Commentary on John 14:1-14
Oh, the honesty of Thomas and Philip.
Perhaps the best choice for us as we hear and wrestle with the complexities of this passage is to imitate that honesty. This passage from Jesus’ farewell discourse, which began in John 13, is a series of dialogues that turn on honest questions. How we ought to cherish responses made with wrinkled brow and slight shakes of the head, responses that echo many of our own wonderings.
The passage opens with Jesus attempting to reassure his disciples. After he had washed their feet and eaten with the twelve, Jesus foretold his betrayal by Judas (13:26-28) and his betrayal by the loyal Peter (13:37-38). He has commanded his disciples to love each other (13:34) even as he predicts his own departure. No wonder the Twelve are upset and confused. Who is to be trusted? What does Jesus mean that he is going somewhere that they cannot come (verse 33)?
If we think back to John 10:1-10, how poignancy of hearing that the shepherd you have been following is opening a door you cannot enter is confusing, dismaying. In light of Judas’ departure to betray Jesus, who will be the shepherd who knows the names of his sheep, who protects, and who provides what is needed? What will happen next?
In the face of his negative prediction about Peter’s betrayal, almost as if such a betrayal does not matter, Jesus says, “Don’t worry. Trust God and trust me.” One can translate the pistuete in 14:1 (occurring twice) as either an imperative or an indicative form. “Trust me” or perhaps better, “Keep on trusting me” would translate the imperative. “You do trust me” would be the indicative. There’s something so appealing to our contemporary cynical ears about hearing Jesus say, “Don’t worry…just trust me” that it is hard not to go with that translation. So 14:1 can suggest that the disciples’ hearts ought not to be troubled since they still trust God and Jesus as they always have or because they will replace being troubled with belief or trust as commanded. I opt for the imperative. “Trust God and trust me,” Jesus says and then follows up with reasons for asking them to trust in the face of impending chaos.
You have noticed that rather than “believe in me” I use the word “trust.” This is, of course, optional for you. But trust evokes the intimate relationships that this passage takes for granted, while among us “believe in” often seems to ask for a declaration of assent to a variety of dogmas. Take your pick!
So Jesus begins with reassurance. But both Thomas and Philip continue to be troubled. Thomas first says straight out, “We don’t know.” We don’t know where you’re going, We don’t know how to stay on the way or even find the trailhead. It almost feels like Thomas is saying, “Jesus, get real. Please. We don’t have much time.” A scene from “True Grit” (and many other westerns) comes to mind. The little group seeking a killer fear that the trail has gone cold, making it too late to find their quarry.1 Thomas and Philip are both puzzled about how to follow, how to spot the trail when they don’t know where Jesus is going or what the Father looks like.
This anxiety about being left alone is clouding their vision, their perception, and their hearts.
Jesus moves away from talk about going away and returning (verses 3 and 4), to again asking them to trust (or believe) that he and the Father are one. To see Jesus is to see the Father. And they have seen Jesus’ face, heard his voice, and even more importantly, have seen what he did, his works. It should be enough. To know Jesus is to know the Father.
We can imagine Thomas and Philip and the others with them thinking back over the works Jesus has accomplished. What do they say about Jesus? About the Father? Water to Wine? Lazarus to life? A brown bag of bread and fish to a banquet? Healings? Works that bring healing, delight, abundance, life itself? These would be the works of God, Father and Son. When the “Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The preacher could well explore how difficult it is to recognize The Father or God in the face of the familiar one, whether Jesus himself or his later followers. There are so many works of provisioning that we simply take for granted. “Show us the Father.”
There are other important threads to follow in this passage. If we do trust Jesus, when he says to us, “Amen, amen I say to you (verse 12),” we listen up. And here is the stunner of this passage. All those works that we were just encouraged to recall, along with Philip, Thomas, et al., will be small potatoes compared to what we will do. Insofar as we ask in Jesus’ name, as one of his sheep, as people abiding in him as he abides in the Father, we “will do greater works than these.” Jesus promises his assistance, his support, his power.
This is a terribly difficult word to preach for surely there are always those among us whose heartfelt prayers have gone unanswered and whose hearts have been broken, whose trust shattered by Jesus’ failure to keep this promise. We come up with things to explain this, usually words that blame the “unsuccessful” prayer for not being fully in Jesus’ name, or praying in accord with Jesus’ will or doubting or being impatient or not being able to see the real answer to prayer. These all may be accurate, but not valuable.
There is a promise in verse 14. All we can do is pray “our heart’s desire” as one wise Christian once said to me. Like Thomas and Philip and even Peter at the end of John 13, there is room in this relationship for honest acknowledgement of our confusion, our lack of power, our frustration when our requests seem to go unheard. What young person has not felt this way with her parents or teachers? What spouse has not known this grief? Who has not had to deal with some bureaucracy and not come away with some of these feelings? But in most of those human experiences, trust is not destroyed. How much more here as we are called to continue to trust and abide in Jesus as we make our requests. The message for us, as for our honest forbearers, may well be to look again at the faces before us if we would see Jesus and the Father. Might we think again about the great works, the blessings that have been accomplished for human healing, delight, and abundance and see the Father at work among us?
Since Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life…the true door into the sheepfold where life abounds, in all those places where truth and life are served, we see him.
1 www.nytimes.com/2011/01/02/movies/awardsseason/02grit.html. Accessed 1/25/2011.