Gospel: John 14:1-14
4‘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 those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2: 1-4)
Joseph was descended from the House of David. It makes sense to say he was “in David’s house.” He belonged to the family of David.
This is important to grasp, because many people know today’s text only from funeral services. The promise that “in my father’s house are many mansions,” will have been one of great comfort or, one more example of the crazy things the church believes. This latter view will be held by many Christians, as well as folk who are not Christian! Indeed, the text is often an insult to grieving believers, who cannot seriously believe it literally in our modern context. Presented literally it is pap provided to mop up a flood of loss.
There are no houses in this text. The immediate surface reading is misleading. To get to this conclusion, and go further, we need to remind ourselves of the nature of John's gospel. We need to do this carefully when preaching, because many people long to be in one of those houses, (not realising that in John’s terms, perhaps they already are,) and yet we are going to say there is no house!
The nature of John is that he is almost never writing about the surface of things. We can read the first three (synoptic) gospels “on the surface,” as though they were in the genre of a contemporary newspaper article, and make at least some sense of them. (I sometimes think the ease with which we can read them in this way, is one of our major problems!)
By contrast, reading John on the surface leads to frustration and bewilderment. When I first read John as a new Christian, straight after the synoptic gospels, I decided it was just plain weird, and avoided it for years. Now I discover that John provides clarity when I look for the story below the surface. Below the surface there seems to be an offer to look into a new dimension of life altogether.
To combat years of hearing about of Jesus going to prepare a place for us in heaven, I remind myself of the words of Moses in Deuteronomy one, which is his farewell dialogue:
2But in spite of this, you have no trust in the Lord your God, 33who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take.’
The “place” in this text is our ongoing relationship following along on the way (The Way) with God rather than some heavenly “geographical” location.
It is appropriate to use John 14 in a funeral service. I have no argument with that. There is comfort in those words. But it has nothing to do with any literal sense of there being many mansions, or many rooms in the father’s house. Any comfort is in being reminded of the fact that, in John’s terms, we are “in the Father’s house.” In other words, we are already part of the household of God, related to God, with all the privileges and joys that entails.
The word “mansions,” which is in the memory of many of us, dates from the translation of Tyndale. In his time it simply meant a dwelling place, not a palatial residence. (Brown pp 619)
In the turbid surface drama of John, Jesus says he is leaving and that the disciples cannot come where he is going. (13:33) It is very clear in verses 13:36-38 that Jesus’ absence is referring to his death. If we do not allow the artificial chapter break applied centuries later, to interfere with our reading, two things are clear. His announcement is intimately connected with a new commandment to love one another “just as I have loved you.” That is, his absence is linked to a new kind of relationship among his people the church. Secondly, despite all normal expectations, this absence is not something to regret: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. (14:1) Trust in God, trust also in me.”
As soon as I abandon my modern propositional understanding of the word pisteuein and say “trust” or “have faith in,” rather than “believe in,” I am again in the territory of relationship. Everything is about relationship.
Below the surface story something else is beginning to clarify. Jesus very carefully says you “know the way to the place I am going,” and Thomas says, “How can we know the way?” The hint is given by the unnecessary repetition concerning the “way to the place.” We are being reminded we are a people of the Way, of the journey, not of the settled place. Is the “place” related to some kind of journey?
Jesus says more of the way. He does not talk about reaching a place, such as heaven. Responding to Thomas he says “No one comes to the Father...” We are talking about the way to a relationship, not a place.
Everything here is about relationship with the divine. It is dancing around the issue of how I, deeply affected by the person of Jesus, as were his disciples, can relate to him and to God, in his absence.
I am being presented with a shimmering picture with moments of clarity that I am not quite able to grasp. It is full of word plays and allusions, rather than concrete definition or instruction. Phillip and Thomas are looking for the concrete. Peter, willing to trust, is still in the concrete, following an old recipe of fulfilling duty by laying down his life.
As frustrating as it is to be enlightened by the shimmering ungraspable aspects of this gospel, let alone try and write coherently about it, I am “philosophically pleased” at my discovery of John later in life. For I recognise that in his shimmering, never quite definable description of the gospel of Jesus, I am being presented with the possibility of philosophical adequacy. The God of John is not defined, tied down in a description that must be limited and wrong. Instead, I am being invited into relationship, offered the way to meet God myself. There is no definition of God or religion that will go out of date. There is an offer of relationship which will persist.
So the question about this text for me is not about my possibilities of afterlife. It is not about the claims concerning the exclusive nature of Christian faith which so exercise some folk, (no one comes to the father but by me,) and neither is it about the nature of the Trinity. The text may influence our understanding of these topics, but it is not written to address any of them.
The question the text poses for me is whether this sub-surface theme of relationship with the divine actually has relevance for me. Is it real? Or is it a history lesson in the writing of mystical religious texts. We have seen that John is not writing a theology of places in an impossible heaven which insults our grief. But will we find a theology, a word about God, that “still works” for our time? Is there really a relationship to be had, or is God gone, along with Jesus?
I stand in my backyard at night and look into the sky. Even on cold nights there is a sense of warmth. The sky collapses in on itself; there is a sense of intimacy. What could be vast, intimidating, and alienating, is a comfort. It is a promise of presence and constancy. The noise of city and highway is subdued. The harshness of the day is tempered and softened with the memory of other skies. I am in the presence of God. Small moments of clarity, and healing touches of life, calm me and heal me. Something of my deep hungering and longing for God is stilled. This is my reality. Could John be speaking about this?
As I seek to answer this question, the essence of the reading is not difficult to see. John Petty sums it up as "Move beyond your anxiety and trust in God and trust in me." Could it all be as simple as that?
Bill Loader puts it like this:
While John employs the individual disciples to enhance the drama, its message is simple and telling. Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us. That means two things, especially as we now think canonically and include more of the story of Jesus from the other gospels: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us (even if we know nothing else!) and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world - there’s a place for all!
Bill wonderfully answers those who claim a Christian exclusivism as he continues:
We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way.
As all the commentators notice, Jesus says Ego eimi the way, and the truth and the life. “I, I am...” is
an emphatic way of saying YHWH, God's own name, in Greek. Lest anyone miss the point, the fourth gospel has Jesus also say, "If you know me, you will know my Father also." (Petty)
This way is not a list to follow. We don’t do what Jesus did by keeping and fulfilling a list of his commands and attributes. We do what Jesus did by being like him; in fact, by being in him; almost by being him. [cf 14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me... (15:4) Abide in me as I abide in you.... 15:10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.]
We are being moved back to relationship, away from rule keeping. Jesus is only pioneer of our faith if we follow in relationship. As my wife said in the early days of our marriage, “Don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do, and you promised. Do it because you love me!”
In my explorations I next read Brian Stoffregen’s commentary. Apart from a much more thorough treatment of the meaning of place (14:2) than I have given, he deals with that curious construction of the text which means Jesus is really saying “Trust into God, trust also into me...” (14:1) He says
Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) note: "John's peculiar way of phrasing it -- believing 'into' Jesus -- connotes being completely embedded in the group of which he is the central personage" [p. 230].
Earlier, (commenting on 6:28-29,) they had written more about this concept:
Believing "into" is a characteristic Johannine idiom. Many commentators have pointed out that this construction implies trust rather than simple intellectual assent. Given the collectivist character of the relationships in ancient Mediterranean societies, however, even more is implied. Collectivist persons become embedded in one another. A unity and loyalty is involved that is extremely deep. Since personal identity in collectivist cultures is always the result of the groups in which one is embedded, that too is involved. John's peculiar idiom (the Greek tense used connotes ongoing or continuous action) suggests exactly this kind of long-term solidarity with Jesus. [p. 130]1
What am I seeing in these little glimpses of clarity in John's story, as it invites me to plunge into the water of his world? Is the promise floating in his words, and tugging at me, still real for today?
I am beginning to find that it is. Believing into is about a solidarity of belief which I have long shied away from. I am coming late to the church as a people, not trusting the body because of past betrayals. But as I am learning to trust, and beginning to trust, I am also remembering and rediscovering a reality of God. I am realising that I lost insights and experiences when I tried to wall myself off safely.
I am beginning to discover something about trust and relationship with Jesus. “Jesus the imaginary friend” is a favourite target of scorn for many. This living Jesus was the ruling paradigm of the Christian experience in my childhood, and it never made sense. It still often sounds to me like people personally talked to Jesus on Skype last night, and listening to some of them, it’s like they had the video turned on as well. I simply do not get this. It makes no sense. I feel like I am pretending, stumbling along like Temperance Brennan, when Booth has cajoled her into saying a prayer.
For these folk, my experience looking into the sky, where I feel drawn into the heart of the Divine, ever so slightly, may make equally little sense. I wonder if Jesus in John is saying that if I will I trust him, I will find a similar being drawn into the heart of the Divine, that there will be more transcendent reality.
I am thinking there is some truth here. I am already aware that some of my night and sky experience of the Divine comes from my immersion in the Christian tradition, especially the gospel stories.
The notion of trust is important. Trust moves beyond the propositional belief in God that I also encountered early, and which was so bankrupt and deadening. I’m using trust in the sense of “living out.” This trust, living as Jesus would if he were in my shoes, despite the risks, also moves me beyond moral adherence to a set of rules, which is equally deadening.
To say this trust constitutes a ‘‘personal relationship with Jesus” would be an overstatement. But there is a growing sense of intimacy with the stories. I am discovering something akin to the warmth and intimacy of the night skies. I am, perhaps, entering into the Jesus story, those inanimate words, just as I have entered into the inanimate emptiness of the sky which is nonetheless life giving.
There is also a growing sense of reality for me in understanding the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas, and Phillip. My colleague John Petty picks this up wonderfully and has been most illuminating for me.
John (Petty) observes that it is Thomas who says to Jesus that we do not know the way. Knowing names in the Gospels are never chosen just to add colour, he looks for where else Thomas shows up in the story. Thomas is the disciple in 11:16 who declares the disciples may as well go to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. John writes this wonderful line: "Thomas knew ‘the way’ that led to death well enough, but not ‘the way’ that leads to lile."
I have been discovering the "way to death" is the way to life. Trusting and following is beginning to change my outlook. The following of Jesus is not just the teeth gritting gloom of going to Jerusalem to die with him. While I do not want that ending, and while my own little deaths and carryings of my cross are difficult, they are also life changing! The intimacy of star and sky is beginning to shine into my life with people. Following is giving me life!
Petty does more work with the names in the gospel. Show us the father and we will be satisfied, says Phillip in verse 8. Petty remarks
In his only two utterances in the fourth gospel, Phillip is portrayed as fussing that what they have is not enough. (6:7) Thefood had not been quite enough, and now Jesus is not quite enough either.
Jesus famously replies to Phillip that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. He may as well have said, "I am enough.” I have been privileged to spend two solid days a week in the gospels for these last three years. In this, I have “found enough.” To use my own imagery from before, much of the longing I have felt in the surveying and meeting of the right sky has been replaced with a kind of peace and complacency. It is as though in meeting Jesus again through the stories my longing for God has been filled, a little.
So I am thinking, as I play with John in my own idiosyncratic way, that he does have relevance for today. He is promising me glimpses into something much deeper about life. His deep, under the surface current, is not an historical religious footnote. It is reaching down into the depths of the real.
Andrew Prior 2011
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.
© Scots Church Adelaide Ph. 08 8223 1505