Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

This text is frequently read at funerals, and for good reason.

I am the Road, the Truth and Life
I am the Road, the Truth and Life, Vasakyrkan, Gothenburg, Sweden, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

May 14, 2017

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Commentary on John 14:1-14

This text is frequently read at funerals, and for good reason.

It contains promises that are profoundly comforting in the face of the death of a loved one. The challenge for the preacher on this 5th Sunday of Easter may be to help listeners understand that this text is not only about life after death, but is a text that has everything to do with our lives here and now.

The setting is Jesus’ farewell address at his last supper with his disciples. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and has explained to them what this means (13:1-20). He has foretold his betrayal by Judas, and Judas has slipped out into the night (13:21-30). He has told his disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come (13:33). He has also foretold Peter’s imminent denial (13:36-38).

No wonder the disciples are troubled. Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and the stalwart leader among the disciples is said to be on the cusp of a great failure of loyalty. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

Jesus responds to the anxiety of his disciples by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (14:1). Jesus calls them back to this fundamental relationship of trust and assures them that he is not abandoning them. Rather, he is returning to his Father, which is good news for them. In speaking of his ascension to the Father, Jesus assures his disciples that this is also their destination. There are many dwellings in his Father’s house, and he goes to prepare a place for them, so that they will be with him and dwell with him in his intimate relationship with the Father (14:2-3).

When Jesus says that they know the way to the place where he is going (14:4), Thomas, like most characters in the Gospel, takes Jesus quite literally. He wants directions, a road map to this place (14:5). Jesus responds by saying that he himself is the way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).

Unfortunately, this verse has often been used as a trump card, or worse, as a threat, to tell people that they better get with the program and “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior” in order to be saved. To interpret the verse this way is to rip it from its context and do violence to the spirit of Jesus’ words.

This statement by Jesus is a promise, a word of comfort to his disciples. Jesus himself is all they need; there is no need to panic, no need to search desperately for a secret map. Jesus adds, “If you know me, you will know my Father also” (14:7a). The conditional phrase in Greek is a condition of fact, meaning that the condition is understood to be true: “If you know me (and you do), you will know my father also.” So that there can be no misunderstanding, Jesus adds, “From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (14:7b).

This time it is Philip who is not quite convinced. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). Jesus’ response contains perhaps a hint of exasperation: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Here Jesus echoes an affirmation from the prologue of John’s Gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart (literally, in the bosom of the Father), who has made him known” (1:18).

This is the whole of Jesus’ mission, to make known the Father, to reveal who God is. Jesus, who has come from the bosom of the Father and is now returning there, is the fullest revelation of the person and character of God. If we want to know who God is, we need look no further than Jesus. All the words that Jesus has spoken, all the works that he has done, come from God and show us who God is (14:10-11).

This passage has everything to do with life here and now because Jesus entrusts his mission to his disciples. “Very 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (14:13-14).

Yet here is where Jesus’ promise becomes a little hard to swallow. Greater works than these? Really, Jesus? Greater works than healing the blind and raising the dead? And you will do whatever we ask in your name? We have all known the pain of praying for healing that did not come, of feeling powerless in the face of disease and death. How can these promises be true?

Perhaps our problem is that in hearing these promises, we expect to do these greater works in the same way that Jesus did them — with miraculous power that instantly solves the problem at hand. Yet even miracles are not guaranteed to produce faith. Many in John’s Gospel who witness the “signs” that Jesus performs have trouble seeing the work of God right before their eyes.

Toward the end of John’s Gospel, Thomas sees the risen Lord and confesses, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This is not so much a scolding for Thomas as a blessing for us who have not seen and yet believe, however feeble our believing may seem.

Jesus promises to be with us through the power of the Spirit, to work in and through us to accomplish his purposes in the world. This does not necessarily happen in easily visible, spectacular ways. Yet wherever there is healing, reconciling, life-giving work happening, this is the work of God. Wherever there is life in abundance, this is Jesus’ presence in our midst.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). Jesus has made known to us the heart of God, and he has entrusted this mission of “making known” to us. Where might we see Jesus’ work and presence in our midst? How might we show others the very heart of God?