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? (John 14:2 NRSV)
A story is sometimes told at funerals about a man who went on a journey. All his family and friends were full of grief as they stood on the shore waving goodbye to the man who so recently left never to return. But on the other shore were all his friends and family who had made the journey before him who were waiting with anticipation to welcome him. This is a comforting story about death and the afterlife but do you notice anything missing? Or more correctly, do you notice anyone missing? Where is God in the story?
People can tend to have a pretty self-centred view of the afterlife. It is all about paradise, down to details like the perfect swing on the perfect golf course, or the perfect outdoor hockey rink. Of course my idea of paradise does not include ice, as ice and the beach do not go together well! The Bible in contrast gives us a very God-centred view of the afterlife. When Jesus points us to the afterlife, he does not say “in your house,” but “In my Father’s house.” It is His house, it will be according to his will, we do not get to make it up.
Our self-centred view of the afterlife extends into relationships. It would be interesting to do a survey of those who believe heaven exists with regards to whom they are most looking forward to seeing there. I imagine many people will list off family and friends. But what about God, will He be on the list? Will He be first on the list?
My wife and I sometimes playfully argue about who will die first. It should be me due to the fact that I am male and older already anyway. But should Sandra pass away first will I be expecting her to be eagerly waiting, if not pining for the day I join her? No, for she will be going to our Heavenly Father’s house. There, when she beholds God in all of His glory, I will decrease in importance, and our relationship will decrease in importance. This makes sense of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:30: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” We have trouble grasping how this could be, that our significant relationships will seem to be less significant. But this is not a failure in giving our earthly relationships too much importance, it is a failure to grasp the glory of God, and the significance of our relationship with Him. A recent love song has the lyric, “I don’t want to go to heaven if you’re going to hell.” The lyric writer simply does not understand the glory of God, nor the destitution of experiencing the absence of God in hell. I don’t think too many of us do. It is our Heavenly Father’s house, not ours, not our spouse’s, not our parents’, nor our friends’. It is His presence that matters most.
Next Jesus tells us there are “many dwelling places” in our Heavenly Father’s house. This comes from a custom in ancient times of adding on “rooms” to a household that share a common courtyard as the family grew. We should not take this as a literal description of the afterlife, but as figurative. The point is: there is room. And as we watch the life of Jesus we begin to see there is room for the sinner and tax collector. There is room for the leper and outcast. There is room for children in the presence of Jesus. There is room for women as we see in Mary learning a the feet of Jesus. There is room for the thief crucified with Jesus. And as we watch the body of Christ unfold in the world we see that there is room for the Jew and the Greek, for the female and the male, for the slave and the free. As we watch the Church of Christ grow we discover there is room for the vilest sinner and the most devout saint. And there is room for you.
Next comes a promise: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Some will imagine Jesus as a Master renovator, but that is not really what is happening here. As one Bible scholar points out, Jesus “goes” and His journey begins at the cross. It is there that the preparations begin. It is there that we find, not the Master Renovator, but the Master Redeemer. There is wood and there are nails, but this project is like nothing Mike Holmes has ever tackled. This is not about Jesus making the afterlife fit for us, but about Jesus making us fit for eternal life with God. It is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we could live with God in His home. It is about Jesus rising from the dead, so that one day we will rise to discover that
the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
(Revelation 21:3 NRSV)