People have wondered for millennia where God lives. So what’s the answer? An overview of the gospel according to John. (Listen.)
Where does God live? What does God’s house look like? Does God live at church? These are big questions often asked by small people, but I wish more big people would ask them. Because I reckon many big people haven’t really worked out the answers, even though the questions have been floating around for thousands of years.
Way back in Exodus, the people of Israel were wandering the desert; and, like us, they wanted to know where God lived. So Moses had them make a portable dwelling for God. They built a beautiful wooden space decorated with silver and gold and fine tapestries; and it contained sacred objects for worship. Special priests were chosen to approach the dwelling; and a great heavy curtain of blue, purple and scarlet fabric hung between the dwelling and everyone else. When God’s presence filled the dwelling, the people of Israel stayed put; when it lifted, they continued their journey, carrying God’s dwelling with them.
Eventually the people settled down, and in time they built the Temple. It was enormous. Just the foundation stones were as tall as Sanctuary is now: it was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The dwelling was placed in the temple, behind a great heavy curtain many stories high; and again, ordinary people could not come close. But everyone knew where God dwelt: in the Temple, behind the curtain, in the dwelling: and inaccessible to all but a very few.
Jesus’ story begins in this context. Yet there must have been some niggling doubts about God’s dwelling place, because the gospel according to John is all about this question. It opens with a new and shocking claim: that the Word which was God, and which spoke the world into being, became flesh and dwelt among us. And the first question asked of the Word, that is, Jesus, is, ‘Where are you dwelling?’
Jesus replies, ‘Come and see!’ So the questioners check out the place where he is staying, but they know there is a much bigger answer to their big question: and so they keep on following him. They follow as he turns water into wine; spends time with people of different faiths and cultures; heals all sorts of people; and throws a picnic for thousands. They follow as he challenges religious authorities for loving their Bibles but oppressing people; as he shows up the hypocrisy of a crowd all set to stone a woman; and as he rejects the idea that disability is a punishment for sin. And they follow as he washes their feet, and feeds them again, and tells them he will be betrayed and handed over to the authorities.
And still they wonder where God dwells.
So Jesus tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house: and that in that house there are many rooms. And despite what you might have been told in the past, Jesus is not saying here that he is going to make a place for them in heaven after they die. Instead, read in the context of the whole gospel, he’s saying that through his death and resurrection he is relocating the place of God’s dwelling. It will no longer be hidden away in the Temple, off limits to all but the powerful few. Instead, it will move into the Body of Christ: first his own body, then, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, into that of his disciples.
For as he tells them, he dwells in the Father, and the Father dwells in him; and as he says a little later, ‘Dwell in me, and I will dwell in you.’ And because God already dwells in Jesus, then when we dwell in Jesus, God dwells in us. And indeed, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that, when Jesus dies, the Temple curtain is torn in two: God’s dwelling is now open to everyone.
This all sounds a bit complicated, so let’s summarise:
Question: What does God’s house look like?
Answer: Jesus tells us it has many rooms.
Question: But what do the rooms look like? Do they have purple curtains? Are they super-fancy and lined with gold?
Answer: Nah, they’re a bit shabby. Because we are the rooms: we are the places where Jesus loves to dwell. That’s why there are so many rooms!
Question: How can Jesus dwell in us?
Answer: He says, ‘Dwell in me, and I will dwell in you.’ So he lives in us when we dwell on the Word and find a home there.
Because whatever we dwell on—whatever we pay attention to and spend time on and think most about—shapes our world and forms our spiritual home. We can devote our lives to any number of things: work, sport, fashion, gossip, religion, TV, or our own unwellness, to name the most obvious. But if we would have Jesus dwell in us then we must dwell richly in the Word, telling the stories, praying the psalms, reading the letters, pondering the prophecies, dreaming the revelations, and letting this Word shape our world and become our truest home.
So now, I have some questions for you. I wonder, during this time of shutdown, what are you dwelling on? Are you scrolling through endless newsfeeds and statistics and reports from other countries? Is Facebook your closest friend? Are you spending hours escaping via Netflix or online shopping or overwork? Are you obsessively rehearsing your fears and anxieties? What is shaping your world? What stories, images, values or worldviews are you dwelling in, and what is thereby dwelling in you? And are these things serving you well?
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ says Jesus. ‘Instead, lean on God; lean on me.’ Even when things are bewildering and moving too fast and you do not know what the future holds. Even when you do not understand. Even when you do not know that you already know the way. Because you know the way.
You know the way.
So do not let your hearts be troubled, but lean on Jesus; dwell richly in the Word; and God will dwell in you. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 14:1-14 given to Sanctuary, 10 May 2020 (Easter 5A) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: United Nations COVID-19 response, found here.
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