John 14:1-3 often serves pastors in funeral contexts.
With my seminary students I refer to it as the “cots in heaven” sermon that goes something like this: when we die, our souls are immediately whisked to heaven to a mansion of some sort where our personal cot is waiting and where we FINALLY get to encounter God intimately after spending a lifetime of “seeing through a glass darkly.” That would be a great sermon if Paul had written John, but he didn’t. John is the Incarnational gospel, a gospel rich in realized eschatology; the idea of the believer having to wait until some future date to achieve full intimacy with God is foreign to this gospel. Let us help put to rest in peace, then, the practice of telling people that it is somehow better for their loved one to be dead and with God in a “better place” than to be alive and with family in this place which was, in fact, created by God’s very own Word.
In chapter 13 Jesus gathers his disciples and washes their feet, teaching them that they should do the same for each other. This action was already pre-figured by Mary in chapter 12, of course, who apparently intuited what Jesus would make explicit in ch. 13. With chs. 14-17, we move into what is known as The Farewell Discourse of Jesus; it follows the genre of Testamentary Literature. Recall the Patriarchs on their deathbeds, bequeathing stuff and wisdom to their progeny. It turns out that Jesus has no goods to dispense; instead he gives his disciples the power to do even greater works than Jesus himself did during his earthly sojourn (14:12)!
Thomas’ complaint This passage exhibits some perplexing moves. Jesus begins with his famous words in vv. 1-3, capping it with the promise that he would take his disciples to himself, so that wherever he is, we’d be. Total intimacy. Thomas, whom I like to call the Eeyore character of John, acts in character, taking the practical, realistic/pessimistic role, and asks a fair question. On the heels of Jesus’ grandiloquent locution about abiding places and enigmatic travel plans, Thomas, in a voice that I imagine to be somewhat weary but not yet despairing, cuts to the chase: “We have no idea what you’re talking about, first of all, and second of all, upon what basis should we have known?” And here the moment of judgment (krisis) arrives for Thomas, et. al., in the form of one of the “I Am” (ego eimi) statements distinctive to the Fourth Gospel (cf. 6:35, 48; 8:12;10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 15:1, 5); they are groping around aimlessly for a path, a truth, a life, and THE path, truth, and life is staring them in the face and they can’t see it. They are looking for seven habits, nine steps, or ten commandments when the answer lies in intimate, if confusing and challenging, relationships, the preeminent one being between Jesus and them. Insofar as Thomas has missed that point, he is judged. But judgment in John always comes as diagnostic, forward-looking, rather than retrospective. Jesus calls Thomas into a future that is wholly dependent upon relationship with Jesus and God. Jesus also stops Thomas from complaining about all the reasons he’s in the ignorant spot he’s in. “This is hard; how are we supposed to know?; we don’t get it.” Jesus doesn’t settle for that but calls Thomas out–I am it; surely you know me. In that case, you know all you need to know. Notice that Thomas never gets to respond. However, he gets his shining moment in 20:28 when he utters a full confession of Jesus’ identity: “My Lord and my God.” He’s the only character to do so in the entire Gospel.
John 14:6 and the challenge of Christian exclusivism John 14:6 is famously problematic. The original first-century Johannine community was forged in stressful, sectarian circumstances that led John to think in binary, exclusivistic, oppositional categories. Our own historical situation is starkly different from John’s. Far from being a sect, twenty-first century Christianity is the dominant religious tradition in America. In our current postmodern, pluralistic setting, it is crucial that we free our congregations from thinking with categories that hinder our work in this world for the sake of Christ. This does not mean we should dismiss or avoid 14:6; rather, we should welcome the opportunity it provides us to explore and discern God’s will for the present global community. Many resources are available on John 14:6 as it relates to our context and the pastor should eagerly seek them out.
Philip and the Father Thomas was fixated on “the way,” and his sense that Jesus hadn’t provided full and necessary information related to it. Now Philip is concerned with seeing the Father. As he did with Thomas, Jesus says to Philip–look in front of your face. The answer is not in some esoteric code or far off where you cannot attain it (Dt. 30:11-14); no, the Word, the Christ, the Father, all of it is here and available right now. Philip thinks he’s asking a concrete, simple question: “Just show us the Father and we’re good to go.” Not too pushy, no long list. And how does Jesus respond? Again, with words that may sound judgmental to us, because they are, in a way. Jesus lights into Philip–don’t you understand that my only purpose in relating to you guys is exactly for the purpose of exhibiting the nature of God, of deep, sacrificial, life-giving, almost embarrassingly intimate relationship? “What or whom do you seek?” Jesus often asks (zeteo; John 1:38; 5:44; 18:7) because he knows that what we seek often determines what we find. My congregation had a conversation about hope last week. One sage person pointed out that everything we actually deeply hope for is available to us right here and now, we just don’t see it. John would agree. Notice that Philip never gets to respond.
The power of the believer Those who are “left behind” when Jesus goes to the father have advantage beyond all telling of it. Because Jesus goes, they will get power they wouldn’t get otherwise. Instead of wannabes, they’ll be the real deal–they’ll be Jesus in the world. So, they are worried about letting go, but with the letting go comes the gift (see the same idea with Mary in ch. 20). Yes, death and letting go are hard and truly, those left behind cannot imagine anything worthwhile coming out of loss. And yet …
As truncated by the Revised Common Lectionary, this text is as unpromising as it is repulsive.
Without warning we are thrown headlong into the furious conclusion of an orthodox if long-winded sermon (Acts 7:2-50, appearing nowhere in the lectionary). The story’s characters come off no better–grinding their teeth, stopping their ears, then mobbing and stoning a pious visionary (vv. 54-60). One need not recite Stephen’s entire homily to this Sunday’s congregants. Without some sense of back story, however, they cannot possibly get the point, leaving the preacher stuck in quite literally a dead end.
Luke makes more than one point in Acts 7; the preacher needs to decide which among them will be the focus for the sermon’s delivery in a particular time and place, and which should play only supporting roles. One aim of Acts 7 is to answer a perjured charge that followers of “the Way of God” promoted Jesus by defaming the temple and Torah (Acts 6:8–7:1). “Perverting our nation” had been lodged against Jesus during his own trial before Pilate (Luke 23:1-2). Stephen’s response locates “the coming of the Righteous One,” Jesus, in the context of previous leaders who were obedient to God’s call–especially “our ancestor Abraham” (Acts 7:2-8), Joseph (vv. 9-18), and Moses (vv. 19-44), who suffered much for their faith. Situating Jesus in Israel’s history is a typical Lukan technique, crystallized in his Gospel’s infancy narrative (see Luke 1:14-17, 32-33 47-53, 68-79), his portrait of Jesus’ ministry (e.g., 3:4-6; 4:8-12; 16:16-17; 20:9-18), and Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:17-21, 25-28, 34-36). Jesus’ coming is in synch with a host of troubled predecessors; Moses and the prophets and the psalms all point to him as their fulfillment (Luke 24:27, 44). The problem lies not with Jesus but with those “that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet … have not kept it” (Acts 7:53; cf. Luke 16:31). “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” (Acts 7:52a).
Stephen’s rebuke of the Jerusalem temple is no Christian innovation, as the quotation from Isaiah 66:1-2 (Acts 7:49-50) underlines. The Old Testament’s Deuteronomic history testifies to Israel’s internal debate whether God is properly worshiped in a man-made house, or whether the Lord’s mobility in the wilderness tent of meeting is truer to God’s boundary-blasting character. (See 1 Kings 8:27, embedded within Solomon’s very dedication of the first temple.) For Luke the temple is a natural place for Jews to bless God and to preach Jesus as the Christ (Luke 24:51-53; Acts 3:1; 5:24-25, 42). Yet in God’s kingdom, heralded by Jesus, something greater than Solomon is here (Luke 11:31). By the time he wrote Acts, Luke may well have known that Jerusalem and its temple were devastated by the Roman legion (Luke 19:41-46; 21:20-24; Josephus Jewish War 6.314-442). For him Jesus has supplanted the temple in significance, a conclusion drawn for various reasons in other New Testament writings (cf. John 2:13-22; Eph 2:11-22; Heb 9:11-10:25). Though different in formulation, Luke’s reason is similar to that in Ephesians: God’s Holy and saving Spirit, manifest in Jesus the Messiah (Luke 2:25-26; 4:17-21), has burst Israel’s religious center and is spreading to encompass all nations to earth’s farthest reaches (Acts 1:8; 10:44-48; 28:23-28). Isaiah’s oracle of the new age was centripetal: All the nations would stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house, for training in Torah and the things that make for peace (Isa 2:1-4). Luke’s vision is centrifugal: salvation flows from Jesus, Israel’s Holy and Righteous One, outward to believing Gentiles (Acts 3:14; 11:18; 14:27).
Mark Twain–or someone else–said, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” That is the clearest point emerging from the lectionary’s bobtailing of Acts 7: Stephen’s life and death repeatedly chime with Jesus’ own. Israel’s leaders are bent on destroying a visionary (Luke 3:21-22; 10:18; Acts 7:55-56), full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1; 19:47; Acts 7:54-55), who has offered great wonders and gracious signs among the people (Luke 7:11-17; 19:35-43; Acts 6:8). On the verge of both men’s deaths, the Son of man is present at God’s right hand (Luke 22:69; Acts 7:56). Both men are abusively apprehended by a loud mob (Luke 22:63; 23:23; Acts 7:57), stripped of their garments (Luke 23:34b; Acts 7:58b), and killed before witnesses while praying for their executioners’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34a [in some manuscripts]; Acts 7:58, 60). “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46); “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59; both rhyming Ps 31:5): as Jesus lived and died in discordant harmony with Israel’s song, so now Stephen joins in the chorus. A bit-player on the scene–Saul (Acts 7:58; 8:1a)–emerges center-stage, to persecute the Way (8:1-3; 9:1-2; 22:4) and eventually to be persecuted for it (25:2-3).
In Easter we celebrate God’s raising from death the Righteous One, whose wounded hands and feet remain palpable (Luke 24:39). Acts 7:55-60 is a doubly cautionary tale. For those who persist in God’s way, suffering awaits. Ask Moses. Ask Jesus. Ask Stephen. Ask Paul. We terribly mislead our congregations and repudiate scripture when suggesting that, for the sake of Israel’s hope, we too are not bound by this centuries’ long chain (Acts 28:20). On the other hand, as religious people we are subject to horrible self–deception about our own righteousness, which consents to the death of witnesses for the One who alone is Righteous (Acts 7:52-53; 8:1). Like the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson’s mordantly evergreen tale “The Lottery” (1948), we are capable of honoring our rituals, sacred and secular, while murdering a fellow human right in front of us. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” Abraham may be our ancestor, but the God who raises up children from stones is not our patron. In this season of new life, Luke summons the church to bear fruits that taste of repentance (Luke 3:8).
These verses involve several intriguing exegetical nuances–points that probably will not make explicit appearances in most homilies for the day, but which merit careful consideration as you prepare your sermon.
The first involves 1 Peter’s identification of his readers as God’s own holy people; the second involves the interplay of metaphors that emphasize the believers’ state with metaphors that emphasize the believers’ progress. As it turns out, the two motifs both illuminate one another and the broader trajectory of 1 Peter’s rhetoric.
The first touches on the persistent problem of Christianity’s relation to Judaism. The letter addresses recipients who appear to be Gentiles, since the letter submits that “once [they] were not a people” (2:10); such a claim would make little sense if applied to Israel. By the same token, 1:18 characterizes the recipients’ ancestors as having practiced “futile ways,” a phrase that resounds with notes with which the apostolic writers conventionally describe Gentile observances. The hearers of 1 Peter once stood outside the bounds of God’s embrace, but through Christ’s sacrifice they have been built into the temple, incorporated into God’s people.
The letter seems to complement the believing Gentiles’ reception, however, with the predestined expulsion of those who do not believe (in language that Paul and then gospels also invoke). While the letter itself does not identify these non-believing people, some elements of the letter’s context converge with subsequent history to suggest that Gentiles who express faith in Jesus have displaced Jews who do not, and have taken over from them the role of God’s own beloved people.
The letter does not make that substitution explicit, however, and a careful preacher will avoid presenting that as the point of 1 Peter’s exposition here. The letter apparently expects its recipients to recognize themselves as the outsiders (“aliens and exiles” in 2:11) who have been incorporated into God’s people on the basis of Christ’s merciful mediation; it likewise submits that those who rejected Christ have stumbled and fallen. Though the letter might easily have made explicit the identities of the converts and the fallen, it does not do so; the opportunity to receive mercy and enter the shared life of the holy nation avails to all who might turn to Christ. Indeed, the letter consistently draws its favored categories from Israel’s history; the strangers and sojourners have been incorporated into the blessings of Israel, which 1 Peter describes in prose saturated with allusions to the Old Testament. By the same token, 1 Peter characterizes “the Gentiles” as licentious adversaries who persecute the chosen (2:12, 4:3). God’s people are constituted by their fidelity and obedience to God’s purposes; 1 Peter expounds the consequences of that grace without venturing to prescribe exactly whom God has chosen.
The letter characterizes its audience with figures that point in different directions. On one hand, they are still children (“new birth,” 1:3; “children,” 1:14; “born anew” 1:23; “newborn,” 2:2). The theory that this motif, with the explicit invocation of “baptism” in 3:21, implied that the whole letter was a baptismal liturgy (or sermon) overstates the force of this metaphor. At the same time, that interpretation rightly attends to the letter’s emphasis that its recipients have just begun a new sort of life. They, like children, have not yet emerged into full-formed adulthood. The writer has to teach them from the ABCs of this new life (feeding them with spiritual milk, not solid food) and expects them to continue to grow toward the hope of salvation. In this figure of speech, the exiles have only begun a process that eventually should end with their full vindication and inclusion.
On the other hand, the former exiles have already been established as a holy race, a royal priesthood: “Now you are God’s people.” The present force of the assertion makes a difference; 1 Peter charges the recipients to proclaim to the world what God had done for them. In this sense, the recipients’ status has already effectively been changed, and the letter commissions them to spread this news to everyone else. The letter draws together the developmental metaphor of childhood with the static rhetoric of architectural stone (one doesn’t want the stones in one’s walls growing or moving!) with the characterization of the recipients as “living stones … built into a spiritual house” (2:5). They are stones that have been incorporated into the house of God–but they are at the same time living stones, with the capacity to “grow into salvation.”
These expressions converge in a vision of Christian life that 1 Peter shares with many apostolic writings. Everyone who receives adoption into God’s people enters that new life by grace alone (sounding a note that the Old Testament makes frequently and forcefully). God’s grace does not root out Israel from the covenant into which God entered with them generations before Jesus was born; such a gesture would bespeak a capricious, unreliable deity rather than the Lord abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Some in every age treat their new life as a binding contract that they can cash in for guaranteed eternal life, reckoning that they are so firmly embedded in the structure of God’s house that they can take salvation for granted. 1 Peter cautions them, and all his readers, to recognize that they are yet merely beginners in fidelity. They, and we, need to deepen their sense of what it means to belong to this new family, and learn the ways by which their sisters and brothers live out their faith; we learn those ways of faith from the examples of Israel’s ancestors, from the visionary ideals of the prophets and from the apostles’ teaching. Such living stones as this–with such a living, growing faith–God can raise up to be children of Abraham, united to the people of God, sharing with Abraham’s children a song of praise to the God of grace.