The Place is the Way
Week of Sunday May 18 – Easter 5
Gospel: John 14:1-14
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
We are in a different place.
We are taught to read literature as though it is newspaper reportage. Time is sequential and reality is flat. What you see on the surface is what really is. This profoundly distorts what we see and hear in the scriptures, even though we know we are not linear beings, but creatures who relive, reconsider, rediscover, and retell our story. And all that with mixed motives.
John is in a different place from this. Time and geographical place do not matter in the same way. If we look for newspaper time and space, John makes no sense. In Chapter 13 Jesus begins a conversation that is before his crucifixion but which only makes sense if we, and he, are after the crucifixion and resurrection. In many ways he is speaking to us after his death, like a last will and testament, now that we can understand what is going on, and as we mourn his absence.
It is not time and space that matter as our hearts grieve, but trust and allegiance.
33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
We Christians have, in utter sin, propagated the lie that "the Jews" are the ones who rejected Jesus and killed him. We have avoided our responsibility as people for whom Jesus died by tipping it all on them and making them the scapegoat. Go to a Jewish museum and see that the Nazi Holocaust is but one, and not the last, of an evil tradition of scapegoating. It still goes on, even in Australia. Anti-Semitism is perhaps the most sure sign that a Christian does not understand their own faith.
It does not make logical sense to say John is anti-Semitic. It is likely that his communities were not faring well at the hands of their Jewish neighbours, who would have being anxious to distinguish themselves from the new religious movement. That is probably reflected in the depth of feeling in some of John's words. But Jewishness as such was not the problem, because…
John was a Jew. Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were all Jews. To say the doors were locked for "fear of the Jews" makes no sense if this is a statement of ethnicity and religion. (The two were not yet separable.)
We have a confusion of an ethnic-religious identification; people we could call Jews, with a political identification among Jewish people which we could call Judean, an equally valid translation of the Greek ioudaiois.
(Later on there is a religious separation between Jew and Christian, and it may have been developing in John's part of the world, but in the beginning something else is going on.)
The Judeans are those who have thrown in their allegiance with the Roman "peace" which allowed certain religious expression and freedoms, but was deeply compromised by its allegiance and collaboration with Imperial Rome. Jesus and his people were all Jews, but some were active collaborators with an imperial system that all Jews thought was ungodly. This was likely more the case the closer on got to Jerusalem and Judea and the further one was from Jesus' home in Galilee.
So when we read John, we all face the same questions that every person faced from the Jewish Jesus. The question then, and now, is are we a Judean? Are we aligned with the status quo, the false shepherds who are thieves and bandits and come in over the wall? If we are then there is a place we cannot go.
As much as we align ourselves with the reigning power structures which oppress and exploit— even as much as we silently assent due to our lack of protest— just so much do we attempt to wall ourselves off from God… or as Luke has it in Acts 7, "cover our ears." And as much as we do not submit to the status quo of violence and oppression, just so much do we invite God into our consciousness. There are places we can go. Whether we are an ethnic Jew, a religious Jew, both, or neither, does not matter.
"The Jews" is a wrong translation. "The Jewish authorities" is not correct either. You don't have to be in the ruling clique to be aligned with them and benefit from them. Chapter 13:33 is saying "as I said to the Judeans," forcing us to learn the story of allegiance and the dangers that flow from the wrong allegiance.
I have wondered if this introduction is too long, but am leaving it "as is." The way we have spoken of "the Jews" is one of the great sins of the church. It is also a great mistake to think that we can be a Judean without consequence. To be a paid up supporter of the policies of Tony Abbott is to be Judean; it is antithetical to being Christian. Perhaps we might be a Nicodemus in the Liberal Party, but the experience of Scott Morrison suggests that is a lonely and dangerous path.
There is more translation to do before we proceed. In today's reading there are thirteen instances of the word Father. For many of us, that word is a forever corrupted metaphor which obscures the experience of God rather than enlightens us. The last thing we need is thirteen more fathers. If I were in that position I would use Find/Replace and put in something like "intimate loving Creator" instead. That may be easier said than done, but the attempt is important. 13 repetitions in so short a time is making a serious point.
This is because John is not talking about God in a general sense, but a particular understanding of God and how we might relate to God. We need to say this cautiously.
"The particularism of John 14:6-7 does de facto establish boundaries; it says, 'This is who we are. We are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Jesus Christ.'" (O'Day, John, New Interpreter's Bible, quoted by Brian Stoffregen)
"No one comes to the Father except through me" is not a statement of who is "in" and who is "out" with God. This is, after all, the Jesus who said "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also…” (John 10:16)
John 14:6 is the very concrete and specific affirmation of a faith community about the God who is known to them because of the incarnation. . . . 'God' is not a generic deity here; God is the One whom the disciples come to recognize in the life and death of Jesus. When Jesus says 'no one,' he means 'none of you.' (John, New Interpreter's Bible O'Day, John, New Interpreter's Bible, quoted by Brian Stoffregen)
It is crucial to understand this. Certainly it is important to see that John is not propagating an exclusive religion; "only our religion out of the thousands is correct and the rest of you are going to hell." But just as important is gaining an understanding of this way to God.
We see in the part of the chapter that is the focus for next week that this way involves a sense of presence and of intimacy.
I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
And in this way there is a constantly emphasised identification of Jesus with The Father. Jesus is not God; that is, God is not limited to the Jesus of flesh. But the Jesus of flesh, the man we knew, has the Father dwelling in him (14:10) and does the work of the Father. If you have seen Jesus you have seen the Father. Australian translation: Jesus is what God is like. This way to God only "works" if you understand that Jesus is what God is like and follow that path.
None of the statements stand in isolation:
13:34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
14:15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
14:6 ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you want to be on this path to God, if you want to follow this way, then the way the truth and the life of it involves keeping the commandments of Jesus. It involves loving each other as he loved us, even to the point of death. And that is somehow the essence of God. The path of loving each other like Jesus shows us God.
Not that God does not love us unless we follow Jesus. Not that our loving like Jesus somehow makes God love us. But that our loving like Jesus puts us in a different place. It takes us out of the place of the Judeans. It changes our allegiance. But does not "let us in" as much as open us to this other place.
And that is why interpreting John 14 as being about the place to which we go when we die, the many mansions, is an impoverished understanding despite whatever truth in may carry. Because the other place is here. Eternal life is now, already. It is found especially in the life of the community of Christ. The knowing that Thomas has not yet found in verse five is found in living as the community of Christ.
The text says "12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…" and is a constant puzzle for those who see the "works" as miracles and wonders. What would be greater than these, when even these often do not seem to follow from our prayers?
Perhaps this question looks in the wrong place.
What could they possibly do that would be "greater" than what Jesus has already done in the fourth gospel? Jesus has healed the sick and raised the dead. What can they do to top that? One thing remains: They have not yet established an on-going community centered in Jesus, which follows him, and does his works.
These are the words of John Petty. Petty also notes
Philip says, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough--arkei--for us." Philip had earlier worried that they would not have "enough" (arkousin) food to feed the large crowd (6:7). … Philip is portrayed as fussing that what they have is not enough. The food had not been enough, and now Jesus is not quite enough either.
So there is a sense in which we can be a Phillip. We can say "we have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth… come and see," (John 1:45-46) and then decide that Jesus is not quite enough and look for signs and wonders in the wrong place.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me, says Jesus. The word we translate as in is into, and the word for your is plural. Trust me you-all. Trust God— you have seen God in me. I am enough. Trust you will find me in the community. This is the greater sign and wonder than ever was.
I do not think we can overstate the love and the intimacy of the household of God and our place in it. What we can miss, however, is that it is not a geographical place at a certain time. It is a relationship in eternity into which we can enter; in which we can place our trust. We will not be left alone, or orphaned.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.