Teaching About Heaven

The readings for Sunday, May 14, Fifth Sunday of Easter, Cycle A, are
Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; and John 14:1-12.

For the Fifth Sunday of Easter the liturgy presents us with a Gospel reading from Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse in the Gospel of John. Seems a bit odd as we work our way toward the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. Although the farewell theme of the Last Supper Discourse applies first of all to Jesus’ death and resurrection, it can also be extended to the celebration  of his ascension. The first thought in today’s Gospel is consolation for the disciples of Jesus, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” What will comfort their troubled hearts? Faith! Or “Trust me!” Better expressed in words attributed to Jesus, “Have faith in God. Have faith also in me.” After all, it is the same faith, since in the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly claims the Name of God, “I AM,” as his own name, and often claims equality with his Father in other ways.

The next thought in this reading: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” So should we imagine heaven as a giant motel? Luke 16:9 speaks of “eternal tents.” Mark 10:40 implies heavenly “chairs” or seating arrangements. Luke 22:30 speaks of Jesus’ own table in heaven with seats reserved for the disciples, and thrones for them from which they would judge Israelites. Best to regard these expressions as metaphors, symbols of eternal rest and peace, and symbols of God’s presence.  St. John Paul II taught that heaven should not even be thought of as a place, but as a way of existence. Benedict XVI nailed it, when he said, “Heaven is simply God.”

Jesus promises to come back, pick up the disciples and “take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” Where is that? The presence of God. When Jesus reminds them that they already know how to get to this “place,” the author uses one of his standard devices. A disciple does not understand and objects with a question. Thomas the future Doubter gets this role, as he says, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” This objection, according to John’s pattern of catechesis, leads to a revelation, as Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” As a further assurance that Jesus would come back for them, John reveals dependence of Jesus’ followers on invitation and assistance, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Then he reveals the total unity between Father and Son, “If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Not enough yet for them! The revelation of consubstantiality between Father and Son needs more catechesis. This time John gives the objector’s role to Philip, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Still thinking too concretely! Jesus replies, “Philip, have I been with you for so long a time, and you still don’t know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” More catechesis follows, as John emphasizes that the works Jesus did, (miracles, or in John’s terminology, Signs), were actually done by Jesus together with the Father. “The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe first of all that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, and if that does not satisfy you, let the works themselves increase your faith (in me and in the Father). Thus John confirms the earlier statement of Jesus, “Have faith in God. Have faith also in me.” The revelation or catechesis on the relationship between Father and Son is completed. John passes on to a related catechesis — the works that the followers of Jesus will be doing.

The headline, the attention-getter, as so often in John, is a statement of Jesus spoken under a double oath, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater works than these.” Seems strange indeed, but John makes it clear that Jesus’ followers will not be working on their own. They will do these greater works, “because I am going to the Father.”

Unfortunately our Gospel reading stops at this point, since John in the next verse describes what this means, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” No selfishness in Jesus!  The One who became obedient unto death does not seek his own glorification, but the glorification of his Father. The disciples will have no power of themselves to do these works. Their power will come from Jesus and his Oneness with his Father. Therefore the “greater works,” whatever John means here, will still be the works of Father and Son, but accomplished through the humble humanity of Jesus’ disciples.