For the fifth Sunday of Easter in “Year A,” the lectionary moves, perhaps inscrutably, to Maundy Thursday.
This week’s text is John 14:1-14. In the previous chapter, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and gave them the “new commandment.” In the following chapter, he will tell them that he is the vine and they are the branches. Here, he converses with them about who he is and what comes next. They show themselves to be, if I may be frank, a bit dim. I suppose that what Jesus taught in John 13-17 was only really understandable after Jesus rose from the grave.
Hey! That must be why we are reading it in Easter season.
There are things here that show the original disciples to have been a bit dim. There are also things that show us modern disciples to be a bit dim.
Just so we don’t get uppity, let’s start with the latter. I’ll eventually circle around to the truly amazing (though also easily twisted) bits of what Jesus says in this passage.
Where We Are Dim Disciples
The things that seem to linger longest in our culture’s Christian memory are, to my mind, the most prone to being turned in un-useful directions
First, from verse 12:
…the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do
and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” (John 14:12 NRSV)
This promise of what believers will do is lovely, and in the grand scheme of things rings very true. Just compare what Jesus did in his three year ministry of teaching and healing with what the Body of Christ has done in the 2000 years since.
- As well as the teaching within churches, think of the schools founded in his name — the original Sunday Schools to teach poor children to read, grammar schools, high schools, colleges and universities all around the world.
- As well as the prayers for healing offered among Christians in churches, think of the work of healing done by Christian physicians and nurses, in hospitals founded by Christians all around the world.
But I think we take this message as applying individually at our spiritual peril. Even if we have remarkable gifts of teaching or healing, what we do as individual Christians falls far short of what Jesus did. We set ourselves up for frustration and depression if we measure our faithfulness by whether we can do the works Jesus did, and greater works still.
Second, from verses 13 and 14:
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.” (John 14:13-14)
It sounds so like Jesus is giving us a blank check.
In our Protestant culture we tend to think of prayer in just these terms. Prayer, we think, is asking God do do things — even if on deeper thought we say it is really about conversation with God and communion with God.
While we are thinking of prayer as asking God to do things, we sometimes slip into thinking that successful prayer, or the prayer of a mature Christian, is a prayer that God answers by providing exactly what we ask.
And once we think successful mature prayer gets its desired results, we might just find ourselves thinking that we can turn it around, measuring whether we are mature Christians by the degree to which God provides answers.
Those well into this way of thinking sometimes begin to backpedal just a bit by putting the weight on Jesus’ requirement that prayer must be “in his name.”
I think the backpedalling is good. Jesus telling us to ask “in his name” surely means more than tacking on the phrase “In Jesus’ name…” before the final word “…amen!” Surely praying “in Jesus’ name” must require something like a believable sense that the thing we ask for is what Jesus himself would want to do.
And surely, humility requires us to acknowledge that even when we ask for something that we have good reason to believe Jesus wants to do, we still might not get the answer we were asking for.
If I think God is somehow obliged to give me everything and anything I ask for, based on this text or others like it, then I’m not spiritually mature. Rather this is evidence of being a spiritual spoiled child.
Where They Were Dim Disciples
Disciple dimness is shown in two fragments of the evening’s conversation.
First, Jesus says,
And you know the way to the place where I am going.
Then, clearly rolling his eyes even if John didn’t say so, Thomas says,
Lord, we do not know where you are going.
How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5 NRSV)
Jesus answers beautifully, in one of the most evocative of John’s “I Am” sayings:
I am the way,
and the truth,
and the life.” (John 14:6 NRSV)
I’ll say a few more things about this at the end, but for now just note that he answered. If Thomas knew Jesus, he knew “the way” to where Jesus was going: the way is Jesus himself.
The second fragment of conversation that leaves the disciples looking none too on top of things came just after.
If you know me,
you will know my Father also.
Philip chimed in to ask,
Lord, show us the Father,
and we will be satisfied.” (John 14:7-8 NRSV)
Here it seems like Jesus was the one rolling his eyes. He had just said that by knowing him they knew his Father. Jesus has to repeat the point, making it all the more emphatic.
Jesus reveals the Father. This isn’t about a separate revelation, with the Father stepping separately onto the Gospel stage and Jesus saying “Ta dah!”
Jesus himself is the revelation of the Father.
The point is that in knowing Jesus we know and see and understand all of the Father that our little human minds can bear.
Or the point is that what we see in Jesus tells us reliably what can be reliably known about the Father.
Or the point is that revelation is on a “need to know” basis — and all we really need to know of the Father for salvation and spiritual growth is known by knowing Jesus.
The Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The “I Am” saying here is worth one’s lengthy meditation.
Yes, it does give a simple answer to Thomas’ question. You want to know the way to the place Jesus is going? Jesus himself is the way.
This is, I would say, the classic case where the journey is more important than the destination.
Over the centuries we Christians have been fairly obsessed with the destination: How do we get to heaven? Who’s going to get there and who isn’t?
Jesus says that he is the Way. That deflates all of the huffing and puffing about who gets in through the pearly gates and how. What really matters is drawing close to him, knowing Jesus, walking with him wherever he goes.
And it isn’t just that by following he will lead you to the destination. As he’ll point out in the next chapter, the whole enterprise comes down to being fully connected to him, like a branch to the life-giving vine.
It is not about going somewhere. It is about being in communion with Someone.
We have tended to turn this statement that Jesus is “the Way” into something of a measuring stick for the “who is in/who is out” question. And Jesus’ own words seem to point us that way when he says nobody comes to the Father except through him.
But it does not have to be so. If being “the Way” is a highway metaphor, we need to think about how Jesus takes on that metaphor.
- We often seem to assume a picture where he’s sitting in the toll both, letting us pass only if we say the special words of allegiance.
- It is also possible to picture him as the construction crew building the highway, or really as the highway itself, the answer to the prophet’s call through John the Baptist.
His birth, his life, his work, are all God’s effort to provide a way on which we can come back to where we were created to be, in the loving embrace of our creator.
Then whoever travels to the Father is traveling on the Way the Father provided — consciously or not.
And Jesus says he is the Truth. He is answering in advance the question Pontius Pilate will ask before sending Jesus to his death:
What is truth?” (John 18:38 NRSV)
It is the grand and paradoxical message of Christianity that truth, ultimately, is a Person.
This is far more than a statement that the church’s teachings about Jesus are true. It is more that he himself is the measure of the Truth that matters.
- He shows us in his very being what is true about God, and who God is.
- He shows us in his very being what is true about humanity, and what we are intended to be.
Lastly Jesus says he is the Life.
Being the Life is far more than something we get a dose of to carry us through another week — the pressure a pump provides to a tire so it can roll more smoothly.
Better, especially in this time of year, to look at the trees budding, and the flowers pressing up from the earth. He is the very LIFE that bursts forth in this world — and in us, as people, as people of faith, as people drawn to him for all eternity.
Like with saying he is the Truth, Jesus as Life is the measure of what real living is intended to be.
Like with saying he is the Way, Jesus as Life is the very thing itself that we seek, the gift of truly being rather than a destination to achieve in the future.
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