The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit Amidst Social Distancing
As you all, I have gone through the stages of reaction to and reflection on the measures being taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In Germany, where I live and work, the measures are relatively similar to those taking place across the U.S. right now. Schools are shut down; all public gatherings and even smaller gatherings are likewise restricted. The list certainly goes on (and is changing daily). The primary point of these measures is to create social distancing during this time to "flatten the curve". For how long exactly, we are not yet sure. The insecurity caused by so many of these dynamics can often leave people feeling paralyzed even though some have more time on their hands than usual.
Thankfully, even the crisis of social distancing is something we can find in the biblical text and have, therefore, a powerful and transformative answer from Christ to this crisis. In John 13:33, Jesus says, "Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, 'Where I am going you cannot come.'"
Up to this point, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem had done everything they could to stop Jesus and it wasn't working. This was especially true after Lazarus was raised from the dead. He who had died was now alive and had become an undeniable witness to the Jerusalem religious elite that Jesus had the power to raise from the dead, the ones he loves. In fact, in John 12, these rebellious leaders all but gave up (Joh. 12:19). But now, in Chapter 13, Jesus breaks the news to those closest to him that he is leaving and that there will soon be a distance between him and the disciples. It is not surprising that this news came as a shock to His disciples. They had given their entire lives to simply follow this man. Needless to say, being around this guy was their lifelong expectation. What is even more of a shocker is that Peter, the most zealous among them, is now said to be in danger of also betraying the Lord! (Joh. 13:38)
The crisis of social distancing from their master was now hitting them hard, and to this crisis, Jesus begins by saying "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me" (Joh. 14:1). Then Jesus gives a series of powerful promises to his soon to be socially distanced disciples; promises which have incredible relevance for us today. These promises center around the Greek word, monē which is translated "dwelling place."
Jesus uses this word twice to answer Peter's question, "Lord, where are you going?" The first use of "dwelling place" happens in v.2, "In my Father's house are many rooms (dwelling places). If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also." (Joh. 14,2-3)
It is quite challenging to keep up with all the different comings, goings, and beings of the Lord in John 14-17. Layering diverse meanings to the same phrase is a common tool that John uses throughout his gospel. Verse 3 is often understood as a passage speaking about the return of Jesus at his second coming. Jesus will go to heaven to prepare a place for us. Then, someday he will come again and take us to heaven to be with him. Although the NT is abundantly clear about the importance of our future hope in the resurrection of the dead at the return of the Lord, there is reason to see that Jesus is not referring to that at this moment. Instead, Jesus is referring to another "coming" which will empower the believer with a sense of access and belonging within God's household.
This coming of the Lord will enable believers to 'be with him where he is' while also sending them as a body of people into the world. We can see this even better when we look at the prayer Jesus prays in John 17:24, saying, "Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world." Jesus prayed this immediately after stating the purpose of his prayer, being "that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." Indeed, if seeing his glory where he is means being an effective witness in the world, it most certainly does not refer to being taken out of the world. So what is Jesus referring to when he says, "I will come again and take you to myself"?
To this question, the second use of monē offers us more insight. John 14:18-23:
"I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?"
Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home (dwelling place) with him."
In this series of verses, Jesus begins to give incredible promises which are meant to overshadow the sad news of his originally announced social distance. Instead of being abandoned, they will be taken in as adopted children. Instead of being left to die, they will live. Instead of being outsiders, they will be brought into an incredible revelation of their belonging. They will be loved by the Father, they will be loved by Jesus and will see him manifested. Along with these astounding promises, however, Jesus adds the statement that a kind of physical distance will continue ('the world will see me no more'). It is not surprising that this point keeps hanging in the air and becomes the source of Judas' question.
It is a good question from Judas, and Jesus' answer is the best news we could have in this season as well because it speaks to what we have available to us, even in this season of social distancing. Jesus says, "we will come to him and make our home with him." The coming again of Jesus in John 14:3 is indeed the coming of the Holy Spirit into the heart and lived-in experience of the believer. The Holy Spirit brings a nearness of God to us that is described by Jesus in the most intimate of terms, affection and family.
This promise also speaks of our living in a place of confident access to God as members of his divine household. It means 'seeing' the Lord as raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb. 2:8-9; Acts 2:32-33). In the crisis of social distance, the Lord has given us an incredible promise of nearness. We are reminded again through our current circumstances that the Lord, who is the Spirit, is not withheld from us but has been given to us as the experiential power of God's love 'poured into our hearts' (Rom. 5:5).
Fittingly, the first half of chapter 15 of John revolves around the verb moneō (to abide). We are challenged more than ever to hang on and abide within God's love as manifested through His indwelling presence. Don't let go! He is near!