Many Dwelling Places

John 14:1–14, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on May 07, 2023

I was talking with someone this week about a decision they are trying to make. And I noticed that as they spoke about one of the possibilities before them, their voice became animated, grew lively. This conversation reminded me how important it is for us to pay attention to what is giving us life. So . . . what is giving you life? When and where andwith whom are you feeling good, finding pleasure? Later on, I want to return to these questions, and if anyone is willing to share, I’d love for us to hear from a few people.

Today’s passage from John is a portion of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples during the last supper, the night before the crucifixion. It’s noteworthy that during Easter-tide, the season of new life, our attention is again directed to this scene of impending death. We are invited to hear these parting words together with the proclamation of resurrection and to consider how this agonizing scene is transformed by the fresh light of Easter morning.

First, though, let’s address the elephant in the room. You have probably heard people say that Jesus’ statement—I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except through me—is proof that Christianity is the only valid spiritual path. However, this interpretation is both inappropriate and lacking in context. You see, Jesus was not in a lecture hall or a pulpit, aiming to make a statement about how world religions relate to each other. No, in that upper room, everyone knew the betrayer had already set his plot in motion and soldiers with spears and clubs were on their way to arrest Jesus. These were raw and personal words of comfort, consolation, and strength offered to dear friends in crisis, spoken as tears flowed, fear prickled at the backs of necks, and panic clouded reason. 

It seems to me that any reading of this text that supports Christian exclusivism is antithetical to what Jesus actually stood for. Because such an interpretation has real-world implications, like the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery,” which declared that the lands, property, and indeed, the lives and labor, of non-Christian peoples were under the rightful control of Christians of European descent. The Doctrine of Discovery was embedded in US law in the 1800s and is still in operation among us today. John’s story of the last supper centers the washing of feet coupled with the command to love and serve each other. This larger context tells me that John’s Jesus was not driven by a desire to be “right,” to impose his beliefs on others, or to oppress people for the sake of profit and power. He wanted his followers get down on their knees in humility, and to practice love, to engage in concrete acts of care for the community.

The essence of Jesus’ meaning in this farewell address is summed up in the invitation, “Trust in God, trust also in me.” Translators often use the word “believe” here but “trust” is an equally valid rendering of the Greek verb pistos. Trust is a state of the whole self, not only the mind. And trust is based in relationship. Jesus was reassuring his disciples that they had everything they needed to move through the crisis that was before them. Though he was leaving them, he would not really be gone. “Trust in God, trust also in me.” “In God’s house there are many dwelling places.” The term “dwelling places” comes from the root word “meno,” which is the same verb used in Jesus’ invitation, elsewhere in John, to “abide” with him and with God, to interconnect like grapes nourished on a vine.

“In God’s house there are many dwelling places.” “I go to prepare a place for you.” There are many ways to God, actually. God abides everywhere and in everyone. Jesus is not the only way or the exclusive truth. However, in teaching his community to wash each other’s feet, Jesus gives real flesh to God’s ways and truths. The only way to God, the sole path to experiencing life and finding pleasure, is through the material and spiritual practices of love.

Lately I’ve been mulling over the perspectives of African American authors Adrienne Marie Brown and Tricia Hersey. The thread in their worldview I’m finding both challenging and generative is what Adrienne Marie Brown calls “pleasure activism.” She explains it this way:

I have come to believe that facts, guilt, and shame are limited motivations for creating change, even though those are the primary forces we use in our organizing work. I suspect that to really transform our society, we will need to make justice one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have. (Emergent Strategy, p. 33)

I’m realizing how much my idea of what a fruitful life looks like has been shaped by what Tricia Hersey calls “grind culture,” which is how she describes the interplay of white supremacy and capitalism. In her book, Rest Is Resistance Hersey repeats a sort of mantra dozens of times. We are not machines. We are divine beings. We are worthy of rest, just because we are alive. She explains that though rest certainly includes napping and sleeping, it can really be “anything that slows you down enough to allow your body and mind to connect in the deepest way.” (p. 83) For me, one of the most restful activities is to wander outdoors, usually with my camera. What about for you? Embracing rest for everyone, according to Hersey, is the key to freeing ourselves from grind culture. She says: 

Slowing down, napping and sleeping are not what grind culture expects of us. It will truly be a resistance since the systems make us hard and machine-like. Rest keeps us tender and there is power in our tenderness and care. We will have to slow down enough to listen to what our hearts and bodies want to share with us. Our lives are a beautiful experiment in curiosity and creation. We can craft a life outside of toxic systems. Collective care, imagination and rest are so vital to our liberation. Without them, we will not make it. (p. 82)

It seems to me that resisting grind culture through claiming our rest is an example of pleasure activism. We’ve been taught that our worth is bound up in what we can produce. The idea that it is instead rest that makes us fully human, and full of the divine, and fully alive is sort of irresistibly joyful, is it not?

So . . . what is giving you life? When and where and with whom are you feeling good, finding pleasure? I’d love for us to hear from a few people. We have mics in the sanctuary. If you are on Zoom or YouTube, you can type your response in the chat.

Friends, resurrection life was never about Jesus alone. It was the gift the disciples received when they continued to trust Jesus and the way he had taught them to be together even through the crisis of crucifixion. Easter came when they noticed what was giving them life, as they paid attention to when and where and with whom they were feeling good and finding joy. So, hear again the words of Jesus, reassuring us in the midst of all that causes us stress and grief and fear: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father and Mother’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.” Amen.