Week of Sunday May 23
Gospel: John 14:8-17, 25-27
‘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.
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; 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. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.30I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; 31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.
We live in uncertain times, like all generations. Currently, despite all the naysayers, my generation is beginning to realise that Paul Ehrlich, The Club of Rome, and Rachel Carson might just be right about the limits to growth and the resiliance of the planet. The American Empire is beginning to decline. China and India provide unfamiliar and unwelcome intimations of vulnerability for the west, which has ruled the world for centuries. The comfortable isolation which has insulated Australia from many of the world’s problems has worn thin. We feel vulnerable. As much as we grumble about our Rome (ie the USA), we are loath to hitch our star to China!
This uncertainty and the fear it causes is mirrored among Christians. This is not only because we too, are people of this time and place. Christians face their own uncertainties. Most congregations are small, and shrinking. Most parents are seeing their children depart from the faith as they grow up. The behaviour of predatory clergy, and the all too common coverups, has been seized with joy by those who wish to attack religious faith. We are objects of both opprobrium and derision; sometimes deservedly.
And within churches, old certainties have either long faded, or seem under threat. If life is relatively stable, many of us cope quite well, even if clergy and others believe for us. We can comfortably have a proxy, outsourced faith. When everyday life is less certain, or when tragedy strikes, the last thing we want is the realisation that our clergy don’t actually believe what we thought they did! They are no longer a comforting presence which believes. They become one more source of our insecurity.
As we read John's gospel it is clear his community lives in difficult times, too. There is great hostility towards, and therefore from, the synagogues. It is clear that people are deeply, deeply troubled by the absence of Jesus. We only place words like those quoted below into Jesus’ mouth, when we are feeling the emotions the statements ameliorate.
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.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; 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.
‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
These are words for our time, for our hearts are deeply troubled too, and Jesus is long gone. However I preach upon this chapter, I should remember that people keenly feel the absence of God, and help them find and feel the love which saturates the words.
The key reassurance from Jesus is that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.“ He assures us that whoever really commits their self to “living the life of Jesus” will find that it is an authentic life. They will find themselves doing the same life giving and life fulfilling service to the world that Jesus has done; "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do..." Indeed, they will do more- "...greater works than these..."
There is also the amazing claim that "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." What one might ask will clearly be limited by the fact that verse 15 says ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments," but the claim is little less astounding for that.
And as a result of that keeping of Jesus' commandments
16…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
This Advocate is
26… the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
It is clear what these words from John about the Holy Spirit can not mean. They are not a warrant for claiming privileged access to the truth, or authority to control people’s lives. Wherever the church has done this, it has observably been incorrect, and often corrupt.
The words about prayer are not literal truth. Too many faithful Christians, facing untimely death, have prayed for healing and still died for us to believe that. Some folk try to maintain some kind of literal meaning by carefully defining what “in my name” and “keep my commandments” might mean. Others try to get round the problem by saying that prayer is always answered, but not always discernably to us. When we stop the special pleading, the facts are plain. We often do not receive what we pray for. The words are not literal truth.
If the reading is not literally true, is there any truth in the words after I expose them to my experience of the world?
If I view the world through a lense of some sort of reductive physicalism, then plainly, John is talking rubbish. But does he say anything to me if I understand that there is more to reality than can be expressed in the language of physics, but yet do not deny the insights of modern science?
To answer this question I must recognise I cannot make a detached, intellectual assesment of the issue. Essentially, to “believe” means I agree with this claim: Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
That is, John claims the stories of Jesus give us insight into what really is. Jesus’ life and teaching is as important, perhaps more important, than the Law of Gravity. Gravity just is. Living according to Jesus teaching is a choice I can ignore. Note that "believe" and "agree with" mean living out, not assent to a proposition.
So before anything else, John chapter 14 is a challenge. Do I believe in Jesus with the living of my life, or am I ignoring him? If I am ignoring him, then effectively, John himself is telling me he has nothing to say to me.
If we accept the challenge of John to test his claim that in Jesus we see the Father, what then?
It is not difficult to find people who question the factual accuracy of the Acts account of the day of Pentecost. And it would be interesting to see John’s reaction to our equating of his text with the Acts story! Despite this, I believe the John-Acts amalgam to be an authentic religious experience. It may be stylised and manufactured, and it is certainly steeped in the language and world view of the first century. But it reflects spiritual reality. That is, the story reflects the experience of the first churches, whether sudden or gradual, whether once or in many places and times.
It also reflects our experience that keeping Jesus’ commandments is not just one more human activity. It is not equivalent to keeping the more or less democratically determined laws of Australia. Keeping Jesus’ commandments is to go deeper into reality. It is a way of living which takes us past the limits of scientific description and hypothesis. It is not just being a good citizen. It is a way of living that takes us beyond the limitations of human language into Mystery. We are moved into an appreciation of Profound, a different consciousness. Already words are beginning to fail...
Yesterday I noticed the following on a Coke bottle:
Listen closely & hear the happiness being unleashed when you open this bottle.
In the presence of Profound, and after the experience of Mystery, that statement is so shallow it is almost offensive. As someone said, "You either get this, or you don’t.”
These are not forensic statements. Theyare statements of faith which can only be verified by living them. John speaks to us as we live this faith in the sometimes terrifying uncertainty of our times, where the once common sense of theology is now defined as delusional. In this context he speaks of the experience that living the faith will bring us into the presence of Reality. God will not be far distant. Jesus will not be long gone. Living the faith, or keeping the commandments, will open us to the Divine. We will feel the Advocate. We will be lead towards all truth; the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name, will teach us everything. It is a call to confidence.
This claim of faith, this Christian hope, invites us to be confident that what we are discovering is, in fact, True. It says we are not delusional. We are not merely whistling in the dark. It is a comforting challenge. The challenge is to keep the commandments. The comfort is to discover the reality of the Mystery, to be confident in its truth, and to find it is Enough.
This essay really is a "first impression." It is written without recourse to the commentaries, reflecting upon the verses as I go. So I find as I come to revise this first impression, that I have not dealt with the thorny problem of the claim in verse 13, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”
It is not literally true. I think I have made it clear that trying to wiggle out of the plain meaning of the words is special pleading we would not accept anywhere else.
If I “let my heart adore the Mystery”, I remember there was a time as a child when I knew my father, Mel Prior, would do anything for me, even though I also knew there were some things he would not give me. We can read the farewell discourses as the adoration of a child, or the love language of bedroom whisperings.
Mostly however, after sitting here for a few minutes, I find I am unworried by what John meant. I’m sure he knew as well as we do, that some prayers remain unanswered! My experience of the Mystery is enough. I read the chapter and I say, “This poem is true.”
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!
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