John 14:1-14 | NIV
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going.” “No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of the work you have seen me do. I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!
This is such a rich passage, isn't it? It has been one of my favourite texts since I was a teenager, and I still feel like I'm mining gold and diamonds out of it, so I hope that we will find treasures in it together this morning. But first, in order to best understand what we're looking at, we need to know where it's come from, so let's start with a little bit of context. The verses we have heard come from the beginning of what is often known as the farewell or supper discourse, an extended time of teaching and prayer during Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, found in John chapters fourteen to seventeen.
At this point, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and started to make some slightly cryptic predictions about what will happen to him. He has gathered to eat with his closest friends, then got up part way through dinner to wash their feet. He has then followed that by announcing that one of them will betray him, and telling Judas to be quick about it. There must have been a strange atmosphere in that room, even before Jesus declared that he would only be with them a little while longer, and that they could not yet follow where he was going. If we didn’t know how events were going to unfold, we might still begin to get a sense that he is preparing to share something momentous, a departing message for those who have followed him. It is in this setting that he tells them “A new command I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”.
That verse isn't the focus for us this morning, as it comes from the chapter before our reading, but there is an argument that the supper discourse should really begin with chapter thirteen, and there is certainly a connection between this new commandment and the passage we have heard, so let's spend a moment with it anyway. Jesus knows that events have been set in motion that will soon lead to his death. He doesn’t have much time left with these people who have walked with him and learned from him, and as he thinks about what he wants to tell them in these last moments, he begins by saying “Love one another.” If we use our prophetic imaginations, we may hear other words underneath and around those. “Take care of one another. I’m not going to be here for you as I have been, so you’re going to have to be here for each other, because this next bit’s going to be tough. But as you look after one another, people will learn about me, and they’ll want to join this community too. So it’s going to be okay, and it’s going to get better, just as long as you love one another”.
It’s going to be okay, and it’s going to get better, just as long as you love one another. That’s a word to tie as a reminder on our hands and bind on our foreheads. And a quick reflection on Jesus’ use of the word “new”, because this isn’t really a new command at all. God has been telling us to love from the very beginning. The Greek word here also has a sense of “fresh” or “not found exactly like this before”, and I think that perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at here. “I’m going to refresh what you’ve known all along. You need to love one another, and do it in ways you haven’t before, because now your love needs to reveal me to the world”.
So we’ve looked at the setting of our reading, and taken a bit of a detour, but now let’s dive into the passage we have before us. First I want to pick up on Jesus’ promise that “there is more than enough room in my Father’s home”, or “there are many rooms in my Father’s house”, as other translations have it. This verse is often read at funerals, but I want to suggest that it is for now as well as for eternity. The idea of room in the Father’s house seems to sit within a theme of dwelling or remaining in God, and that is about far more than just a final resting place. Theologian Rudolf Bultmann spoke of remaining in God as “persistence in the life of faith”, and we perhaps see that more clearly in the following chapter, where Jesus says “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit”, and then “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” So perhaps what Jesus is saying here is that there is more than enough room for us to dwell in God’s house and remain in God’s love, and that begins now with a commitment to live fruitful lives as we keep God’s commands.
Jesus tells the disciples that they know the way to the Father’s house, but they are not so certain, and so he declares “I am the way, the truth and the life.” If we listen with our prophetic imagination once more, we might hear him saying "You say you don’t know the way, but I am the way and you know me, so do you know the way. And you know me so well that you can keep following that way even when I am gone." He is trying to reassure the disciples that they are closer than they know, and they need to trust him and trust themselves. And again I want to say that this is not about how we get to heaven but about how we live now. It is by following in the way of Christ, and believing in the truth of Christ, and imitating the life of Christ that we will come to know God, and that is true in this life as well as in the life to come.
This verse has been used to argue for a very exclusivist approach to salvation. Jesus is the only way and the only truth and the only life, and so the only way to be saved is to follow him. It’s a fair reading of the text, especially as Jesus goes on to say that no one comes to the Father except through him, but it is one that has always made me more than a little uncomfortable. What about the people who came before Jesus? Or the people who never get to hear anything about him? Or the people who are put off learning more by those who represent him badly? I have wrestled with this for a long time, but another reading has started to present itself in more recent years. The way and the truth and life do not change even if we do not name them as such, and so if they are characterised by the love and grace and compassion of Jesus, then perhaps those things are themselves a way to God, even for those who do not know or acknowledge their source.
That’s not to say that faith in Jesus is unimportant or that we needn’t bother with any kind of witness. The incarnation pulls us more deeply into the mystery of God than anything else possibly could. The life that he lived is the best model we have for how to be fully human. The death that he died speaks of mercy we could not otherwise have imagined. And the resurrection is the most solid foundation of hope that there is. And so I absolutely believe that faith in Christ is the surest and the nearest way to God, and that we should be calling others to hear his truth and take up his life, but I also think that it is possible to follow in the way and the truth and the life of Jesus without realising, and I trust that his invitation is always more inclusive and more generous than we know.
The disciples are still not really getting it, and so Philip asks for something solid, and I’m sure many of us can sympathise with him. “Just show us God and we’ll be happy”, he exclaims. It would be easy to imagine Jesus getting quite frustrated with him, but in my mind his voice is gentle when he says “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” This is the earth shattering and mind bending truth of the incarnation. Of course we don’t have quite the same experience as the disciples, because we can’t see him with our eyes or hear him with our ears or feel him with our hands, but we can meet him through the scriptures. We can see the kindness on his face as he looks at the rich young man who wants to do what is right but knows that it will be hard. We can hear the harsh edge of anger in his voice as he tells the disciples not to prevent the children from coming to him for the kingdom belongs to them too. We can feel the gentleness of his hands as he touches those who the law has rendered untouchable to heal their bodies and their hearts. When we do that, we see and hear and feel God. Perhaps more than anything, this is why we come to God through Jesus. Scripture tells us that one day everyone will see God, but for those of us who really see Jesus, that day has already come, and so eternity and kingdom start now for those who believe in Christ.
As we start to wind down to the end of the passage, Jesus declares that “anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works”. I remember reading those words when I was about twelve or thirteen, and all but flying down the stairs shouting “Mum, have you seen this? This is incredible!” I could not get my head around what could be greater than raising someone from the dead, but then I began to think that greater may have more to do with scale. Jesus only had three years and a relatively small area to work with, but we as a church have the rest of time and the whole world. I think this is about carrying on what Jesus started and bringing it to fullness, and I haven’t lost my sense of excitement that we are invited to share in that work of transforming the world with love.
It may be exciting, but it's daunting too. Fortunately we are not alone. Next week we will come to the promise of the Spirit, but here we already have the promise that “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it.” There are a few verses like this scattered throughout the gospels, and as hopeful as they may sound, it is tricky to know what to do with them in the face of unanswered prayer. "In my name" is perhaps better translated as “according to my character” or “after my reputation”, so there is a kind of condition attached, and we probably shouldn’t be too surprised when we don’t get the winning lottery ticket we asked for, but that doesn’t explain why our prayers for healing and for peace and for justice so often seem to be met with silence. I don’t have a nice neat answer to that, only a half formed idea that Jesus does all he can but the world sometimes works against him, and a conviction that we are called to be faithful in prayer because he is faithful in love. And so even if I’m not quite sure how I’m meant to understand this verse, I still hold to it as encouragement that Jesus is rooting for us as we follow in his way.
We’ve got through a lot of ideas there, so perhaps we might sit for a moment to let them settle, and then close in prayer. Thank you Jesus for your words, passed down through our community of faith. May we love one another as you have loved us, and may we remain in you and in your love. May we know that you are the way and the truth and the life, and may we see the fullness of God as we see you. May we do the works you have done and the greater works you have promised, and may we pray faithfully in your name. Amen.