Back in 1961 the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human to orbit the earth – just once. According to the way Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told the story afterwards he asked Gagarin later, ‘Well? Did you see God up there?’ To which Gargarin replied, ‘No sir, I did not’. Interestingly, one of Gagarin’s closest friends, fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, much later claimed that Garagrin’s reply had actually been - ‘Yes sir, I did. But I can’t talk about it’.
Well, I don’t think anybody would have been too greatly disturbed by the Kruschev’s version. Just about everybody else on the planet probably thought, "Well, of course not Gagarin, we never thought you would see God out there." We’re too sophisticated. Living in a scientific age, even the majority of us who aren’t scientists have got this three-dimensional map of the physical universe in our heads, a sort of spherical map, and we know that heaven isn’t on it. Even though our faith tells us there is a heaven, we know it's not a physical place, we know it’s not up there or out there.
But maybe there's a difference between knowing something with your head and feeling it in the pit of your stomach. After all, it wasn’t too many hundreds of years ago that people had a very different kind of map of the universe in their heads, one that looked like a sort of three layered sandwich with hell on the bottom, and heaven up the top and the earth kind of squashed in between. Which meant that heaven really was ‘up there’. And maybe, deep down, most of us still feel the universe should look like that. Back in 1961, everybody knew Gagarin wasn’t going to see heaven up there but it would have been reassuring, just the same. We’d know which way was up.
One of the most asked-for readings at funerals is the passage we just heard from John’s gospel, chapter 14. And it’s not hard to understand why. This reading seems to be telling us which way is up. It seems to be telling us where heaven is, and that heaven is our home – that heaven is where we are meant to live and that there is a place made ready there for us. I find it reassuring because it says that God’s love is personal, that – even though the details of what happens on the other side of death are a mystery – that I belong and I am expected in heaven.
We’re right to be reassured by this passage, and we’re right to find in this a message that God’s love for us is personal. But I think that if we only read this passage as talking about heaven, or as only talking about what happens to us after we die, then we might miss the most important point. Because, in fact, Jesus isn’t actually talking about heaven, and he certainly isn’t talking about something that happens ‘up there’ or ‘out there’. Even though Jesus is using ‘place’–type words, he is not talking about a place – and even though Jesus is using ‘now’ and ‘later’ type words, he is not just talking about what happens after this present life. And I think the key to how can understand this passage is to listen to how Thomas gets it all wrong.
Each of the Gospel writers has got a distinctive way of unpacking for us what Jesus is talking about. One of the ways of doing that is to have a character who keeps missing the point in obvious ways – in the other three Gospels it's usually Peter who blurts out something embarrassing, but in St John’s Gospel it's Thomas. And here Thomas does it again: "Well how can we know what road to go on?" Thomas thinks Jesus is talking about a place. But even if the other disciples are one step ahead of Thomas – what they think is that Jesus is talking about heaven, and they know it’s not anywhere around here – so it’s maybe a relief for all of them when Thomas asks his gauche question, "How can we know the way?"
But Jesus’ answer makes it clear that he isn’t talking about a place at all, because he says, "I am the way". And all of a sudden it’s pretty clear he’s not talking about a road you can walk on. He’s been talking about houses, and dwelling places, and roads from here to there, but all of a sudden it’s quite clear that all this is a metaphor – it’s not about geography and he isn’t talking about a place – Jesus has been using common and ordinary "where and when" language to talk about something that’s a bit more slippery, not quite so easily grasped – so if the "house" that he’s talking about isn’t a bricks-and-mortar house, if the dwelling places aren’t actual rooms and if the road to get there isn’t an actual road, then what does the metaphor mean?
It’s actually not that difficult, because the way Jesus is using language here is not all that different from the way we use language in our own culture. We talk like this quite often, for example when we say things like, "where are you coming from with that?", or, "she’s had a pretty tough journey". In English we use language about place all the time to talk about our subjective experience of life because it suggests a process – that things change over time – and it also suggests how our lives as individuals have a meaningful context. When we use the language of place as a metaphor for our life experience, it’s generally a way of expressing who we are within our relationships with family, friends or community.
And there is a word here, in John 14, that’s at the bottom of all this. It’s the word that the old King James Version translated "mansions": "In my father's house there are many mansions." Some of the modern versions use "rooms": "In my father's house are many rooms." The Bible we are using translates it "dwelling places." This word, moné, only occurs twice in the whole New Testament - both times in John Chapter 14. But there is a related word, meno, that occurs over and over, especially in this Gospel. Sometimes we translate it "abide," sometimes "stay," sometimes "remain." The word happens over and over, especially in St John’s Gospel – for example when Jesus says, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." Or when Jesus says: "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."
So especially for John the Evangelist, when he talks about abiding, dwelling, staying, and dwelling place, abiding place; these are theologically significant words that the Gospel writer uses over and over to build up an elaborate metaphor about belonging. And the English word that sums up all this is "relationship" – when Jesus talks about the branch abiding in the vine he is talking about the fundamental sort of relationship we have with what gives us life. Like you and me in our everyday speech, when Jesus uses the language of place, he is really thinking on the level of relationship. And Jesus’ language about dwelling places in chapter 14 is also about relationship – the relationship we have with God, and the relationship we have with one another, that is opened up for us by Jesus himself, because the relationship that Jesus has with his Father includes us too.
This is what Jesus is really saying to us (in way less poetic language):
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. You are at home in my Father’s heart.
If not, why would I tell you that my dying will open this relationship for you? And if my dying does make it possible for you to have this relationship with God, then you will also be a part of me, so we will be inseparable. And you already know how this relationship will be made possible – how you can have a relationship with God that is so close that not even death can break it – you have that relationship now because I am one with the Father and I have shared myself with you."
This is the dwelling place that Jesus promises us – the certainty of knowing that wherever we are, on this side or on the other side of death, we are beloved by God and inseparable from God. It’s not about getting from here to there at all – it’s about discovering that our final destination and our true home is just to be with God – which isn’t ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ but right here where we’ve been all the time. We abide - together in the heart of God - wherever we are.
Incidentally, whether or not he saw God ‘up there’, Yuri Gagarin was transformed by a vision of our shared home. ‘I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear earth’, he remarked later. ‘When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth's light-coloured surface to the absolutely black sky. How beautiful our home is - brothers and sisters, let us work together to preserve it’.