Never to Part (John 14:1-12)

Fred Craddock tells about playing hide-and-seek with his brothers and sister when he was a kid. Well, he had the perfect hiding spot — under the steps of the porch. His sister searched everywhere — behind trees, in the barn, in the corncrib. She passed by him again and again.

Fred said he was confident she would never find him. Then it hit him — she would never find him. So he stuck out a toe, she saw it and cried, “I see you. You’re it, you’re it.” Fred crawled out muttering, “Phooey, you found me.”

What did Fred really want? To stay hidden? To be alone? He wanted what we all want — to be found. We all want to be in relationship. It’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s basic to our humanity. And if we were really in touch with our deepest longing and need, we would know that we long to be in relationship to God as the foundation for all other relationships.

John’s Gospel teaches about this divine-human relationship utilizing very intimate mystical language. Relationship is central.

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This passage begins with Jesus assuring his disciples that the relationship he has with them is ongoing. It cannot be severed, even by death.

Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” He is not telling them to not be sad, but rather, to not be frustrated and fearful. Jesus himself struggled with this according to John’s account. Three times John says Jesus was troubled: at the death of Lazarus, when he contemplated his own death, and when he realized that his own disciples would betray and desert him in his final hour.

Jesus’ reference to faith can be read as a statement or a command. The NRSV treats it a command. Either way, it is an invitation to trust and be faithful. Some translations read: “Trust in God, trust also in me.” It is a call to trust that the relationship we have with Jesus will not be broken by death.

Jesus continues, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Keep in mind that a dominant theme in this Gospel is the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus. Jesus’ followers are invited to share in that relationship.

The language here is figurative. What Jesus is saying is that God is a welcoming, hospitable God who invites all who are willing into relationship. Jesus is not talking about heaven; Jesus is talking about being in relationship with God and with himself now and in the future. When the Authorized Version translated “dwelling places” as mansions in 1611, in that day and time mansion simply meant a dwelling or an abode. Of course, language evolves doesn’t it?

The point here is that there’s a place for everyone; there’s a place for you and me in God’s household and nothing can tear us apart from God and from the Christ — not even death.

The reference to Jesus’ coming again to take us to God’s self can be applied to Jesus’ resurrection, to the giving of the Advocate (the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth), to the time of death, or to the end-time coming when the early believers expected Christ to fulfill the promises of a new creation.

The main point is that while Jesus is going to leave because the hour of his death, his departure, is at hand, his death will not end or destroy the relationship. The relationship will continue, though in a different form. No longer will the relationship be physical; it will now be spiritual.

John is expressing here what Paul expressed so beautifully in Romans 8 when he said that nothing, no power in heaven and earth can separate us from the love of God that has come to us in Christ.

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In the next part of the text the emphasis begins to shift from relationship to revelation, though the two go hand-in-hand. When Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going,” Thomas objects, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This is a common technique in John’s Gospel. Someone’s misunderstanding provides the cue for Jesus to explain a deeper truth.

Thomas takes Jesus’ words literally, but Jesus is speaking figuratively, metaphorically. Thomas wants a map, but Jesus is not talking geographically; he is not talking about a literal place. Jesus is talking about being connected, being in communion and cooperation with God, with himself, and with each other.

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” We can read this to mean, Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life. The point is that Jesus has been living out this relationship in their midst, he has embodied and modeled what it looks like, what it involves.

Ann Howard who leads “The Beatitude Society” recalls how these words bothered her when she was a child. When she was about 10 years old a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of the U.S. Several families hosted them, and her family hosted one of the Russians, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday. She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled Ann. She asked her mother about it. She said, “Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus. He doesn’t even believe in God. I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”

Her mother replied, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.” I wish I would have heard that message when I was ten years old. It took me a long time to understand that Christianity is about a way of life, not a list of beliefs or a ticket to heaven.

I am encouraged today that more Christians are interpreting texts like John 14:6 in more inclusive ways. When John’s Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” more Christians today are refusing to read that statement as an absolute truth for all people at all times.

Some interpreters see the cosmic Christ, the risen Christ working anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. What others call by a different name they believe is actually the living Christ.

Some interpret Jesus’ statement “except through me” to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated, such as grace and truth. In other words, anyone one who loves the way Jesus loves and lives as he lives will encounter God, anyone who embodies the values and virtues that Jesus embodied can know God, regardless of what they may profess to believe. This is, basically, what the passage in Acts says that was in our lectionary readings a few Sundays ago. That passage reads: “In every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34).

Still others, like me, emphasize that John is writing to his particular community. When John says, “no one,” we can read that to mean, “none of you” – “none of you come to the Father except through Jesus.”

Gail O’Day, writing in the New Interpreter’s Bible puts it this way: “What is often labeled . . . as excessively exclusionary would be described more accurately as particularism. That is, the claims made in John 14:6, express the particularities of the Fourth Evangelists knowledge and experience of God, and membership in the faith community for which he writes and which he envisions does indeed hinge on this claim.”

In other words, this is not true for everyone, but it is true for us. This text says nothing about how others outside Christianity can know and experience God. This is how we, as Christians, encounter and know God; this is how we are led into the truth and life of God, by following the way of Jesus. For us, not for everyone, but for us, Jesus is the definitive revelation of God.

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The Christian’s relationship to God is rooted in the revelation of God that has come to us in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why John’s Jesus says, “If you know me, you know my Father (Abba).

Philip says, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Philip’s misunderstanding opens the way once again to a deeper explanation. Jesus goes on to explain that the words he speaks and the works he does reveal the Father. His words and works function to reveal God.

Jesus is the Christian’s definitive revelation of God, and as the Christian’s definitive revelation of God, Jesus is the criteria through which we assess and evaluate all things. Jesus is the Christian’s Lord and Judge. Recently I argued that the sacred tradition of Jesus is the lens through we read and judge Scripture. Based on our text today, I would add that Jesus is the standard by which the totality of our lives should be evaluated and judged.

Shane Claiborne, a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement and one of the founding members of “The Simple Way,” recently wrote a piece titled: “If It Weren’t for Jesus, I Might Be Pro-Death Too: A Response to Al Mohler.”

Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an article defending the death penalty. Claiborne points out that in Mohler’s 1200 word argument for why Christians should support the death penalty he does not mention Jesus a single time. He also points out that in the official pro-death penalty statement of the Sothern Baptist Convention, there is not a single reference to Jesus or the Gospels.

There are lots of problems with the scriptural maneuverings used to justify the death penalty says Claiborne. One being that the biblical death penalty “was required not just for murderers, but also for folks who committed adultery, disrespected their parents, collected too much interest, had premarital sex, and disobeyed the Sabbath.” I suppose that if everyone took the Bible’s legislation on the death penalty literally we would kill off about three-quarters of the earth’s population.

But the real problem writes Claiborne is Jesus, who says things like, “I did not come for the righteous, but for sinners,” and “blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy,” and “inasmuch as you forgive you will be forgiven,” and “judge not lest you be judged,” and “you’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye’ but I tell you there is another way.” Jesus is the real problem for Christians who support capital punishment, which is why, I suppose, Dr. Mohler and the entire SBC decided to ignore Jesus.

How does a Christian denomination make a case for a particular ethical and social position without reference to Jesus? If Jesus is our definitive revelation of God, then all our decisions, values, priorities, everything must be sifted through the filter of Jesus. If Jesus is our Savior, then Jesus is our judge; he is the authority who gives direction to our lives.

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Jesus has charged us, his followers, with the responsibility of continuing what he started. The Gospel passage today begins with a focus on relationship, which fades into a discussion on God’s revelation through Christ, and then ends with an emphasis on our responsibility that flows out of that relationship. Remember the text from John 20: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Relationship carries with it responsibility. When my kids were little I had a little speech I gave about how being members of a family carries with it certain responsibilities.

Jesus tells Philip and the other disciples that they will engage in the works he had been doing. Jesus says, “the one who trusts me, the one who is faithful to walk in my way, will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

What works did he do? He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he liberated the oppressed, he delivered the demonized, he welcomed the outcasts, he challenged the status quo, he confronted the religious establishment, he served all people, and he bore the wrath of the powers without returning their wrath.

Knowing God carries with it the assignment of making God known, of doing what Jesus did, of living out the character of God, of carrying on his works. Jesus imparts to us a lot of responsibility and he puts a lot of faith in us.

My first response to being given this kind of responsibility is: “What were you thinking, Jesus? Look at us. A whole Christian denomination wanting to support capital punishment decides to ignore everything you did and said.

But who am I to point a finger? Look at me, Jesus. I often fail to emulate your way of love and grace. I react in anger instead of forgiveness. I ignore your call to seek your kingdom first over everything else. I fail to pursue the interests of others above my own. I select who I want to serve, instead of being the servant of all. I lose control at least once every day. Is there hope for me, Jesus?

Jesus says, “Yes. I believe in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself. Don’t get too agitated. The relationship will not end. Not even death can sever it. So keep trusting in God and pursuing my way. You will do what I did and greater things besides.”

I don’t know do you? Some days I can believe it; other days it’s hard. I am glad Jesus has more faith in us than what we tend to have, aren’t you?

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Gracious God, may we catch the fire that ignited Jesus’ passion to know You and make You known. May his faith be contagious and may we be infected by it. And rather than demand that others believe what we believe, help us to love them where they are and reveal your character to them through our words and works. Show us how to trust, to be faithful, to love others the way we love ourselves, to treat others as we would want to be treated, so that we may walk in the way of Jesus that leads to truth and life. Amen.

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Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of “Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith” (http://nurturingfaith.info/Being-a-Progressive-Christian/)

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