It’s a big big house
With lots and lots a room
A big big table
With lots and lots of food
A big big yard
Where we can play football
A big big house
It’s my Father’s house
In case you’re not up on early 1990s Christian pop music, that’s the chorus from Audio Adrenaline’s song Big House. And it’s been playing on repeat in my head all week as I’ve been thinking about this passage from John. This chorus makes God’s house of many dwellings sound like a deluxe Airbnb or a holy frat house. Football in the yard, a mansion of many rooms, excessive food.
This text has often been read as a vision of heaven, an afterlife of luxury and comfort. But I’m not sure this is exactly what Jesus is trying to get at. At the very least, the tone is a bit more solemn in John. Although we’re reading it in the Easter season, this passage takes place just before Jesus’ crucifixion. He’s been telling his disciples that he’s not going to be with them much longer, that one of them is going to betray him, troubling things. So Jesus begins this whole discourse today by acknowledging the disciples’ troubled hearts.
As we read this text today in 2023, there is of course lots for our hearts to be troubled about, too. Almost daily mass shootings such that we don’t even hear about them all, ecological destruction, an epidemic of loneliness, an alarming mental health crisis, ongoing war. And that’s just the backdrop to whatever is going on in your life – health concerns, aging parents, financial worry, trying to support your kids growing up well, maybe feeling overwhelmed or a general sense that it’s all too much. As I talk with friends, students, and others, there’s often a sense of I must be doing something wrong and that’s why life is so hard. And then although these struggles are not unique to us we feel left alone to try to figure it out by ourselves.
It’s not a stretch for most of us to resonate with our bold and frustrated friend Thomas who tells it like it is: No, we don’t know where you’re going, Jesus (or where we’re going) and we don’t know the way. Maybe we’re so caught up in the day to day that we don’t think much about either the where or the way, but then sometimes we wake up in the middle of the night with a heaviness in our chest or a quickened heartbeat anxiously wondering Where am I going? And is this the way to get there?
Life is stressful. And we could use some sense of direction. Many of us long for a way that leads to truth and life because the ways we’re traveling on, individually and societally, just seem to lead to more troubled hearts. Although we maybe can’t pinpoint it, a lot of us have a vague sense that whatever this way is, it’s not working out very well for most of us.
Thomas is hoping for some direction, too, a map, some coordinates, a landmark. Then, once the destination is clear, he hopes, then the way will become clear. Well, Jesus is a lot of things in the gospel of John, but disappointingly, clear is not really one of them.
Instead, to these troubled hearts longing for a way, Jesus offers up this vision of a big house with many dwellings. But rather than a personal McMansion, the word for house is really more like a household and all the yous in this passage are plural – a place for you all. And God’s household certainly is big – from tiny mycelium underground, to orca whales in the ocean, multiple ecosystems, a diversity of human beings, and life beyond even what we know. There are many dwelling places in God’s household. And many household members. It is a big big household. Unfortunately we humans are often not very good housemates. We don’t clean up after ourselves, we poison others’ food, mess up their habitat, play our human noise too loud. Clearly we need some practice at living well in God’s big big household.
This past January I and a colleague took a class of PLU students to Holden Village, an education and retreat center, an intentional community, with connections to the Lutheran church. It’s in a remote valley in the North Cascades off Lake Chelan, only accessible by boat. Holden is a place that practices being part of the household of God. They live off hydro power from a waterfall, eat mostly vegetarian food and compost almost obsessively. There’s no cell service (which students actually mostly loved). The Village tries to live gently on the earth. They try to be good household members. In the 3 weeks we were up there (again, with no cell service and student WIFI access limited to the one computer in the library), we practiced different ways of being. Rhythms of work and rest, worship and community, attentive to each other and not our phones. I think one of the things most striking to our students, though, was this deep sense of interconnection and interdependence with creation and with each other. There were no anonymous household members and we deeply relied on each other. When the power went out, we trusted that Alec and Kennedy were running up to hydro to see what happened. We knew the level of power available depended on the water flow, so decisions about how to use power were communally and carefully made during these frozen months. Julia made sure there was fresh baked bread to nourish us. The garbologist Nathan monitored the compost bins and managed recycling, aiming for as little landfill waste as possible (which has to be barged out periodically). Two of our students, Logan and Lilly, carved stairs in the snow and stomped out paths for safe passages between buildings (Holden gets about 270” of snow each year). The household and each of its members were visible to us in ways most of us don’t usually experience when we pay our electric bill online or pick up bread at the grocery store. And, in contrast to many of our everyday lives, there wasn’t this persistent sense that making life work was all up to you and you had to do it alone. In fact, in that remote space, it was crystal clear that you couldn’t.
With this as our backdrop, our month-long class was about vocation. Often that kind of conversation leads to the where am I going? question, what’s my goal? And usually the where is about a kind of job. Students need an academic plan to work toward completing a major and for many that’s connected to future employment. But as we studied, vocation is much broader than career – including, how do I want to live? We talked about what is the way they want to live – what values will guide their way, what contributions to community, to the human and ecological global household, do they want to make? As they were engaging course materials and readings, at Holden we were also daily steeped in a way of life that I think embodies this vision of the household of God pretty well. Holden is not perfect of course, but it’s a community that seeks to live a way with intention.
What’s also interesting about Holden though is that no one lives there permanently. It’s a temporary dwelling. And that’s part of its magic. The Holden community practices being part of the household of God and in doing so actually becomes less of a place and more of a way. They talk about taking the values of Holden, this way of life, “downlake.” And that’s really the goal. To embody this way no matter the place.
I think that’s the hope for church, too. We gather in worship, study, prayer, a shared meal, all to practice being part of the household of God. But we don’t live here. This is not our destination. As we practice living a different way, church becomes less of a place to go, and more of a way to be.
Early Christians were called people of the Way. Not people of answers, doctrines, or certainties. People of the Way, people who do life together, as part of God’s household. Which is why when Jesus says I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me, we should be wary of interpretations that seek to use these words to exclude and to harm. Remember Jesus is speaking to his beloved disciples and their troubled hearts, offering assurance that they are on the right way because they are with him. And while Jesus invites us to travel this way, the way he’s been teaching about, the way of community, compassion, justice, interdependence, ultimately the promise is that he takes us on the way by taking us unto himself.
When Jesus says you know the way, the word for know is the kind of knowing that has an intimacy, even a mystical quality to it, much more than an objective, factual knowing.
You know the way, Jesus says. You know the way when you pause in awe and wonder at the majesty of Mount Rainier. You know the way when reaching out to a church friend who is grieving even though you don’t know what to say. You know the way when you gather around bread and wine that is shared and for all. You know the way when you realize that you’re not doing it wrong, but that we weren’t meant to do life alone. You know the way when you receive grace you didn’t know you needed. You know the way.
In response to their and our troubled hearts, Jesus offers not a shelter or place away, but a community, a place to belong, a place in the household of God. And that’s how the big big house becomes not just a where, but a way, not just a future, but a now.