Monday, 12 May 2014

"Many places to live in ....": a sermon (John 14:1-14)

When I was a theological student, I saw a poster that I absolutely “coveted”, in the full biblical sense of “covet”.  It was a drawing – a cartoon-like drawing - of a large, complex building – a building with many domes.  Each of the domes was topped with a religious symbol.

Some of the domes had crosses:
  • one had the three-armed cross typical of Eastern Orthodox Christianity;
  • another one had the crucifix typical of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Christianity;
  • a third had the plain cross typical of the various "Protestant" Christian churches.
Other domes had other religious symbols:
  • a Star of David representing Judaism;
  • a crescent moon representing Islam;
  • and other symbols of other faith communities.
Also on the poster were words from today’s gospel lesson, words from the old Authorised Version, the version authorised by the fellow known to the English as James the First, to the Scots as James the Sixth, and to the more pedantic sort of historian as James the First and Sixth.  According to King Jimmy’s version, Jesus said to his disciples:  “In my Father’s house are many mansions”.  And those were the words quoted on the poster.

I coveted that poster.  And I still do.

And the reason I coveted the poster is the fact that it pays tribute to the people of God in its wholeness: not only the Christian people of God, but also;
  • the Jewish people of God,
  • the Muslim people of God,
  • the Hindu people of God,
  • the Buddhist people of God,
  • the Sikh people of God,
  • the Baha’i people of God,
  • and the whole crowd.

I still covet that poster.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.

The Greek words used in this passage are important.

The word used for the Father’s house is the word oikos, from which we get such high-powered English words as economics, ecology, and that highly significant word for people of faith: ecumenical.   Oikos means “house” in its broadest sense, not just a building, but the family or other community who relate to a common home.

The words used to refer to the “many mansions” are monai pollai, literally “many residences”.  Some translations speak of “many rooms”, or many dwelling-places”.  The fact that the translators hired by King Jimmy the First and Sixth spoke of “many mansions” may be an indication of the aristocratic context in which they worked.

The old German translation by Herr Luther spoke of viele Wohnungen, “many residences”, which was as close to the Greek as we can get. 

The translators of the New Jerusalem Bible have probably given the closest approximation of the Greek I’ve seen in any English translation when they gave us:

In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;

Now, there are some Christians who are uncomfortable with this idea:

In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;

This sort of Christian believes that there is only one place to live in within the Father’s house, the same place where they are.  And, they believe, if you’re not there, you are not in the Father’s house. 

This sort of Christian prefers words that appear a bit later in this chapter, words that also appear in today’s gospel lesson, words in which Jesus was quoted as calling himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” and declaring that “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This sort of Christian is offended by the idea that anyone who follows a path other than a strictly Christian one is part of the people of God. 

This sort of Christian is profoundly offended by the idea that many Christians – including myself – can regard a person who follows a path other than a strictly Christian one as part of the people of God. 

I feel profoundly sorry for that sort of Christian.  I have no idea why any person has any real need to believe that other people will be eternally condemned by God merely on the basis of their theology.  I personally feel really sorry for anyone who believes this.

But, I also know I really need to take a stance of “tough love” toward them and say “In the name of Jesus Christ, I believe you are profoundly wrong!”

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.

Remember here, the gospel of John was the last of the four gospels to be written.  The vast majority of New Testament scholars believe the words of Jesus in John’s gospel were not actually spoken by Jesus.  Rather, these words were reflections on the significance of Jesus by the next generation of Christians.

This refers to all the quotes by Jesus in John’s gospel.
  • It refers to the nice bits, the inspirational bits, such as “In my Father’s house there are many places to live in…”.
  • It also refers the less nice bits, the less inspirational bits, the hard-edged stuff such as No one comes to the Father except through me.”
All of the quotes by Jesus in John’s gospel are reflections on the significance of Jesus by the next generation of Christians.

Now, this isn’t something I’ve come up with on my own.  Anyone who studied Christian theology in the last half-century at any reputable theological institution, whether Protestant or Catholic, has learned this.  (And if they didn’t learn this, they may have been taking a nap during their New Testament lectures.)

Now, if both of these comments are reflections on Jesus’ significance by a later generation of Christians, rather than the exact words of Jesus, we are in fact free to evaluate either on their merits.
  • Does an attitude that there are “many residences” … “many places to live in” … within the Father’s house reflect the spirit of Jesus?
  • Or does an attitude of “No one comes to the Father except through me” somehow reflect the spirit of Jesus? 
If you think it does, I believe the ball is in your court, because I frankly find that attitude completely alien to everything else I see in the life, teachings, and person of Jesus.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You trust in God, trust also in me.
In my Father’s house
there are many places to live in;
otherwise I would have told you.


  1. It's a tapic worth discussing and throwing one quote at us about being the only way, doesn't work for me. I've lived in Fiji for many years alongside various kinds of Hindus, different kinds of Muslims, Sikhs, Bahai and Christian. I can't believe people of other faiths are outside of God's love. I particularly like the Sufis and the Sikhs. About the poster you like. Make you own, copy and paste, then make a collage.

  2. I found a picture of many religious buildings side by side. Go to I might use it in the newsletter next Sunday but don't know if our visiting preacher will go along with this tack.

  3. I am disappointed even though I agree with you. Sometimes when a NT passage gives me trouble in English, I look at a Hebrew translation. This verse is curious in the Salkinson Ginsberg translation: וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו יֵשׁוּעַ אָנֹכִי הַדֶּרֶךְ וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַחַיִּים וְאִישׁ לֹא־יָבֹא אֶל־הָאָב בִּלְתִּי עַל־יָדִי׃ - no one comes to the father except by my hand. It is a curious addition to the text, my hand (yadi) being a phrase that can be rendered 'by means of me'. Why would the author of John write this? Not necessarily out of an exclusivist model of salvation (a word that in Hebrew is the name of Jesus).

    Rabbincal tradition requires that a good teacher should be able to find 70 ways to kosher a reptile. Can we not find a creative understanding of this verse that underlines its truth. This child of David, our monarch, has created a pathway into and through life by means of his own self-giving, his life for the life of the world. Is there any sense that we can create a differing way? I certainly do not imply by this that Christianity is the way, the truth, or the life. Nor can I justify capitalist economics or martyrdom that destroys others as following this way of self-giving. Since there are aspects of economic and religious violence that must be addressed in all traditions, I think we must pay attention within any tradition to the self-giving that draws others to worship rather than to destroy. They shall not hurt nor destroy etc, or the end of Psalm 22 - the afflicted will eat and be satisfied, and All the families of the nations will worship in your presence - in the second half of the psalm. If we work towards worship and dealing with those who are afflicted, maybe we will be in that way - but it is exclusive.

    1. Bob, this is an important point. The way of self-giving is the way to life. We see this way of self-giving with absolute clarity in Jesus. No argument here.

      Sadly, though, the popular interpretation of "no one comes to the father except through me" is that those who follow faiths other than Christianity have no hope. Many people who worship weekly believe that this is what churches expect them to believe (even if they personally resist this idea,) This idea is what I was challenging, by contrasting it with the "many residences" idea earlier in the passage.


Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.