Blogging the Lectionary--5th Sunday of Easter

Readings (Catholic)
Acts 6: 1-7
Psalm 33
1 Peter 2: 4-9
John 14: 1-16

In a bit of good timing, we begin the "Blogging the Lectionary" series with one of my favorite passages from the Gospel of John.

A number of years back, I was one of the people involved in teaching an RCIA class.  "RCIA" is the "Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults"--basically the program by which people become Catholic.  There were about five of us teaching the classes, and we divided the lessons up among ourselves.  Somehow I ended up taking on the lesson involving "death, heaven, hell, and judgment."  Definitely a tough draw.  I remember futzing around for a while in preparing the lesson, before settling on this Sunday's Gospel reading, and in particular John 14:2:

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?

So many of our common images of judgment and salvation, both inside and outside Christianity, present a mechanical or bureaucratic vision.  Judgment can be broken down into a series of steps or criteria that can be analyzed in a detached manner.  In fact, in its really bad forms, it can make the whole process seem like a bad game show ("OK now, let's open Door Number One to see your eternal destiny. . . .  Oh, I'm sorry, it looks like you are predestined to hell [sad trombone].")

The vision Jesus presents in this passage is a personal one.  Jesus is going to prepare a place for the disciples present at the Last Supper, and by extension for us.  And not in the sense that there will be some undefined cool space that maybe you can get into, but a specific place for each person.  There is a dwelling set aside specifically for me, and for you, and for everyone.  Going to see God after death will not be like going to the DMV to get your driver's license.  It will be like going home, where your old bedroom has been kept just like you left it.

The problem with this vision is that it doesn't give us the assurances that we want.  Jesus is telling us to trust him that he will put this together for us.  We don't want to trust and let go of our anxieties about what is to come.  Instead, we want concrete signposts and rules about what we can expect.  We want the DMV, because at least at the DMV you know (or think you know) where you stand.

In this, we are in good company.  The disciples had a hard time with this vision as well.  They wanted more concrete information about what is to come--"show us the way," "show us the Father."  Make it all clear and tell us where we stand (and, perhaps more importantly, if secretly, where other people stand).  But Jesus doesn't engage, and instead directs us constantly back to Himself.  If you want to know the way, follow me.  If you want to see the Father, look at me.

He constant refers the disciples, and us, back to how he opened this dialogue: "do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me."  That's all we really need to know about what is coming next.  Everything else is up to him.

Side Note:  Along the same lines, I cannot recommend highly enough Bishop N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope.  The thesis of the book is that much of the imagery of Heaven and Hell that we take for granted in Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, is really a product of a shift in focus in the Middle Ages toward the more mechanical understandings that I'm talking about above.  Early Christianity had a very different vision of these things, one that is tied up directly in the Resurrection of Jesus.  Wright presents this reclaimed vision (which, though I don't remember him mentioning this, is closer to the Eastern Orthodox view) as being both more hopeful and consoling, but also more challenging.  The book completely changed the way I look at these question--it was really one of those "a ha" moments for me.


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