Westmont Magazine Coming Home
A message by Robert H. Gundry, scholar-in-residence and
professor emeritus of New Testament and Greek,
at Homecoming Chapel, September 26, 2003
I suppose it makes sense for a scholar-in-residence to speak at Homecoming, and about Homecoming. On the other hand, Homecoming — especially Homecoming Chapel — is a mix of contradictions. The vast majority of you don’t think of Westmont as your home.
Even if you did, you’re not coming home; you’ve already been here for a month. And you’re looking forward to going home for the fall holiday in a couple of weeks. If you’re homesick, you can hardly wait to go home to mom and dad, brothers, sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends.
But you alumni — you’re a different kettle of fish. You were nurtured here as students. That’s the very meaning of the word alumni. It comes from a Latin verb that means “to nurture.” And alma mater means “a nurturing mother.” You were nurtured here in many respects: socially, spiritually, and — not least, we hope — mentally. So for you, Homecoming is coming home, not going home. It’s coming home to Mother Westmont.
It’s doubly a coming home for Kevin Vanhoozer (Alumnus of the Year) and for Judy Gundry-Volf (a distant acquaintance of mine!). They not only attended Westmont; they grew up here. I don’t know what to do with Nancy Favor Phinney, Karen Percival Gluck, Dana Alexander, and Cliff Lundberg. They not only attended Westmont and grew up here. They also live and work here right now. They’re neither coming nor going. (My apologies to others in these categories whom I may have missed.)
So my first question: Why this difference on Homecoming between you current students, for whom the weekend isn’t a Homecoming at all, and you alumni, for whom it’s very much a Homecoming? Well, during college you’re on perpetual probation. You feel under constant threat. You might flunk out, lose your scholarship, lose your athletic eligibility, be suspended, thrown out, or — perhaps worst of all — not earn good enough grades to get into the grad school of your choice. None of these possibilities carries the comforts of home!
The poet Robert Frost said famously, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Now that you alumni are out of college, there’s no more probation. There aren’t any more threats. All is forgiven; we have to take you in. Even better than Frost’s statement, we rejoice to take you in—just as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (though we don’t suppose that in the “far country” you’ve been “wasting your substance in riotous living”).
Here’s another question that will lead up to a passage of Scripture: What’s the difference between a “home” and a “house”? Burchfield’s “The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage” notes that “estate agents . . . tend to work on the assumption that home is a more personal and warmer term than house.” And sure enough, a look through the yellow pages of the phone book under “Real Estate” shows that most Realtors don’t say they sell houses. They say they sell homes, doubtless because “homes” has the flavor of “security . . . happiness . . . refuge . . . family” (The American Heritage Dictionary).
When you think of a house you think of a building, a structure made out of wood and stucco, bricks and mortar, cement, nails, shingles. When you think of a home you think of a house that’s inhabited, that’s lived in. You think of intimate personal relationships. You think of eating together at Thanksgiving, of opening presents around the Christmas tree, of conversing in front of a blazing fireplace. House is cold; home is cozy. You buy a house; you live in a home. The elder brother didn’t join the party at the homecoming of his prodigal brother precisely because he didn’t think of his father’s house as a home.
A home is — well, we say, “homey.” You’d never say “housey.” You enter your front door and announce, “I’m home,” not “I’m house.” To get a loan you go to Home Savings and Loan, not House Savings and Loan. To buy materials for a repair job, you go down to the Home Improvement Center on Gutierrez Street, not the House Improvement Center. Of course, all this use of “home” where “house” would be more appropriate comes from advertising spin. But you get the point.
Now which word, “house” or “home,” do you think really and truly fits better in Jesus’ statement, “In my Father’s house/home are many abodes” (John 14:2)? Notice that I said “abodes,” not the “mansions” of the old King James Version and lots of our gospel songs. “Mansions” gives the completely wrong notion of a fancy Montecito estate, like the one just up the road from where you turn into our main entrance. It’s the same word you find in Jesus’ statement in verse 23: “My Father will love the one who loves me and keeps my word, and we’ll come to him and make our abode with him.” The word is simply the noun corresponding to the verb “abide” in the next chapter of John’s Gospel: “Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch can’t bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so you can’t bear fruit unless you abide in me” (15:4).
In view of these statements by Jesus, abiding carries two ideas. The first is an interpersonal relation so close it’s like living inside the other person. Not just “like” — in a very real sense it is living inside the other person. Second, abiding indicates an interpersonal relation so close it’s permanent. An abode is a place where you stay, so that a number of modern translations use “remain” instead of “abide.”
“Abide” and “abode” sound a bit old-fashioned, though. You don’t go around saying you “abide” in your dorm room, do you? And I suspect you don’t call your dorm room an “abode.” But if you say “remain” in John 15 (“Remain in me, and I in you”)—if you say “remain” instead of “abide,” you lose the connection between “abodes” (“In my Father’s house/home are many abodes”) and “abide” (“Abide in me”). I haven’t found a single English translation that shows the close connection between the “many abodes” in John 14:2 and “abiding” in Christ in the following chapter. What a shame! (I guess you’ll just all have to take Greek.)
So back to my multiple choice question: In view of the intimate and permanent personal relation that abiding indicates, which word, “house” or “home,” fits better with a place to abide? (a) “In my Father’s house are many abodes” or (b) “In my Father’s home are many abodes”? (a) or (b)? If you answered (a) you’re wrong, and double off for the wrong answer, since you had a 50 percent change of guessing right. “In my Father’s home are many abodes.”
Next question, a fill-in: What’s the address of the Father’s home? Where is it? What is it? You might think it’s heaven, the New Jerusalem with pearly gates and streets of gold. But wait a minute. It so happens that the phrase “my Father’s home” occurs earlier in John’s Gospel — in chapter 2, to be exact. There, Jesus goes to Jerusalem at the Passover Festival of the Jews. In the temple he finds sellers of sacrificial animals and birds, and doesn’t like what he sees. So he makes a whip out of some cords; drives out the merchants, their animals and birds; upsets the tables of the money-changers; and sends the coins flying to the floor. Then he says, “Take these things out of here. Stop making my Father’s home a house of commerce.”
You’ll notice that I switched from “home” to “house”: “Stop making my Father’s home a house of commerce.” It’s actually the same word in the original text, but with a different nuance in its two occurrences. Jesus was objecting to the merchants’ changing the Temple, his Father’s “home,” into a mere “house,” changing it from a place where God abides into a mere store building where buying and selling take place. So desecrated though it was, the Father’s home looks to be the temple in Jerusalem.
But is it? There’s more. When Jesus said to the merchants, “Stop making my Father’s home a house of commerce,” his disciples remembered that it’s written in Psalm 69, “Zeal for your home will devour me/will consume me.” Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple was an act of zeal for God’s home. And that act was going to devour him, consume him. You can’t miss the ominous ring of these words. They sound a death knell for Jesus.
But there’s still more. The Jews challenge Jesus’ authority: “What sign do you show us, seeing that you’re doing these things?” Jesus answered, “Dismantle this temple — destroy it, and in three days I’ll raise it.” The Jews ridicule Jesus’ statement: “It took 46 years to build this temple, and are you going to raise it in three days?” Then John explains: “But Jesus was talking about the temple of his body. So when he rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he’d said this.”
Is the temple in Jerusalem the Father’s home, then? It was once upon a time. But not any more! It doesn’t even exist any more. Jesus, his very body, the flesh that the Word who was with God and was God became — Jesus’ very flesh is the Father’s home, the true temple — because by definition a temple is where deity dwells, and God dwells, he abides, in the body of Jesus. No wonder Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4, “Believe me
. . . the hour is coming . . . and now is . . . when you’ll worship the Father neither on this mountain [Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worshiped] nor in Jerusalem.” Jesus himself is now the place to worship God. No wonder he says to his disciples, “Abide in me.” He himself is the place where God the Father abides. He himself is the Father’s home. If you want a relation with God, then, you have to abide in Jesus, because he’s the place where you’ll find God, or where God will find you.
So “in my Father’s home are many abodes” means “in me/in my body/in my flesh are many abodes.” In his body? In his flesh? How can that be? Jesus continues, “I’m going to prepare a place for you.” Where is he going? To his Father in heaven? Ultimately, yes, but not yet. Jesus is speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room on the eve of his crucifixion. He’s going to his Father in heaven later, but at the moment he’s going to the cross. It’s there, on the cross, at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull — as John calls it in chapter 19 — it’s there that Jesus prepared for us abiding places in his own body. There, at Golgotha, as Jesus’ corpse hung on the cross, a soldier pierced his side, and out flowed blood and water. And for us who by faith drink his blood and eat his flesh, as he said we have to do if we want eternal life (chapter 6), the opening in his body that let out blood and water becomes our point of entry into his body, where we abide. It’s a happy and secure place to be, just as a true home is. Our abodes aren’t mansions in heaven, then. They’re abiding places in Jesus’ body, the home of God the Father.
A little over 10 years ago, on January 14, 1993, our student newspaper, The Horizon, carried a story about Robert Earl Parsons. Robert lived in Hesperia here in California, but he’d come to Westmont as a transfer student. Two weeks away from his 22nd birthday, during Christmas break — in fact, the morning after he’d returned from campus to Hesperia — Robert was killed in a car accident. His 19-year old sister Amy was in the car at the time, but survived. She said that the last thing she heard her brother say was, “I’m coming home, God.” The accident happened directly in front of the residence of an elder at Grace Baptist Church, to which Robert and his family belonged.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “We prefer to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.” So when we speak about a Christian’s death, we speak about his or her going home to be with the Lord. But when Robert addressed God just before the collision that killed him, he talked about coming home. That was just right. As a Christian, Robert knew his correct address. He knew where his true home was, and is — where Jesus is. Since Jesus is the Word who was with God and was God, Robert could truthfully say, “I’m coming home, God.”
But there’s another way to understand “coming home,” an even better way so far as our passage of scripture is concerned. Jesus goes on to say, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I’m coming again, and I’ll take you to myself that where I am you also may be.”
We aren’t the ones coming. He’s the one who’s coming. He’s the Father’s home that’s coming to take us to himself, so that by our abiding in him he can be our home as well as the Father’s home. “To myself,” Jesus says. Of course, because in him, in his very flesh, are many abodes, a place for each of us.
But do we have to wait for the so-called second coming to abide in him? No. Jesus refers to his second coming elsewhere, but not here. He came first into the world at his incarnation. He came again to his disciples right after his death and resurrection — in other words, right after his glorification. Listen to 20:19: “Jesus came and stood in the midst of the disciples and said to them, ‘Peace to you.’” According to 20:24, Thomas wasn’t with them when Jesus “came” and stood in their midst. Eight days later, according to 20:26, Jesus “comes” and stands in the midst of them (including Thomas this time).
According to 21:13, Jesus “comes” to his disciples at the lakeside in Galilee. John is the only New Testament writer to use the verb “come” for the recently risen Jesus. All the other writers talk only about Jesus’ appearing to the disciples and about their seeing him.
So when in John 14 Jesus tells his disciples just before the crucifixion that he’s coming again, he’s referring to what from our standpoint has already happened. He came again to the disciples right after his glorification.
Ah, but there is a still future coming of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Chapter 21, verses 22-23 record that after he’d come again several times the risen Jesus said, “If I want the beloved disciple to abide [that is, stay alive] till I come, what is that to you, Peter? Follow me.” Jesus didn’t say the beloved disciple wasn’t going to die, only “if I want him to stay alive till I come.” So Jesus’ comings right after his glorification to take us into our abodes in his own body, pierced at the crucifixion — those comings anticipated his coming yet in our future.
In the Book of Revelation, then, John writes about Jesus, “Behold, he’s coming with clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” (1:7). And he quotes Jesus: “Yes, I’m coming quickly” (Revelation 22:20a). So again, “coming home” doesn’t mean that we’re coming home. It means that Jesus, the Father’s home who has now become our home too, is coming, just as he came to the disciples right after his glorification. The Christian response is, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus,” to which is added a benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all who hear the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:20b–21).
That benediction ends the Book of Revelation. But I want to add a footnote. (After all, a scholar without a footnote is like the emperor without his clothes.) Here’s the footnote:
In Revelation 3:12 John quotes Jesus as saying, “I’ll make the one who wins the victory [in other words, who proves to be a true Christian]—I’ll make the one who wins the victory a pillar in the temple of my God.” You’ve doubtless seen photos of ancient Greek and Roman pillars sculpted in the shape of human beings, like the caryatids (female figures) in the porch of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens. Remember now that according to John 2, Jesus is the new and true temple of God, God’s home. To be made a pillar in God’s temple, then, is to abide in Jesus not only now, but also forever. For the promise in Revelation 3:12 goes on to say that those who, by winning the victory, become pillars in God’s temple, Jesus, will never go out of that temple. Naturally they won’t. Pillars don’t walk! In him there’s security for all eternity.
And then Jesus promises that he’ll inscribe on these victorious pillars the name of God, the name of the New Jerusalem, and his own new name. Later the Book of Revelation says the New Jerusalem doesn’t have a temple, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb Jesus are its temple (21:22). And what is the New Jerusalem? Not the place where we Christians will dwell forever. What is the New Jerusalem? is the wrong question. Who is the New Jerusalem? John’s answer is, “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9). The New Jerusalem is we Christian victors, the bride and wife of Jesus the Lamb, but portrayed as a shining city in which there’s no temple except for God and Jesus.
Notice: “in which there’s no temple except for God and Jesus.” God and Jesus are the temple in the New Jerusalem, and we are that city. So God and Jesus abide in us just as we abide in them. We’re their home just as they’re our home—forever and ever. May this Homecoming remind us, then, of our home who has already come, and will yet come.