When you enter the United States from abroad, you have to clear passport control. Typically, an agent checks your passport, asks you a few questions and when she determines all is order, stamps the passport and hands it back to you with the greeting, “Welcome home.” Now that many airports have automated kiosks that scan your passport and allow you to enter the country without ever talking to a human being, I find I miss that ritual “welcome home.” Even when the travel has been invigorating and enjoyable, it’s always good to be home.
Home is often thought of first as a place, but home isn’t only a place. Home is also connected with people, although the people to whom it is connected can expand or shrink or change. Home is home because of those we have shared it with. Home stirs in us a sense of longing – sometimes for the home we have or sometimes for the home we wish we had. Home is a place that grounds us: where we find ourselves at rest, where we are reminded of who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. For at its best, “home” conveys a sense of well-being, contentment and belonging: I belong to this place, these people.
Jesus talks of going home
In the Gospel of John, there comes a point when Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going away: He is going away to be with his Father. Interestingly, the Gospel never says he is “going to heaven.” The emphasis falls not so much on a place as person: Jesus is returning to the presence of his Father, who sent him. So, when Jesus prays to God at the last supper, he prays, “I am coming to you” (17:11; 17:13). He will be “ever at the Father’s side” (1:18); he will return to the glory he had with the Father before the world was made (17:5,25). And while Jesus’ words make it clear that God is there and not here on earth, or in the world (17:4,11), what truly matters is not that Jesus will be there or somewhere else, but that he will be in his Father’s presence. Jesus is returning to his Father. In a nutshell, Jesus is going home.
Even so, Jesus’ words might seem a little odd, as if they imply that Jesus has to leave this world in order to be with his Father. After all, Jesus also said “the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone” (8:29) and “I am not alone because the Father is with me” (16:32). Jesus doesn’t have to leave this world in order to know and experience the presence of his Father with him; his Father is always with him. Jesus doesn’t have to go somewhere else to be with his Father, to be one with his Father. And yet, Jesus does leave this world and, when he does, his destination is defined as the Father’s presence. The “place” to which he is going is the presence of his Father – the Father who has always been with him.
In the Father’s house
Jesus’ relationship to his Father serves as a model for the relationship of the disciples to him and to God, even if they don’t recognize it at first. Jesus’ statement that he is going away, to be with his Father, creates a crisis for the disciples: Jesus is leaving them. No wonder his last words are also shot through with constant reassurance and encouragement. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he urges, sensing their fear (14:1). But, they ask, in bewilderment, “Where are you going?” (13:36; 16:5). Wherever it is that Jesus is going, they want to be there. Jesus makes a promise to them: “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? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (14:2-3). This is the passage famously translated by the KJV, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” producing the old Gospel chorus, “I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop.” The translation and the song make us think of a place – a big, glorious place. Whatever “home” is, it’s not humble!
But Jesus’ words about going away and bringing his disciples to be with him require interpretation. To be sure, there is language of movement, of departure, of a changed situation that entails a new physical reality. Jesus promises his disciples, as we have just seen, that he will “come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” But note that what Jesus promises is not that they will have a heavenly mansion, or even that they will “go to heaven,” but that they will be where he is, that they will be with him. What matters is his promise: “I will take you to myself.” Dwelling in the Father’s house is first and foremost dwelling with Jesus. Being at home in the Father’s house is being in the presence of Jesus and of God. So Jesus also tells his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” The disciples clearly fear Jesus’ departure. But he reassures them that he will not abandon them: They will not be orphaned by his departure; he is coming to them. But when? And if he is coming, why leave at all?
Abiding in Jesus, here and now
The fulfillment of Jesus’ promises that he will take his disciples to be with him and that he is coming to them doesn’t have to wait for the future. If the disciples hope for Jesus to come back so that they may be with him there (in the future, wherever he is), Jesus promises the disciples that even though he is going away, he will be with them here in their world and in the present.
A look at the Greek vocabulary here is telling. The word translated in the NRSV as “dwelling places” is the Greek word monai. It occurs next in the Gospel of John when Jesus promises his disciples, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with them” (14:23). The promise of Jesus’ coming to take his disciples to be with him does not exhaust his promises. Instead, he promises that he and his Father, together, will come and dwell with the disciples. They will “make their home” with the disciples, here and now. As Jesus promised, he will not leave them orphaned.
The idea is fleshed out in a variety of ways. The word monai is related to the word menein, most typically translated as “abide,” which occurs frequently in the last words of Jesus in John’s Gospel in the so-called farewell discourses (14-17). Jesus calls on his disciples to “abide” in him when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches” and then urges them to “abide in me as I abide in you.” In other words, Jesus invites his disciples to make their home in him. This doesn’t have to wait until the future; in fact, it cannot wait. They dwell in him, live in him, in the present.
John’s distinctive use of “abide” has two dimensions: It implies receptivity or response to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, and it emphasizes perseverance or faithfulness. There is a peculiar emphasis on the disciples who “fall away” from Jesus. John explicitly mentions that because of Jesus’ “hard words” some of his disciples “no longer went about with him” (6:66). When he asks the 12 if they too will leave him, Simon Peter memorably responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). The disciples who cling to Jesus are those who abide, those who have “made their home” in and with him and have no aspirations to another home.
But as is typical, the Gospel of John always addresses at least two levels in its audience. On the one hand, the earthly Jesus speaks to his disciples. They were called to abide – that is, to be faithful and to persevere in following Jesus even when the going seemed tough. On the other hand, Jesus also addresses the disciples of all times and places who were not his historical disciples. The language of “abiding” also characterizes what it means to be a disciple of Jesus after his death and resurrection, when he is no longer physically here. While “abiding” involves faithful following or discipleship, it also envisions a union of disciples with the risen and living Lord that can no longer be described in the physical act of following. To abide in Jesus means to be faithful; it also means to find one’s home – one’s family and identity – in Jesus.
Home with God in Christ
To think of dwelling in Jesus, to find one’s home in him, is to think of a person and not primarily of a place. Abiding in Jesus is the reality of living as a disciple of Jesus in whatever place one finds oneself, relying on Jesus’ presence and power. If he is gone, the power of his life-giving Spirit is not. What he was to his disciples in his years of earthly ministry – teacher, friend, Messiah, Lord, life – he is to his disciples today.
When Jesus leaves the disciples, not only does he promise that they will be with him in the future and the present, but he describes what the home that they will share with each other in his absence will be like. He tells them how he has furnished this home and how he expects them to live in it. Above all, it is a home of peace: Jesus leaves a peace with them that differs from the peace that the world gives (14:27, 16:33). It is a peace of knowing that one belongs to God in Christ. It is the kind of peace that the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism has in view when it asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Answer: that I belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Belonging to Jesus is being at home in him.
The home of which Jesus speaks is that reality in which one lives with God in Christ, whether here or there, now or then, it is a home characterized by love. It is hard to read the Gospel of John, or Jesus’ last words to his disciples, and miss this point. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my life. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (15:10-10). The kind of love Jesus has in mind is the kind of love that he himself demonstrated: love that willingly lays down its life for another (15: 13-14). Love looks out for the other, not first for oneself. As a result of living in this home of peace and love, the disciples will have joy, joy that weathers the changing circumstances of life and the inevitable hostility of the world (15:11; 16:21-24; 17:13).
Abiding in Jesus, being at home with him, brings peace, love and joy. It is no shame to hope for the day when Jesus comes to “take us to himself” so that where he is, we may be also. It is no denigration of the goodness of the world to long for that eternal home with God, to be in the presence of the God who made us and loves us and gives us life. But life in the here and now, lived in dependence on Jesus as the branches depend on the vine, is also an experience of being at home with God. Jesus promised his disciples he would not abandon them; he would not leave them as orphans. They would always have their Father present. They would always have a family. They would always have a home. To be at home is to be united to Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us.
Marianne Meye Thompson is the George Eldon Ladd Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.