Because of the works themselves

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.

In the abstract of a scientific paper, or the engineering plans for a bridge, words are precise and their meaning is tightly agreed and defined.  One must rigorously exegete the text; that is, determine the unambiguous meaning of its author. The gospels are not such a literature. Here, we need to identify as much as possible what the author meant; that's the exegetical task. But we always bring ourselves and our own culture to a Gospel text. The art of reading the gospels is to avoid importing ourselves unduly so that we become eisogetes, those who read into the text, rather than those who bring insights out of the text.

And then there is the Gospel of John. The exegesis of John is very simple: Jesus shows us the Father; trust Jesus. But John desires us to bring ourselves into the text in a way the synoptic authors do not. His poetic text means to alert us to the experience of God, and to open us to the experience of God. He does not seek to define what this experience will be, but leaves us to take flight from his words to discover new heights of experience. So we come with all the necessary cautions about 'exegesis rather than eisegesis,' but eventually we must take flight into the endless skies of human experience, or John will remain obscure and our reading of him will be wooden. As Jesus said, "you will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father. [You will see things John never imagined.]" And when we see such things, we exclaim, "That's what he was talking about!"

Mine the poetry of John; dwell in it and muse upon it, and ears which have struggled with its strange cadence and imaginaire, will find a sudden clarity, and an affirmation of their experience of God.

"Philip said to him, 'Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.'"  This is the great desire. If only we could see God. If only life would make sense. Then we would be. We would know who we are, why we are here, what it all means. If only we could see the Father of all things we would understand, and be at peace; we would be born again, even saved. But like Philip, we do not know. We are filled with anxiety, and our hearts are very troubled.

"Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." It's not that the Father looks rather like a first century Galilean rather than a blue-eyed blonde Scandinavian. Jesus is talking about how to be, about what it means to be human, fully human and complete. Jesus shows us the way to be: Be as I am. "I am in the Father and the Father is in me." (v10)

If we are as he is, if we live as he lives, we give.  We become human— we be human, by self-giving rather than by acquiring our selves at the expense and the exclusion of others. If we truly desire to be as we are made to be, then we will cease living the world's way, which is life founded in violence. If we do not desire this we will not comprehend the Father who is already present to us.  If we are founded upon violence, then the way of the Father is foolishness, and the giving of life, and of our life, will seem self-defeating and a way to non-being, rather than the way to life. And the Father for whom we long will incomprehensible; we will not sense the one who is already with us. Indeed, if we glimpse their unlimited love, we will likely fear its otherness.

We are correctly cautious about Jesus' statement that no one comes to the Father but through him. It has been used as a cultural and religious chauvinism; a touchstone measure of those to whom we will grant full humanity. All 'the others' are somehow lesser, in error, or lost, however much we soften the words.  Whenever Jesus must be our kind of Jesus, and a person's cry of I believe must fit with our sacred words, we have misunderstood Jesus, if not misappropriated his grace to bolster our own security and self-made being.

In John and Jesus' time where could you go to find life?  Who could you follow?

You could follow the way of Rome, the way of the Empire. You could become a player, get off the bottom rung, become even only a small somebody in the hierarchy of being.  But there is no life there.

The religious people John called Ioudaioi— Judeans— were players in the system of Rome. Judeans, in this context, does not mean Jews, as in ethnicity; Judeans were a party, such as Republican, or Democrat.  And it is not one particular party label which is under scrutiny here, as though Republicans were more godly than Democrats. It's the allegiance to the system that is being criticised. In our time, as Chris Hedges says, "The Democrats are also part of the plutocratic establishment..." It's the system which works against being, not a particular party within it.

The other party in the politics of the time, were the Pharisees. You could follow the way of the Pharisees. And again, this is about a way of living; that is, a way of being and of allegiance. Can you see that one need not tithe dill and cumin in order to be a Pharisee? It is not a question about which rules count, but seeking life by the keeping of rules in general.    The true Pharisee— as John stereotypes them— seeks salvation, they seek to find being, through the keeping of rules. Many of their rules will reflect a compassion and human decency which Jesus would applaud; in fact, his life may even be such a person's inspiration. But keeping rules will not save us. It will not give us being. Because... rules are made by people. They lead back to the same idolatry that underlies Rome, and all the Empires, which is that we are our own makers.  And rules, by their very nature, exclude. There is no life there.

Phariseeism is not hypocrisy. No one escapes hypocrisy. It is an inevitability which flows from our human imperfections and insecurities. If anything, true Pharisees, according to John's stereotype, are those who cast a blind eye over their own hypocrisy while highlighting someone else's failings. And we all do that.

Only the way of Jesus, self giving, life giving, gives life. There is a detail worth meditation in these words: Self giving, at first glance, implies that we give of ourselves, and we do. But when we truly give of our selves we are giving someone else self; we are giving them being. If we are not in some small way doing that, I wonder if we are truly giving of our selves— loving— or merely seeking to build ourselves up by an act of charity. Remember the phrase: As cold as charity.

What we might call the way of Jesus senses that true being lies in the giving of self to others, and that such giving offers life and being, even if it does not know the name of Jesus. As Jesus says, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice, [for] the wind blows where it chooses." (John 10:16, 3:8)

The way of being Jesus shows us is to give rather than take, to embrace rather than exclude, to build up rather than tear down. As he is speaking in Chapter 14 Jesus is preparing to give even his own life. For it is in that giving that he will be most fully himself.

To believe in him... is to trust him. It is to stop living by the rules—and by lists of doctrine. It is to stop making life all about me. It is to follow and live as he lived. Each time I do this, no matter how little, I find a little more of who I am.   

He says, "Believe 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." There is nothing here about doctrine, and I recall the doctrinally orthodox and the theologically perspicacious who have been conspicuously lacking in trust in Jesus; I am one.  And I recall those whose theology was naïve and ill-informed, but were full of love and being because they trusted the person they had met.

And if we can't believe in or trust in him? Believe the works, the greatest of which is his death and resurrection. Is it not more difficult to trust reports of a resurrection? Well, Matthew, and the whole gospel generally, teaches us that we meet Jesus in the victims:

... ... And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

I have met the victims. I think of two folk who should be dead. Nothing surprises my cynicism anymore, but one of those folk routinely shocks me with casual comments about the abuse in their early life. They ought to be dead. I cannot imagine how they have survived and flourish. But they do. This is the resurrected Christ who gives me hope and being. I believe

Andrew Prior (2020)

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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