PUTTING BIBLICAL SOUND BITES IN CONTEXT
John 14: 1-14
When we lived in Arkansas, we had just one main local team to cheer for: The Arkansas Razorbacks. The jokes flew regularly regarding the Razorbacks and the Texas Aggies, and they were legendary and predictable; I’ve noticed people all over the country apply the same jokes to the teams in their own state. For example, one of the first football events I attended when I moved to Daytona Beach was the Gator/Noles game at the Swamp. I knew nothing about the teams and, in fact, learned a lot about Florida lore on that trip! These days the Noles are football champs and the Gators are rebuilding. But back in the 90s, this joke circulated:
Imagine the days after Bobby Bowden dies and enters the Pearly Gates and God takes him on a tour. He shows Bobby a little two-bedroom house with a faded FSU banner hanging from the front porch. “This is your house, coach. Most people don’t get their own houses up here,” God says. Bobby looks at the house, then turns around and looks at the one sitting on top of the hill. It’s a huge two-story mansion with white marble columns and little patios under all the windows. Gator flags line both sides of the sidewalk and a huge Gator banner hangs between the marble columns. “Thanks for the house, God. But let me ask you a question. I get this little two-bedroom house with a faded banner and Spurrier gets a mansion with new Gator banners and flags flying all over the place. Why is that?” God looks at him seriously for a moment and says: “That’s not Spurrier’s house, That’s mine.”
Mansions in heaven; all based on the King James Translation of John 14: 2.
In Heaven” was a song written by rock singer John Mellencamp. These are some of his lyrics:
The old paper mill stinks up the beaches
As I walk along the ocean shore
I’m just a plain man, thoughts full of creases
Haven’t accomplished much, but I dream of more
Mansions in heaven
I see myself walking with the king
The angels are descending
To wrap me up in red velveteen
Years ago Helen Reddy recorded a song that was also covered by Bette Midler with this refrain:
Oh, and Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
And did I hear you say he was meeting you here today,
To take you to his mansion in the sky?
And many old hymnals contain the hymn “Beulah Land” with this refrain:
O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land, as on thy highest mount I stand;
I look away across the sea, where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore, my heaven, my home forevermore.
I hesitate to tell you how misleading the King James Translation is in that passage, because that translation is so beloved; but here is the back story to John 14.
The New Testament uses deliberate imagery, calling Jesus the Bridegroom and the Church as his bride. In Jewish custom a father, in consultation with his son, would watch girls grow up in his community and finally select a young woman to hopefully become the bride for his son. The Father would go to the father of the young woman he hoped his son would marry. The men would talk about the merits of each and then the father of the son would propose the bride price to the father of the bride. Suffice it the say the price would be substantial; very substantial. If the price was agreed to, the marriage agreement would be made and the father of the son would return to him home, tell his son the news, and have his son begin to assist him in building a room on the father’s house where the new couple would live. During the building stage, the father would not only teach his son about building, but about being a good husband and father. No one knew when the room would be completed except the father of the son; the son didn’t know; the bride didn’t know; the father of the bride didn’t know. Only the father decided when the room—and his son—were ready. Then, with very little warning, the father would send messengers ahead to tell the bride (who together with her bridesmaids were waiting in anticipation for weeks or even months) that all was ready and that the groom was coming to claim his bride and take her back to his father’s house where a room had been prepared for them! That’s the backstory for Jesus talking to his disciples before he died and before he went to his Father’s house.
Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms (or dwelling places). Does it really make sense to say “In my Father’s house are many mansions?”
Monai –is the Greek word used here; it means rooms or dwelling places; it is the plural of the Greek word moneh- which means room. Jesus said, in his most reassuring voice to his disciples who were not ready for him to depart: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I imagine he said that rather gently as a parent might say to a child. Then Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Now you understand how comforting that would have been: his disciples would have pictured a big house with enough space to build on room after room. Jesus would come back for them … and us … his bride … and take them to his Father’s house. Then he said: “I go to prepare a place (room) for you. Now it makes sense, doesn’t it? He was leaving his disciples to make a room for them, and returning to get them when it was time! He said it this way: And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again (read here “I will return,” just like the groom returned to claim his bride.” Then Thomas, the only one bold enough to say what perhaps others were thinking said: “Lord, (even he called Jesus Lord, not just “teacher”) we do not know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” Of course! No one fully understood resurrection, then or now! Few people have gone to heaven and returned to tell about it. In our day if you believe the popular books written on the subject, some have done so. But how could Jesus expect these disciples to buy into what he knew so well? So Jesus answer Thomas, not knowing that John was going to record his every word (as if Jesus were talking to a film crew) and millions afterward would read and believe it. This is what Jesus said, according to John; “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14: 6) Is it possible to take a fresh look at that verse? So much in the Christian world hinges on the meaning that is preached from that one line John reported. Most of the time, unfortunately, I hear it preached as a proclamation Jesus made to the world instead of an answer to one inquisitive disciple’s question. Generally it is proclaimed to say that no one, besides Christians, have a place prepared in Heaven for them; that Heaven is reserved only for Christians. Could it mean, by contrast, that all who die who have sought God and to live a Godly life will be greeted by Christ when they arrive? Then with the love and grace that Jesus uniquely showed during his lifetime, he would judge all people regarding heaven?
As a Christian pastor I will always preach Christ; Christ is the one I found on the Way, and to be the Truth, and the one who is the proponent of abundant life. But I also do not let one verse that John reported trump the will of God. God can choose to save and bless whomever God chooses to save and bless; because God is God! God’s job description is to be able to do whatever God chooses, and can welcome whomever God chooses to welcome. I think that is the nature of God. But over the years, people have used this passage in a threatening, gate-closing way, when it was only a single response to a man’s question. Let’s keep the sound bite in context instead of making it seem like Jesus was reaching out of the pages of Scripture in a thunderous or finger-wagging fashion, the way I have sometimes heard it preached.
Philip, perhaps emboldened by Thomas’ willingness to ask questions, says something else. “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” The Bible doesn’t say if Jesus puts his hand to his head, or looks at the ground or at the ceiling. All we know is what he said. “How can you say ‘Show us the Father? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” As Jesus responds, is he thinking that no mortal to date had looked upon the face of God and lived? I think his answer does not tie God to a gender, but says “In my love, you have seen the love of my Heavenly Father.” Jesus used this relational metaphor for first century clarity. Perhaps his words today might say: “If you have noticed what I am like, you’ll have an idea of what God is like.”
On a cruise last year a fantastic illusionist convinced me that seeing is not believing. I was sure of what I saw with my eyes, and yet, with illusions and slight of hand, my seeing had fooled my brain. What I saw was not truth; nor what was actually in front of me. Perhaps trying to use a new explanation, Jesus went further and said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Like a founder of a company who passed all authority and decision-making on to his son but keeps in daily conversations with his son, the son finally knows his father so well and the father trusts the son so implicitly that the son begins to take actions that his father would take. They are one.
Finally Jesus’ offers what sounds like the ultimate of power and reassurance: “Whatever you ask in my name I will do it.” Again I remind you who the “you” is here: his listeners are his disciples; he is addressing them. We are listening in. If we read about the apostles in the book of Acts, we see that Jesus kept his promise: Whatever they asked for in Jesus’ name was granted: healings, conversions, and more. Jesus did not break his promise. We are listening in as Jesus empowered his apostles to complete the work of spreading his gospel. Do I still ask for things in Jesus’ name? Yes. Do I believe with all my heart that if it is not some self-serving item I’m asking for—but instead a healing, or intervention, or a blessing— that my prayer request may be granted? Yes. Do I think 100% of my requests and your requests are heard by God? and do I hope with all my heart that I get a positive response to my prayers? Yes. But do I also believe that God—who is not bound by time or space—may see something I don’t or know something I don’t about that situation, or have a different plan than my mortal mind has? Yes. And do I think that God’s answer to us is sometimes “no,” sometimes “later,’ and sometimes “yes?” Absolutely. So those who look at this verse and say, “ I asked for something in Jesus’ name, and it didn’t happen, therefore I don’t believe in Jesus” those people have been—perhaps—taking Jesus’ words out of context. They’ve been reading the Bible as if Jesus were speaking to them instead of to the disciples who were getting ready to go into the world on their own. This passage is a final way that Jesus empowered the work of his apostles before he left. He had some very specific assurances and instructions for them.
It is wonderful and powerful to listen in to the teachings of our Lord. But I have learned to always let God be God; to always ask when I believe it is warranted, and to trust the outcome. Everything I know from Jesus tells me we have a loving, grace-filled, and forgiving God. May this God comfort and guide you too, in your witnessing, and even in you mourning.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 18, 2014