One of my all-time favourite “Jesus movies” is a film that was released 20 years ago called the Miracle Maker. It is a strange choice for a number of different reasons. For one, it’s a claymation film with some animation spliced into the story. It also stars Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Jesus—yes, the same actor that played the role of Voldemort (sorry, “he who shall not be named”) in the Harry Potter film series.
The film isn’t perfect. Like many other “Jesus movies” they cast mostly British actors to portray these characters from First-Century Palestine, which is problematic. But, like life, movies don’t always have to be perfect to be wonderful.
The final scene in the film is one of the reasons I love this movie so much. For much of the film we see the Jesus story woven into the story of Jairus and his daughter. Some of you will remember that Jairus is the synagogue official whose daughter is gravely ill. He’s the one who comes to Jesus for help and eventually experiences his daughter being brought back from death by Jesus. It is a beautiful story from scripture. Well, in the Miracle Maker, Jairus and his daughter are there by Jesus’ side until the very end. And, at the climactic closing scene of the film, the Risen Jesus issues words of commission to his followers, closing with these words: “I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.” When he vanishes from their sight, a young girl begins to cry. Next to the young girl is Jairus’ daughter. She puts her arm around the child and then says to the young girl… “Don’t be worried or upset, in my Father’s house there are many rooms.” The child responds, “In Capernaum?” Jairus’ daughter giggles and says, “Yes! In Capernaum... in Jerusalem… in the whole world. The kingdom of God has come and now he is with us forever.”
In this interpretation of the gospel story, it is Jairus’ daughter who offers these words of comfort. She becomes the first evangelist—the first to spread the good news of Jesus. She is the one who shares these words that we read in John’s gospel story.
These are familiar words for many of us. For some people, this is one of the most comforting passages in scripture. For others, it’s one of the most troubling passages.
We hear these words from John 14 at memorial services. For many people, the words “Do not be troubled… do not be afraid…” give them great comfort. For others, they find comfort in the words, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Many interpret that part of the text to convey a truth about the life beyond this one. It gives them a sense that there is room in the afterlife—room in heaven for those who believe.
But, there are many troubling things with this text. And not just the trouble of preaching it on a Sunday where we celebrate Mother’s Day.
I’m willing to bet that there are at least some of us (perhaps many of us) that can relate to the response that Thomas gives to Jesus when he says, “I go to prepare a place for you [and] I will return and take you to be with me… You know the way to the place I’m going.” I think I would have responded the same way Thomas did—“Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
And, of course, Jesus’ answer “I am the way… no one comes to the Father except through me” is a section of this text that has been used for years to clobber non-Christians and people with a more inclusive view of the Christian faith tradition. Those words of Jesus can quickly turn this passage from John’s gospel into a very problematic reading—one that limits access to God and makes the life of faith a test to determine where one will go in the afterlife. Where most of Jesus’ ministry is spent in an effort to widen the circle of God’s love and God’s realm, this passage seems to do the opposite. At least, if you listen to certain preachers and “believers” that’s what it does.
But, the way of Jesus cannot be summed up (or reduced) to just a few verses from the Gospel of John. The way of Jesus is not about exclusion, it is about radical INCLUSION.
Jesus preached about the “Kingdom of God.” In his book, We Make The Road By Walking, Brian McLaren writes, “For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to someday; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It wasn’t a distant future reality. It was at hand, or within reach today.” Translated into the context of today, McLaren suggests that we might use terms like “global commonwealth of God—not a world divided up and ruled by nations, corporations, and privileged individuals, but a world of abundance for everyone to share.” The commonwealth of God—as Jesus reminds us—is not defined in the traditional top-down way (a hierarchical way) as he saw in his world and we see in ours.* That commonwealth is better defined in terms like a shepherd with his sheepfold. One where the shepherd cares equally for all members of the flock and one where, as we learned last week (in the passage from John 10), Jesus acts like a shepherd who lays at the gate at night to protect the sheep from harm. The moment we place a velvet rope and bouncers at the gate of God’s commonwealth of love is the moment that we revert to the way of the Pharisees and the religious authorities during Jesus’ time who divided people into “clean” and “unclean”; who said “No” to those who sought to be healed on the Sabbath; who said, “God can only be found ‘HERE’” (the Temple) and not everywhere.
What does Jesus say? He says, “My Father’s house has room to spare.” The world that Jesus was welcomed into said the opposite. “There’s no room for you Mary and Joseph”; “There’s no room for another king-like figure”. Jesus’ whole ministry becomes a reversal of that rejection that he faced. He doesn’t seek to dethrone and replace the existing order, he seeks to embrace a whole different kind of world—a commonwealth of love, mercy, and equality. One where we experience the presence of God in the most unexpected places.
The way of Jesus is a way that is defined by radical inclusion; love that knows no boundaries. And so, when he speaks to his disciples, he speaks in a language that is intimate and filled with love. “Show us the Father, that will be enough” Philip says. And Jesus responds, “Do you know me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. [The Divine presence that] dwells in me does [its] works.”
Seeing the Holy in this world comes through relationship—through our connectedness with others—through our openness to one another. Philip is looking into the heavens and Jesus is drawing his gaze back to him, not simply to say God is rooted in my image alone, but God is found in the shared experience of our deep and intimate relationship.
We see God when we exchange a smile with a stranger. We see God when we embrace a family member. We see God when we forgive and extend mercy to those who have wronged us. Put another way, “No one comes to the Father (no one experiences God) except through me—through relational love that is marked by grace, mercy, and forgiveness.”
If we, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, are the Body of Christ (together). Then my way of experiencing God—of coming to God—is through a shared community that practices the way of Jesus… that seeks to re-member Jesus in Word and Deed. The Good News of Jesus is that there is “room to spare”. The Way is not geographical. The way is relationship.The way of Jesus is a way that brings comfort to those who need it… it is a way that reminds us of the importance of “one another”...
Our world seems to say, “There’s room for you… IF you do this… IF you say the right things… do the right things… IF you fit the mould of what our world deems to be a respectable person…” Many of these “IFs” create a path to God (a path to acceptance) that is unattainable. Jesus’ way is a way of relationship and connection. His way is a way that reflects an ever-expanding realm of God that always has room for one more.
In his book, "The Inner Voice of Love", Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic writer and theologian, wrote these words to himself at the end of the book. In many ways, these words are synonymous with the ones that Jesus shares with his followers. Listen to what he writes to himself: "You are facing a real spiritual battle. But do not be afraid. You are not alone. Those who have guided you during this period are not leaving you. Their prayers and support will be with you wherever you go. Keep them close to your heart so that they can guide you as you make your choices. Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours."**
And so, in times like these, we listen for that comforting voice of love that speaks the words of Jesus to us, reminding us to have hope. In God's house there is room to spare... room for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
* McLaren, Brian “We Make The Road by Walking” (Jericho Books 2014)
** Nouwen, Henri “The Inner Voice of Love” (Image / Doubleday 1998)