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The Room Within

A meditation on John 14: 18-20

On that bright day so long ago Jesus was speaking directly to us when he said: "I will not leave you desolate. For on that day, you will know that I am in (God) and you are in me, and I am in you." I realize this may seem impossible. We are so accustomed to living in the absence of God that we cannot even imagine being that close to our Creator.

"I am in (God) and you are in me and I am in you."

See how easy it is to miss the clear meaning of these words. Right here in the text from St. John's gospel a disciple named Judas asks a question which reveals his complete misunderstanding. This is not Judas Iscariot; this is simply one of the many millions of Christs followers, then and now, who have a problem conceiving that we can actually be in such a direct, personal relationship with God. Rather than taking Jesus at his word, Judas asks: "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world."

Judas seems to be imagining some kind of cosmic spectacle, lightening and thunder perhaps, or some gigantic eruption of the aurora borealis, lights flashing across the sky, voices ringing from the heavens, maybe a celestial choir thundering out, "This is the voice of the Lord speaking, listen to me!" And Judas wonders how it is that if God spoke in such a clear voice we Christians would hear but the rest of the world would not?

The God Judas imagines is still that remote and distant God, that deity who rules from on high, whereas Jesus has something very different in mind. Having failed to communicate the first time, Jesus tries putting it another way: "Anyone who loves me will keep my word and we will come and make our home" in that person's heart.

Here's an image that blows the circuits of the imagination.

Here Jesus paints a word picture that is so vivid and so bright that it may be difficult for us to see. It's a scene of homecoming to beat them all. Typically Jesus puts it all in a phrase. "We (God and I) will make a home within" you. Note that Jesus is using an image similar to the one he used in the opening verse of this same chapter in St John's gospel. "Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my father's house there are many mansions."

That opening verse, beautiful though it is, pales by comparison to the passage that we are grappling with now. For in a way it's easier to grasp the idea of God's heavenly mansions. In the life after death, when we are at last freed from the trials and temptations of life, when we are no longer shackled by the limitations of our mortal bodies and our slow witted brains, then, maybe then, we can find the room that he been prepared for us in God's house and be welcomed into God's everlasting kingdom.

But in our present verse, it's not a question of being lifted up to some supernatural realm. Quite the reverse. Here Jesus is speaking of the here and now. He is referring to our own hearts, our minds, and our bodies. These frail vessels of flesh shall be the dwelling place of God. It's so radical a thought, so stunning a conception, that our minds almost recoil from it. Like Judas, we back away from the clear meaning of the words.

In this short passage Jesus alters our whole frame of reference in thinking about God.

It's no longer our spirits ascending after death to some higher realm of spiritual being; it's God making a home in our hearts, here and now. Suddenly we find ourselves sitting in a room bathed in light. We imagine that it is dark and dangerous out there in the world beyond, but in the room which God has created within us, it is completely peaceful. It is tranquility and tenderness itself. And one can actually feel God's love pervading that whole space, just as the warmth and aroma of candlelight pervades the whole interior of a small cabin, or a crackling fire fills a room with its warmth. We, each of us, have this peaceful room within us, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is a room filled with the memories we hold most dear, a room decorated with the hopes we hold most passionately, it's a room filled with the people who are connected to us in their love.

This room which God creates within us is not just a hideaway, a refuge, or a sanctuary where we retreat from the storms that rage in the world without, though it is all these things. It is also a source of life and energy and vitality radiating outward. Just knowing that God is there waiting for our return to the room within, this knowledge is a source of all the peace, hope and courage we will ever need.

Often, of course, we do not feel it this clearly. We do not feel God's presence within and we do not see the manifestations of God's power in the world without.

So what's the problem? How do we enter the room that God has prepared for us? "If anyone loves me," said Jesus, "then we will make our home within them." It all falls into place in the simple act of loving the one who first loved us. How slow we are to comprehend the most basic and the most simple things. This passage reminds me very much of the question which Jesus put over and over again to Peter. "Peter, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" This was the most important question of all, and yet Peter kept evading it.

Do we really love the Lord and take Christ at his word?

Our doubt about this basic question is perplexing. What more could any of us ask than the knowledge that we have been chosen as the dwelling place of God? So what's keeping us from experiencing this sense of closeness to the creator? I don't think it's because we're particularly evil or pernicious. I don't see many of us leading lives of crime or corruption such that the Lord would withdraw from the room within , never to return.

As I look out across any congregation or any group of people for that matter, I see a people who are, by and large, seriously trying to be right with God. But what I also sense is a reluctance, perhaps even a fear of taking Jesus at his word. "Be not anxious," said Jesus, "I will not leave you desolate." Actually, spoken in Aramaic as Jesus would have spoken, the word is even more powerful. "Be not anxious, I will not leave you an orphan."

Whatever happens, we shall not be cut off from the love and protecting care of the Creator. God loves us in a way that is more direct than our own parents can love us. For the very reason that God can reach inside our hearts and hold on to us through the very bones and sinews of our bodies. God can get to us from the inside. God can reach out to us even before we are aware what is happening. The problem is we hold back from such intimacy.

Not wanting to admit our fear of God, we focus our anxiety on lesser things.

There won't be enough money to make me happy! I'll be ripped off, robbed or cheated! They won't like me when they discover what I'm really like! In our anxiety we devote ourselves with greater and greater intensity to the task of holding on to what we have, instead of risking what we have and allowing God to occupy that anxious space at the center of our hearts.

Right now in your own life there is probably a great deal of anxiety. Some of us are anxious about health; some of us are at a stage of life when good health is something we are thankful for every single day and the possibility of losing our health makes us anxious every day. Some of us are anxious about our work, whether we will be able to succeed at what we are doing, whether we will even have a job. Some of us are anxious about problems in our families, relatives who are in trouble, who are sick, who may be dying, children who are doing things that make us very anxious indeed.

But in the face of all our fears and anxieties, Christ's words are simple and his words are clear: "Let not your hearts be troubled. I will not leave you desolate." Well, if you are to mature in your faith, you've simply got to take Christ at his word. If you do put your trust and confidence in the Lord, then I can assure you that your future does bear promise in its wings. If you begin to act in the confidence that flows from a direct relationship with the creator of the universe, you will find the solution to your problems.

For each and every one of us the question for today is this: "Are we prepared to take Jesus Christ at his word?" "Do you love me," asks Jesus. "Do you really love me?" Somehow we've got to answer with the resounding affirmation that question calls for. Somehow we've got to arrange it so your love of the Lord becomes evident, becomes alluring, becomes appealing, I might even say seductive. As soon as you allow yourself the faith to speak and to act in the assurance that God has made a dwelling place in your heart and mind, then your most serious personal problems will suddenly seem far less intimidating.

Have you ever spent the night in a warm and comfortable room, with great curtains drawn against the night? You know what I mean - those heavy opaque curtains that shut out the early morning sun so that you catch a few more minutes of sleep after the sun has begun its morning rounds. Well imagine you've had your long, restful night of sleep and you roll out of bed. Slowly you make your way over to the window and pull the cord that throws back those curtains. The warm light of the sun comes pouring in. Startled by its warmth and brilliance you throw open the sash and you are greeted by the fresh air, the smell of flowers, the song of birds. It's a wonderful day. Suddenly you feel conmpletely alive. You want nothing more than to be outside taking it all in. Well its that way when God makes a home in our hearts. The presence of God, comforting and peaceful like a long night's rest, also inspires us to move on out.

When we allow God to occupy our hearts, we not only experience peace within, we also have strength and energy to address the problems of the world without. Are you ready now to pull back the curtains and let the light come streaming in? Because God has already made a home in your heart, you can pull back those curtains of anxiety, let the light come streaming in, and then step on out into the light of day!

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.