John 14 is the core of traditional Christian theology. When the Revised Common Lectionary is followed, John 14 explains Jesus’ death and resurrection (5th and 6th Sundays of Easter, Years A and C), and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost, Year C) after his post-resurrection, apocalyptic, bodily ascension into the sky, as reported by the intrepid Dr. Luke (24:44-53). John 14 is most often read at the bedsides of the dying, at funerals, and to comfort grieving families. The phrase “s/he went to be with the Lord” – a clear reference to 14:3 – is common in 21st century obituaries. “Don’t worry,” John’s Jesus is supposedly saying, “There are plenty of places to stay in my Father’s house. . . . and where I am there you will be too.”
The only condition for this promise is to keep Jesus’ commandment to love one another (13:34-35). John’s Jesus says, “Those who accept my commandments and obey them – they love me. And those who love me will be loved by my Father; moreover, I will love them and reveal myself to them . . . Those who don’t love me won’t obey my words” and will not be part of that heavenly home. As a reward for accepting Jesus as the way to God, the truth about God and the life in God’s realm, Jesus says “At my request the Father [God] will provide you with yet another advocate [in addition to Jesus], the spirit of truth who will be with you forever.” The power of the Holy Spirit to do miracles even greater than Jesus himself comes to those who believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead and will come again. The magic words, “whatever you ask in my name, I will do for you” were so important to the gospel writer that he repeats the mantra using the magical power of three: first in 14:13; then in 16:23 (which recapitulates 14), and finally in 15:7. To underline the exclusivity of the promise of both a place in God’s heaven and the receipt of the holy spirit, Jesus says, “The world is unable to accept this spirit because it neither perceives nor recognizes him. You recognize him because he dwells with you and will be within you.”
The Gospel of John set the stage for exclusive theologies ranging from Catholicism to Calvinism to fundamentalisms that have resulted in pogroms, witch trials, accusations of heresy, mass murders by fire (autos-da-fey), the wholesale slaughter of indigenous populations of people world wide, and the continued insistence that the “church” holds the ultimate authority over the health and welfare of women. The mandate extends to threats of nuclear war in a cynical defense of Israel. In a total corruption of the eternal longing for justice that produced the original prophecies of Daniel (which framed the apocalypticism of all four gospels) and the later Revelation of John, fundamentalist Christians believe that Israel’s ultimate conversion to their theology will bring Jesus back to end the world and usher in the “Kingdom of God.”
What possible use can progressive, liberal Christians make of John 14? Certainly none of the gospels can be read literally, and most assuredly, not the gospel of John – as we have seen. As always, when attempting to reclaim ancient writings for contemporary minds, reading meaning back into it from our own point of view is not only a temptation, but is probably inevitable – even for scholars who know how to keep a wary eye on the work. The disastrous results that can come from such anachronism were spelled out above.
The first order of business is to realize and accept the fact that the Gospel of John reflects the cosmology of the 1st and 2nd centuries, c.e., not the cosmology of the 21st century. We have known since Copernicus that if there is a god out there somewhere, it shares the “heavens” with a lot of other stuff. Further, we know without a doubt that Jesus was seriously dead. All the gospels make that point emphatically – the resurrection stories are not ghost stories. John’s own parable of the raising of Lazarus graphically foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nor are we talking about some kind of Zombie-like resuscitated corpse, still lurching along the highways and byways, terrorizing or shaming people into salvation.
Second, all of the gospels reflect the times they were written in and for. Specifically, the gospel of John was an extended, impassioned, possibly desperate argument whose purpose was likely twofold: first to convince the community that the longed-for One, prophesied to be sent by God to restore God’s kingdom of distributive justice-compassion was indeed Jesus, who had been executed by the Romans; and second to somehow keep the community who did believe it from exile.
The way to possibly reclaim Chapter 14 (in fact all three of these chapters at the heart of the gospel) is to revisit the Prologue.
In the beginning there was the divine word and wisdom. The divine word and wisdom was there with God, and it was what God was. . . . In it was life, and this life was the light of humanity. Light was shining in the darkness, and darkness did not master it. . . . Genuine light – the kind that enlightens everyone – was coming into the world . . . but its own people were not receptive to it. But to all who did embrace it, to those who believed in it, it gave the right to become children of God. . . . The Law was given through Moses; mercy and truth came through Jesus the Anointed One. No one has ever seen God; the only son, close to the Father’s heart – he has disclosed (it).
God is defined as “divine word and wisdom,” revealed to everyone in the life and teachings of Jesus. John says, echoing the apostle Paul, “the Law was given through Moses [but] mercy and truth [justice-compassion] came through the Anointed One.” So the very nature of God is seen to be not the easy justice of retribution and pay-back, but the far more difficult distributive justice that includes mercy, compassion, and a transformation of thought: water into wine; food that nourishes the spirit because it is the work of establishing or restoring God’s radical fairness. John 14 may be taken as an illustration of John Dominic Crossan’s definition of a kenotic God – whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death. Certainly that is the meaning that might be taken by 21st century non-theists, reluctant to condemn anyone for not “believing” literally the legend about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Living in the absence of justice has been and continues to be a living death. Just ask the parents of Trayvon Martin; the ancestors of Emmet Till; refugees in the borderlands of Somalia and Sudan; Karilyn Bales.
John’s Jesus possessed within himself the confidence in the nature of God as distributive justice-compassion that eliminated any anxiety about death, whether physical or metaphorical. The judgment that is expressed regarding those who do not believe that to encounter Jesus was to encounter God is simply the statement of a fact of life: those who do not love one another, who hate others, and do not live in distributive justice-compassion will suffer the consequences. They will not experience the peace that Jesus says he will leave behind. “What I give you is not a worldly gift,” he says. The world with its systems of injustice and greed is not interested in creating systems of justice and sharing. To create such a world requires a radical abandonment of self-interest that few are willing to attempt.
Chapter 16 is possibly a later edition to the gospel, which seems to elaborate on and explain the discourse in 14. Chapter 16 concentrates on the “advocate” – the Holy spirit – which can only come to Jesus’ followers when he leaves. John’s Jesus begins by saying, “I’ve told you these things to keep you from being misled. They are going to throw you out of the congregations . . . they are going to do these things because they never knew the Father [God] or me.” In a paragraph that the Westar scholars footnote “is notoriously difficult to understand,” Jesus says, “When the advocate [holy spirit/spirit of truth] comes, he will show the world how wrong it is about sin, righteousness, and judgment: about sin because they don’t believe in me; about righteousness because I am going to the Father and you won’t see me anymore; about judgment because the ruler of this world stands condemned” (The Complete Gospels, p. 243).
In The Authentic Letters of Paul, the scholars define “sin” (Greek: hamartia) as “the corrupting seduction of power,” or the “seductive power of corruption.” Paul is not talking about rotting corpses. He is talking about the kind of corruption that arises between people, and in government or economic empires that leads to systems of injustice. John 16:9 uses the same word – hamartia. Human beings are actually born with the “spirit of truth” that tells us immediately what is just and unjust. We lose our ability to discern what is truly just and fair when we succumb to the power of selling out for what looks like our own self-interest. So in that paragraph, in plain English, Jesus is saying that the spirit of truth (the advocate) shows us how wrong the world is about the seductive power of corruption, justice as retribution and pay-back, and the consequences for this error. It is not about “believing” the impossible, literal resurrection of Jesus, nor is it about “believing” that Jesus was the literal “son of God.” Instead, “the ruler of this world” – where injustice holds sway – stands condemned to reap the consequences: war, famine, disease, and death in exchange for plundering the environment, coveting our neighbor’s homes and territories, and murdering whole populations because they don’t look like us.
Jesus’ disciples finally get it in 16:29: “Now you’re using plain language rather than talking in riddles. Now we see that you know everything and don’t need anyone to question you. That’s why we believe that you have come from God.” Jesus responds, “I have told you all this so that you can enjoy peace in me. In the world, you’re going to face persecution. But be brave! I have triumphed over the world.”