We all have different metaphors for God. For me, God’s kingship has always been important. Others encounter God as parent or even lover. For some, God as Creator or faithful friend make the most sense. All of these are good and right ways to interact with God, and all have abundant scriptural support. We don’t need to limit how other people interact with God or how we do so. The mothering guidance of the Spirit has begun to mean much more to me in the last year than ever before, and so maybe my primary metaphor for interaction with God is changing. As I read this week’s lectionary accounts, we have a couple examples of changing metaphors for God and God’s relationship with others.
In the martyrdom of Stephen, we have a rich description of God and Jesus’ relation to God. We must not forget that Stephen came to his position in the church as someone primarily interested in what we would today call social justice. The church was unfairly distributing resources based on ethnicity. Instead of presuming innocence and minimizing the problem, the apostles investigated, found that the accusations were true, and then appointed some from the affected group to be in charge of making sure that people were taken care of equitably (Acts 6:1-6).
Out of this consciousness that the Holy Community doesn’t always practice justice, and thereby fails to be a Beloved Community, Stephen witnessed to repeated patterns of faithlessness and abuse within Israelite history. The abuse culminated in some members of the Sanhedrin supporting Jesus’ arrest and murder by the Romans.
The truth hurts, sometimes. Some members of the Sanhedrin couldn’t abide being compared to the unfaithful in previous generations and moved to silence Stephen. They shouted him down, then violently attacked him and, finally, lynched him. Yet as the mob rushed Stephen away from his trial without verdict or formal sentence, he looked intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, with Jesus standing at God’s right hand. This is Stephen’s witness: the God who was faithfully present throughout Israelite history reveals God’s glory to humans, principally through Jesus, who lived, died, was resurrected and ascended to the right hand of God.
Jesus tells Thomas that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life that leads to the Father, not to some mansion in the sky.
The Gospel of John picks up this important connection between seeing God’s glory and Jesus’ position at the right hand of God. In John’s prologue, the Gospel writer witnesses to having seen God’s glory made manifest in the only child of God the Father (1:14). In this week’s lectionary reading, Jesus makes God’s glory manifest by ensuring that he doesn’t remain an “only child.” We need to pay close attention to the language used to understand what Jesus is saying to his disciples.
Jesus tells his disciples that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places (14:2). We need to unpack two common translation issues. First, the error of the King James Version that translates μοναὶ as “mansions” needs to be undone. Besides the logical problem of having separate mansions within a house, to think of what Jesus is talking about as detached houses in a heavenly realm misses the point. Jesus is saying that there is plenty of room to abide or dwell within God’s house. He goes ahead to ensure that this is the case and makes ready God’s household to welcome those who follow his way.
Second, and more importantly, we must not mistake “Father’s house” with a heavenly castle of some sort. The house of the Father, בית אב (beit av), could mean parents’ home. But the primary meaning is a household or a family. The “house of David” is much more about David’s family than it is about a particular physical dwelling place. So, when Jesus says that he goes to prepare a place in the “house of his Father,” we shouldn’t think of heavenly dwellings (remember, we are ultimately looking forward to resurrection in the New Earth, not disembodied ethereal heavens). Instead, Jesus prepares room for us to abide as God’s children in the divine household.
Jesus tells Thomas that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life that leads to the Father, not to some mansion in the sky. He calls his disciples to see the identifying relationship between God the Father and Jesus, his son, so that they, too, might be adopted into God’s family. Again, John foregrounds this in the prologue by saying that Jesus gives the right to become children of God to all those who receive and believe in him (1:12).
What Stephen witnesses in Jesus standing at the right hand of God is exactly what Jesus told his disciples that he would do: prepare places for them (and us) in the house of the Father. Jesus’ death and resurrection offers not just life after death but a place in God’s family.