Sunday 18 May 2014 – the Guide to Faith
Gospel John 14.1-14
Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
If you seem a bit stressed, people tend not to say something like “you look under the weather” but “you need a holiday.” Even if you’ve just had one. If you point that out, they advise another one.
I always find this a bit unwelcome, mainly because holidays can be pretty stressful in themselves. Trying to fit everything into the suitcase. Lugging it to the airport. Hassle and flight delays. Wondering whether there will be someone to meet you on arrival at your destination. Hoping the online hotel booking got through. Working a foreign language cash machine. Arguing about what to do and where to go. Worrying about what’s going on at home. And so on.
Some of you may well have last heard the first part of today’s gospel reading at a funeral or memorial service. After all the arrangements have been made, as we sit in church grieving for the person who has died, we reflect on our own mortality. What has happened to our loved one now they have passed from our sight? Will we ever meet them again? Where and when will that be?
In John’s gospel, during the farewell discourses, we are told not to worry. What seems to be on offer is like an eternal holiday with none of the stresses and strains. The picture Jesus paints is of a great mansion with many rooms. Plenty of space for all. “Do not let your hearts be troubled” he says. Trust me. I am going there in advance, to prepare a place for you. And when you get there, I will be waiting.
The timing of this reading in the lectionary is not good. It comes from the Farewell Discourses. There are 4 chapters to go before Jesus is arrested. Jesus is comforting his disciples—anticipating what they are about to go through—but with our knowledge of the Easter story we can put ourselves in his shoes, and anticipate the humiliation, rejection, abuse and agony he is about to experience. Jesus’ mind must be in turmoil, yet is he first thinking of himself, of what is to come, of his separation albeit briefly from the Father? No — at the outset he is offering solace to his followers, and to us.
After the torture comes Easter Day. After the crucifixion comes the resurrection. After the resurrection comes the ascension. These are the key events that mark the incarnation, and bring it to an end. The disciples are going to have to learn to live without Jesus in their midst. Like a relay race, the baton now passes to them. Without them, his mission comes to an abrupt end. Then it passes to us — we are God’s hands, feet and mind here on earth, and without us and our descendants the mission of Christ’s church slowly fades and dies.
Everything that is human will die. But the resurrection did not bring the end of everything. It was itself a beginning, and will be a new start for all believers. Jesus’ resurrection was not the be all and end all. The resurrection presumes there is something beyond itself—the ascension. His—and ours.
It’s in the light of the ascension, and not only the resurrection, that we have to interpret the Farewell Discourses. Including today’s passage from John 14.
Returning to the funeral service, where many of us encounter this reading, the image of a great mansion in the sky for the recently departed is evidently Jesus’ main purpose, to prepare to receive the loved one who has passed away. This gives great comfort at a time of mourning and loss, but as believers we have to remember Jesus is not referring to a place as such at all. It’s better than that. Jesus is talking about our ascended life, in the intimate presence of God. The promise is that we will share in the close bond between Jesus and the Father.
All the I AM statements in John’s gospel signal the very nature of God. Jesus is not separate in any way, but One with the Father. When Thomas asks for a road map, Jesus answers “I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life.” I AM signals his divinity as well as describing the way to the disciples. So it is through Jesus we know the way to the Father, and need no specific instructions.
There’s a hint of judgement in all this. No one comes to the Father except through me does not necessarily indicate an exclusive religion but the presence of the Father in Jesus as he says those words.
If you don’t believe me, read on. “Show us the Father” says Philip.
“How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” Jesus answers. “The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me...”
You may remember, very many years ago, sending off to the AA for directions to your holiday destination. They came in a yellow cover. The pages were compiled from selected instructions for driving from one big town to another. Before the days of motorways, that was the way we navigated.
My job was to read out the directions as my mother drove our A40. And to get blamed by my sisters and brother if we missed a turning.
The incarnation is not like those early sets of instructions. We don’t need a map, nor do we slavishly follow guidelines. No — Jesus is the way in himself. To follow him is the way of salvation, because he is in the Father and the Father is in him. They are one and the same.
Too many Christians seem to think they still have to follow each instruction. Faith by works, that is.
I am going to the Father says Jesus. There’s no need to ask the way, or send off for that yellow guide. Follow me! As he said to Philip:
I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. Amen