I once heard someone express a vision for a city’s urban center as becoming “one great church whose aisles are the streets, whose curbs are the altars, whose buildings and open spaces are prayer rooms and classrooms and fellowship halls.”
What a thought! For one thing, this frees churchgoers from having to make decisions about the carpet or what color to paint the walls. (If you grew up in a tradition where "fellowship hall" was part of the vernacular, you may know it as the site where many interior design wars were waged.) More significantly, this way of articulating the mission of the church helps us to think differently about our neighborhood park, for instance, or the small business down the street.
The author of John’s gospel lets his readers know that Jesus also thinks differently about the places in which we move about—thankfully, "fellowship hall" appears nowhere in the Greek. Three texts in John show us how Jesus re-frames the way we should think about the availability of God’s presence and, in turn, the way we should think about our neighborhoods and city.
Fluid, Not Fixed (John 2)
At Jesus’ first Passover, after he drives a group of salespeople from the temple, the Jews respond by asking him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”
Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus’ audience is understandably confused. How could he accomplish in three days a building project that took nearly a half century to complete?
John clues us in: Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. When he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this.
Jesus’ risen body becomes the new temple. Rather than a fixed place where people come to worship and offer sacrifices, God’s presence is transitory and on the move.
While we do gather for worship and communion, the church building is one place among multiple other places where worship and communion occur.
Neither Here Nor There (John 4)
In John 4, Jesus speaks to a woman who makes an assumption similar to the one I make when I think of the church building as the capital-P Place I go to encounter God. “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain,” she contends, “but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20).
So what’ll it be? Do we worship here or there? How can we best distinguish between who’s in the right place and who’s in the wrong place? Someone has to make these important distinctions! As songwriter Andrew Bird puts it,
“And when you look up at the sky,
all you see are zeroes
all you see are zeroes and ones.”
Jesus moves beyond this choice between binary oppositions.
“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father’” (John 4:21).
Jesus proclaims that places of worship cannot be divided into categories like “authorized” or “off-limits,” “acceptable” or “unsuitable.” Instead, Christ affirms worship both in Jerusalem and on the uneven roads that lead there, both on the mountain and in the valley where the weary have been forced to wait.
If you’re thinking of the prophet’s vision of valleys being lifted up and mountains being made low, you might not be far from envisioning the beauty of what Jesus announces to the Samaritan woman in John 4.
Coming and Going (John 14)
Okay, you might say, so our sacred spaces aren’t the only sacred spaces—I can get on board with this. I have accepted Christ as my personal Savior, and have made my faith my own. Wherever I go, I take him with me. He has taken up residence in me. I carry the sacred with me!
There is a way in which these statements are true, so long as I don’t come to consider myself the exclusive bearer of Christ and close myself off to seeing his image in others. Jesus’ words in John, however, disrupt our contemporary ideas about salvation as being a primarily personal matter.
In John 14, Jesus makes another statement that invites us to re-think salvation and, in turn, how we move from place to place: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. 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” (John 14:2-3).
Here again, Jesus invites us to envision God’s presence less in terms of a fixed place and more in terms of a dynamic relationship.
Commenting on the way Jesus re-frames how we think about places in John 14, New Testament scholar Jerome Neyrey says, “God’s ‘house’ with many ‘rooms’ is not a building erected on a sacred mountain, nor is it a heavenly temple. Rather, it is . . . realized in time and place when the disciples gather in the name of the risen Jesus.” Or, put another way, “Wherever the Risen Jesus is, there is the new temple.”
The apostle Paul draws on some poetry to express this idea to the Athenians:
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
As even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
In addition to saying that Christ lives in me, which is perhaps a less appealing way of saying that Christ lives in us when we gather, we would do well to go a step further every once in a while and say that we are the ones doing the residing, and the living Christ is our residence.
We don't house the risen Jesus like a greedy landlord; we reside in him like needy squatters. In our lack, we receive from him so that we can learn to give to others.
If we move about in Christ alongside one another, how does this affect the way we move from place to place in our city and our neighborhoods? Who are our neighbors, anyway?