Commentary on John 14:1-14
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)!
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 …