Many dwelling places
May 14, 2017
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Seven are named to serve
Ps 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19
He loves justice and right
1 Pt 2:4-9
A living stone, rejected
Many dwelling places
In the church year, John’s Gospel is featured primarily during Lent and Easter season. An important part of this Gospel is the long farewell discourse given at the Supper, in John 14-17. This is the part of the Gospel that is featured during the Easter season, in all three annual cycles. Today, we begin with the first verses of John 14, and next week we will pick it up from there. The rest will have to wait for the following years.
John’s language in the speeches of Jesus is often poetic. It is both simple and difficult, and part of the difficulty is determining where the talk is headed. It seems repetitive, and it is. Some find this inspirational and meditative. Others, of a more direct cast of mind, wish it were more linear in its account, moving clearly from one topic to another.
Perhaps one way to think about the poetic language is to compare it to a similar feature in the narratives of John. Here too we find repeated events, such as the two announcements of John the Baptist about the “Lamb of God” (1:29, 36), the two encounters with the sisters of Lazarus (11:21, 32), or the double account of the arrest of Jesus (18:4, 7), and so forth. In each case, an opening statement or description is repeated. But then the following scenes explore the meaning of the event in different ways. With the poetry, we can see something similar. A theme is stated and its meaning explored. And then, before long, it reappears, but is considered in a different way.
In reading the passage chosen for today’s Gospel reading, we might note, first of all, that this is Jesus’ farewell to his disciples. But the sadness that this necessarily entails is countered by words of encouragement. Jesus is going away, but he will return. He will be with them, to guide and support them. The speech is poised between these two extremes of sorrow and promise.
There is also a way in which an underlying theme is that of coming home. The partial and provisional character of their (and our) current existence is presented as a kind of homelessness. The Christian who is located between the first and second coming of Christ, what is sometimes called the “already, not yet” posture of faith, finds himself or herself in a restive situation. Aware of the promise, but without the full realization of it. We are not yet home.
With that, we see certain themes, and famous lines, in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus leaves to prepare a place for them, for in his Father’s house there are many “dwelling places.” The image is one of final security, and secure relationship in the community of God’s family.
Another well-known line is uttered in response to Thomas’s remark about not knowing where Jesus is going. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus responds, implying that they have not arrived. They are on the way. The “Way” seems to have been an early name for the Jesus movement, seen in Acts, for instance. But we also might see here the imitation of Jesus as the “way.”
The language of “truth” and “life” appears over and over in this Gospel. Earlier we heard, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31-32).
And we remember the words to the Samaritan woman at the well, “the water I shall give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14). And, of course, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger” (6:35).
For reflection: What do the way, truth, and life mean for you?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.