In the last evening he spends with the disciples before his death, Jesus tries to show them two elements of reality that are difficult to hold together: he is going away, yet he will not leave them orphaned.
As they listen, the disciples have questions. Peter (John 13:36), Thomas (John 14:5), Philip (John 14:8), and Judas (not Iscariot; John 14:22) all ask questions or make requests of Jesus as he is preparing his loved ones for his departure.
John 14:23-29, the text for the sixth Sunday of Easter, is part of the answer to a question that Judas asks. In John 14:19, Jesus had said, "In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live." Judas presses Jesus for more information: "How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?" (John 14:22).
From this question, it sounds as if Judas is expecting Jesus to reveal secrets, to give his followers knowledge hidden from the world at large. The answer Jesus gives, however, goes in another direction. Jesus is not interested in hiding knowledge from anyone. While the world will not see him any longer, it will see his followers. The words that follow are for his followers, yet it is probably not a coincidence that as his followers keep loving him, the world will see those followers keeping his word. To keep the word of Jesus means to keep his commandments (cf. John 14:15, 21). It is to wash one another's feet, to love one another (John 13:24). As the disciples keep the word of Jesus, they will be a community characterized by mutual regard, love and service.
Throughout the farewell discourse, Jesus makes it clear that followers love him by serving others. (One could say that Jesus' love language here is "acts of service."1) Although we might distinguish between loving Jesus and keeping his word, and imagine that we can do one but not the other, Jesus does not recognize that distinction. The clause in John 14:23b is a condition of fact: "Those who love me will keep my word..."2 Love for Jesus simply is love in action.
Whether the disciples know it, to live that kind of love, they will need the constant presence of God in their midst. Jesus offers that presence with three different promises. First, he says of himself and the Father about those who love him: "We will come and make our home with them." From the first chapter of this gospel we know that prior to anyone's love for Jesus, "The Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). No one would be able to love Jesus if the Father had not first loved the world enough to send his Son into it. The cohabitation that Jesus speaks of is not a reward for good behavior. It is simply a statement of where God likes to spend time. It hearkens back to the first chapter of the gospel and forward to the reality envisioned in Revelation: "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (Revelation 21:3).
The Son also announces the advent of the Spirit among the believers. During the time between his leave-taking and life in the new Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit "will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you" (John 14:25). I once heard a New Testament scholar speak of material written fifty years after Jesus' death as a relevant source for the life of the historical Jesus by saying, "My mother has been dead for thirty years. I think I understand her better now than I did when she was alive." The Holy Spirit accompanies the church as it remembers. The Spirit guides the disciples and the church as we think back over what we have experienced of Jesus, and as we seek to let our love for him show up in the ways we relate to others. The Spirit helps disciples to understand Jesus and his word and to love Jesus by keeping his word on behalf of the world.
Jesus speaks of the home that the Father will make with those who love him. He promises the guidance of the Holy Spirit as his followers remember him. Finally, he gives his own peace to those he is about to leave. The gospel of John includes no mention of peace until Jesus speaks it here, on the eve of his death. He describes the peace he offers as his own and says that he gives it "not as the world gives." He will offer it again and again as he appears to the disciples after the resurrection (cf. John 20: 19, 21, 26). He does not describe the peace he offers, though from his words in John 14:27, we may conclude that his peace offers the disciples both comfort for troubled hearts and courage in the midst of fear. Throughout the events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, as well as in the resurrection, Jesus will embody the peace he offers here.
Why tell the disciples all of this now? Recall Judas' question: "How is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?" (John 14:23). These are the ways those who love Jesus will continue to see and know him after he goes away: in the home that the Father and the Son make with them, in the work of the Spirit to call to mind everything that Jesus taught, and in their ongoing experience of peace that comes from him and not from the world. Jesus tells them ahead of time so that they may believe. As the events of the immediate--and distant--future unfold, Jesus' followers will be able to trust that the One who loved them enough to send the Son still loves them and still seeks to dwell with them. They will know they are not orphaned.
1The concept of "love languages" has been popularized by Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 1995). See also www.5lovelanguages.com.
2The pronoun in Greek is masculine singular ("he will keep my word"). I've used the NRSV translation to avoid gender-specific language.