First reading: Acts 6: 1-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 32
Second reading: 1 Peter 2: 4-9
Gospel: John 14:1-12
Link to readings.
Again, a very rich scriptural offering for this Sunday. It is not easy to find a discernible theme running across the readings, save the general sense that the focus is moving away from the resurrection of Jesus to the time of his final return to the Father when the disciples will be without his physical presence.
Taken from the long discourse given by Jesus at the Last Supper, the Gospel, John 14:1-10, reflects upon this time and the understanding it will require from the disciples, that is, from the Church. In fact, there are two ‘departures’ of Jesus in view. The actual setting of the supper on the night before Jesus is to die makes it natural to understand the ‘going away’ of which he speaks as a reference to this imminent departure in death; his ‘return’, then, would refer to his reappearance, on the third day, as risen Lord. While at one level this is true, the discourse really addresses the more permanent ‘going away’ of Jesus when he finally returns to the Father following his appearances to the disciples as risen Lord. His ‘return’ would then be his return at the end of time, a thought otherwise rare in the Fourth Gospel.
On this second level, what Jesus is really addressing in the discourse is not the period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday but the ‘time of Church’ that will follow— and will in fact extend indefinitely. This will be a time when the disciples will not have the reassurance of his physical presence and will feel that loss keenly (‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. ...’) What Jesus wants to insist upon here, however, is that it will be a ‘graced’ time, in fact a ‘better’ time. His departure to the Father will not mean loss but enrichment.
This gives the clue to understanding rightly Jesus’ statement about there being ‘many rooms’ in his Father’s house and about his going there to prepare a place for the disciples. In a way that has long provided comfort for many people, the statement, at face value, conveys the impression of heaven as a kind of vast motel to which Jesus is going in order to prepare ‘rooms’ for the faithful after they die. This does not, however, do full justice to the way the Johannine gospel confronts the problem of death and, in particular, to the richness which the gospel draws out of the motif of divine ‘remaining’/‘dwelling’.
John’s Gospel presents the entire work of Jesus Christ as nothing less than a fulfilment of a divine project to bring about mutual ‘at-homeness’ between God and human beings. As heralded in the Prologue, the Word, whose proper dwelling is in eternity ‘with God’ (1:1-2), has ‘become flesh’ (1:14). In the human person of Jesus Christ, God has made a dwelling-place—literally, ‘has pitched his tent’—among us. The disciples ‘have seen his glory’ in the sense that the words and actions of Jesus, notably his ‘signs’ (miracles), have rendered ordinary human life transparent to God’s presence and to the gift of ‘eternal life’ which, through Jesus, God wishes to impart. To ‘have eternal life’ in this sense is nothing less than to have a share in God’s own life, to become ‘children of God’ (1:12; 11:52), inhabitants of God’s ‘house’ forever. As Jesus explains to Martha, grieving at the death of her brother Lazarus, this is the true response and remedy to human mortality: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live; and whoever lives believing in me, will never die’ (John 11:25-26).
What Jesus is attempting to explain to the puzzled disciples in today’s Gospel is that this gift of eternal life, and the divine ‘at-homeness’ that goes with it, can only come about through his ‘going away’ for a time. His suffering and death are necessary to defeat the grip of sin and death upon the human race and open up the way to life.
The many ‘rooms’ or ‘dwelling places’ which he is going away to prepare are in fact the separate instances of God’s ‘indwelling’ in the heart of each and every believer. As he will say later, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ (14:23). The disciples, as Philip so plaintively points out, cannot ‘see’ the Father. But, Jesus explains, he himself is ‘the Way’ to the revelation of the Father (the ‘Truth’), in which is contained the gift of ‘(eternal) life’ (‘the Life’). In relating to him (Jesus), they are becoming ‘at home’ with God and God with them.
The First Reading, Acts 6:1-7, shows the early Church, under the guidance of the Spirit, developing structures of ministry in response to needs that arise as it grows and expands.
The Second Reading, 1 Peter, 2:4-9, applies to the members of the Church a magnificent set of titles drawn from the patrimony of Israel. Heading the list is the image of the Church as a ‘holy building’, a precious new dwelling-place for the living God.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media.