How many rooms?Bishop Helen-Ann reflects on the imagery of John 14 and the challenges faced by a number of parishes at present
How many rooms does it have?
Over the past couple of years, my parents have been involved in quite a complex process of moving house. It has been a time of immense challenge, and I have been inspired by their resilience, as well as challenged by the distance between us: I haven’t been able to nip over to Durham and help. They are in the process of moving (we hope and pray) for a final time, and this time they are using the opportunity to de-clutter, because their new home has less room. Indeed, that is a question that is usually asked at the beginning of any house search, ‘how many rooms does it have?’ And of course, one of the most iconic phrases in any nativity play is: ‘…because there wasn’t any room in the inn.’
As we get older, we tend to want less, and to be content with what we have. The growing realisation that you can’t take possessions (including property) with you when you depart this mortal life can focus the mind upon what really matters: relationships, health, experience of the world around us. It is said that at the point of death itself, our senses can be acutely enhanced. As the brain shuts down, we reconnect with what we first experienced in life – sound, smell, touch, taste even. The stuff of life that we have carried with us becomes less important as the very essence of our humanity is exposed for a final journey.
In case you’re wondering if I am being unduly melancholy, it has a lot to do with our Gospel reading, which is a passage I have (aside from its appearance in the lectionary) exclusively encountered in the context of funeral ministry. I don’t do many funerals these days, but when I was a curate in rural Oxfordshire, most funeral families seemed to take great comfort from the image that the Gospel reading gives us: the image of a large abode with room for everyone. It’s a domestic picture that we can easily relate to, and because of that I think, we can absorb the enormity of what Jesus is really saying, in an almost unnerving way.
One commentator on this passage reflects that ‘the fascination of this discourse is that it shimmers or hovers between several different points in time. At times the real Jesus at the supper seems to be speaking about the future, at times the risen Christ about the future, at times Christ present in the Spirit about the current situation of the Church’ (Henry Wansbrough in The Fourfold Gospel Commentary, SPCK, 2006, p. 193).
I think that’s a really helpful reflection for us, and particularly for a number of our communities in the Diocese (specifically the Waikato bishopric) who are facing real issues of the possible conclusion of stipended ministry, and/or the capacity to function as worshipping groups. Even if the processes of consultation, reflection, prayer and discernment leads to the conclusion of Sunday gatherings week by week, to disperse and find new homes or rethink how engagement with God’s mission happens in a context, that is not something to fear. Jesus has gone away only to prepare a final place for his disciples, to which he will gather them at the end of time. Even now, during their time on earth, his disciples are in him just as he is in the father, and can do his works just as he does the Father’s works. This is the basis of the whole life of the Christian community. And right in the midst of it is the simple statement of the central position of Christ: he alone is the Way; he alone is Truth and Life (a reflection again drawn from Henry Wansbrough).
To follow Jesus is to be inherently hope-filled, even on a dark day and even in the midst of great personal pain. I often wonder if the end of this Gospel passage should have in brackets the words ‘but not necessarily in the way you might have expected.’ ‘If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it…’ That is not an invitation to frivolity: ‘Lord please help me find a parking space,’ rather it is an invitation to deep trust that God will provide and in so doing be woven into the fabric of our lives, warts and all, joys and sorrows, everything about what it means to be human. Even at the very end of life, God is present, and present in abundance.
But first, we need to be aware of the reality of the situation, and repent of our inability at times to engage in God’s mission. This is a raw honesty before God that as human beings we so often become caught up in our own agendas and challenges, rather than faithfully responding to real need in our midst: need that becomes opportunity for missional growth. I say that in the full knowledge of the real challenges within communities that have been faithful for many years and have dedicated themselves to following Jesus. That honesty is always the turning point; repentance has a clear sense of turning a corner and beginning again.
Bishop John V Taylor, a former Bishop of Winchester who died in 2001 wrote this:
‘If the earth in its planetary orbit swung even fractionally nearer the sun it would become a different kind of world in which, if there was any sort of life, it would be quite a new life system. If human consciousness became even fractionally more conscious of God we would become a new humankind. This happened in Jesus. He was the new man because his entire being was in continuous response to the Father’ (quoted in a book by +John Pritchard).
This is a useful gloss on the Johannine Gospel passage. Jesus’ relationship to God as divine being meant his humanity was transformed; and through that our lives. That is why we are to be hope-filled. And remember hope isn’t a headless joy; hope is a struggle at times, but its foundation is full of light and a sharpness of clarity that if we look closely enough we will be able to grasp a glimpse of the divine reality that enfolds us continually.
So, may we enjoy being alive to God; may we be certain of God’s presence as we discern our future in the knowledge that whatever the outcome, God will hold us and lead us into the path that lies ahead. In the words of one of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops – at all…’
Thanks be to God.
(Photograph of an image by Daniel Chang, a pupil at Southwell School, Hamilton).
Story Published: 15th of May - 2017