who laughs on the way home from a cemetery?
In a few minutes, he regained his composure. “Sorry about that,” he said, “but the minister presiding at the graveside said something outrageous. It was a familiar passage from the Last Supper. You know, the one where Jesus says, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe in me…”
“The Gospel of John,” I noted, “Chapter 14.”
“Yes, that’s the one,” my friend chuckled, “and that’s when he said it: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many condominiums.’” With that, he burst out with another peal of laughter.
Now that is a comical translation of a familiar passage. In a preacher’s attempt to relate to the people and be relevant, the preachers might twist a Bible text, even mangle it. That was the case for my friend. And it’s easy to understand where this one originates. A lot of us grew up hearing the King James Version of that verse, “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.” Mansions, condominiums, I suppose there’s a connection.
The verse points to a promise that many have taken seriously, if not literally. It is the promise there is a big house in heaven. Since it is God’s house, it must be a magnificent house. Extravagant, opulent. Marble staircases inside, sidewalks of gold outside. It has to be beautiful and enormous. Big enough, said the King James Version, to house many mansions.
“Mansion” is an inviting word, especially if you live in a shack down here. Heaven has often been preached as a reward. Life may be difficult this time around, but when we get to heaven, it will be magnificent. You may be poor, needy, or sick, but after you die, welcome to Downton Abbey.
This hope has been fueled by ten thousand sermons and any number of Gospel songs. Here is one of those songs from the 1880’s:
A mansion is waiting in glory, My Savior has gone to prepare;
The ransomed who shine in its beauty, will dwell in that city so fair.
Oh, home above, I’m going to dwell in that home;
Oh, home of love, get ready, poor sinner, and come.
A mansion is waiting in glory. That was the promise: not merely a condominium, but a mansion.
So imagine the dismay of some when the National Council of Churches commissioned a new Bible translation in 1952. The Revised Standard Version rendered the verse differently. Instead of offering many mansions, the RSV promised “many rooms.” In my Father’s house, there are many rooms. That makes more logistical sense. A house has a lot of rooms. In an ecumenical age, there can be a Presbyterian room, a Roman Catholic room, a Baptist room, and as many rooms as God will provide.
For some believers, I’m sure this was a let-down. Just imagine some poor soul inquiring at St. Peter’s gate, “Where is my mansion?” And Peter replies, “Sorry, pal, all you get is a room.” That sounds like Peter downgraded the reservation. Oh, it may still be a luxury resort: the food is fine, the weather is magnificent, and every golf swing makes a hole in one. And it is God’s house. It has to be better than our houses. The hope is still there.
And yet, if that’s our hope, we may have been surprised to hear how the verse was translated today: “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.” Dwelling places – that’s how the 1990 New Revised Standard Version renders the text. “Many dwelling places.” Where does that come from? Where indeed?
The answer is that it comes from translators who have read the rest of the Gospel of John. John is always talking about dwelling places.
It’s there as early as chapter one. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples see Jesus. They ask, “Rabbi, where is your dwelling place?” He invited them to come and see, so they went to his dwelling place and there they dwelt with him (1:38-39). It is the same terminology as our text.
It points to the grander theme of the Gospel of John. In the opening paragraphs of the book, the Gospel writer says Jesus, the Word of God, didn’t stay far off in heaven. No, he came down here. Quite literally it says, The Word of God “pitched his tent among us.” His dwelling place is right here.
That is the great truth of John’s Gospel – the incarnation, the Son of God dwelling with us.
When the word translated as “dwelling place” becomes a verb, it becomes one of John’s favorite verbs. He uses it no less than 41 times. To dwell means to abide or stay or remain. So Jesus will look at his disciples, gathered around him on their last night together, and he says, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. Stay with me and I will stay with you (15:4-7).” It’s the same word. Stay with me, dwell with me, remain with me.
You may notice that Jesus is not deferring a promise until we die. He is making an invitation here and now, an offer to live with him, and for him to live with us, to live among us, to live within us. The offer is not a reward but a relationship. He is not pitching an imaginary castle on a cloud. Rather this is the invitation to a continuing friendship with the One who loves us as if he created us. Because that is true too.
There is a dwelling place because Jesus goes to prepare it for us. The words we hear today are Last Supper words. In that context, his “going” means his going to the cross. His “coming again” is his return in the resurrection. He goes to prepare and returns to claim us as his own. His cross and resurrection are the Way he welcomes us to share his life.
Does this mean we don’t get a castle after we die, much less a condominium? I can’t say; answering that question is above my pay grade. What I hear Jesus promise is what the scriptures have promised to us elsewhere. Like the last line of the beloved 23rd Psalm: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” His promise, his invitation, is to live with God.
Now, when I heard that verse as a child, I groaned. “Dwell in the house of the Lord forever”? My parents were among the last to leave coffee hour on Sunday mornings. I never thought I would get out of that church. It seemed I would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
What further study revealed is that is the Jewish way of describing the relationship between the Eternal God and God’s people. It doesn’t mean you will be crazy-glued to a pew and stuck there forever. No, no, it is a way to speak of living in “the Way” of God, elsewhere described as a “walk.” Walking in God’s Way is the way we live. God’s life becomes our life. All other distractions fall away as we dwell in this truth.
For the Gospel of John, the central invitation of Easter truth is dwelling with Jesus. He goes to the cross to prepare a dwelling place for us. He comes back, back from the grave, alive to invite us into his life. And if we dwell with him here and now, we live with him forever. Life goes on, eternally with Jesus. We live with Jesus who came from God to live with us. The promise begins now, and the promise will abide even when this life concludes.
So how do we do this? How do we make our dwelling place with Christ? Not later, but now? How do we walk in the Way, receive the Truth, and live the life? The answer is not complicated. He has already given us three clues.
The first thing we do is listen to him. We listen. We pray to screen out all competing voices, and we listen. Today his opening word is, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust in me.” This is where abiding begins. We listen to him. His Word gives us the freedom to look over the shoulder of all our pressing concerns.
Worry and fretting are natural human reactions to trouble, but God has befriended us in Jesus. As real as our worries may be, we hand them over to the God who is greater than ourselves. Trust is a matter of the heart. Trust can inform the mind and direct the will. So we listen, and we trust.
There’s something else we can do, something more than listen. We can dwell. We can inhabit his words. One lesson of a pandemic lockdown is that we cannot travel freely. We have to stay where we are. There is a profound spiritual lesson, in an American culture that tempts us to flit around and never sink our roots into a single place. What if we were to inhabit the “dwelling place” Christ offers and truly sink into his words?
We might find that, rather than be confined, we are deepened. I like what Henry David Thoreau wrote about sinking into a place: “I have traveled widely in Concord.” By abiding there, remaining there, he paid attention. He noticed what he previously had missed. Imagine sinking into the red-letter words of Jesus, savoring a phrase at a time, chewing on the metaphor, receiving the teaching. As we dwell in his words, we discover what the speeding tourist will never see.
And one thing more: we live the life. We welcome the living Word of Christ, let it dwell in us, and then we get on with living. There are friends to love, enemies to forgive, bread to bake, music to create, lawns to mow, e-mails to answer, a forest to enjoy. Today, we have mothers to cherish.
I like the story that Eugene Peterson told about his grandson. Peterson was a preacher and a scholar. He was highly regarded as a spiritual writer and Bible translator. His young grandson would visit and ask, “What are you doing, Grandpa?” He would tell him, and the boy would toodle off. After a while, the grandson returned with a baseball and glove, and say, “Come on, Grandpa. No more God-talk.” They would go outside and play catch. Or go kayaking. Or go for a long walk. No more God-talk. Let’s get on with living.
So the invitation lingers, for you and me. We can let our hearts be troubled, or we can trust God who comes before, and follows after, all things. We dream for an escape from the troubles of this world, or we can welcome the One in our midst who still speaks in the power of his Word. We can jump around from place to place, looking for something, somewhere, that can give us peace, hope, and joy. Or we can sink our roots into Christ and find our home.
For as Jesus declares, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them. And we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)
Easter reveals this promise. We don’t have to wait until the afterlife to dwell with Christ. Jesus Christ is our true Home.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 “A Mansion is Waiting in Glory,” D. S. Warner. https://hymnary.org/text/a_mansion_is_waiting_in_glory