Written by Pastor Ed
A Message of Encouragement
May 14, 2017
Psalm 31: 1-5, 15-16
John 14: 1-14
It is interesting and perhaps a bit ironic that the lectionary texts for the next several weeks go back to the time immediately before the events of Holy Week, the arrest, death and resurrection of Jesus, and look at what are called the Last Discourses of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John. Let’s begin with today’s familiar text from John 14 and set the context for these lessons.
The place is the last supper as Jesus sits around the table with his disciples. Just before this passage John has recorded Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and then pointing out that one of them would betray him, with Judas leaving the group at that point. And then Jesus tells the rest of them plainly that he is leaving them. And their reaction is a familiar one. What are we going to do? How could you leave us now? We feel like we’re being abandoned and will likely flounder. How could we ever replace Jesus? And Peter protests loudly saying he will do almost anything to stay with Jesus.
I’ve seen and heard those reactions in numerous situations. I recall a conversation in a mission committee meeting where it appeared that the missionaries we were supporting were thinking of leaving, and one of the members pleaded that we couldn’t let them leave because the whole enterprise would fall apart if they left. I heard it when Mr. Thiessen announced he was leaving Menno Simons, and yes, I heard a bit of it last week even here. It’s a bit of a natural reaction.
To which Jesus responds, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” For the disciples this was certainly a time of uncertainty. What would happen to them after Jesus left? Easy enough for Jesus to say that, he seemed to know what he was doing, but the disciples were still in the dark. And their questions reflect their uncertainty and concern.
“We don’t know where you are going, how can we possibly know the way?” It reminds me of a humorous reading of Little Bo Peep, when the narrator gets to the line “leave them alone” and exclaims, “Leave them alone. You have just said the sheep were lost, and you don’t know where to find them, of course you have to leave them alone!” You can almost hear the exasperation in Thomas’ voice as he questions Jesus.
And then Philip steps in to ask Jesus to show them the Father. After all, if we can see who God really is, then perhaps we can trust that everything is going to be alright. But at this point, we’re not at all sure. So what are we to make of Jesus’ reply?
Well, quite frankly, we can perhaps understand the disciples’ confusion a bit, because they still hadn’t caught on, and therefore had trouble understanding Jesus’ answers, in fact we still have trouble sometimes understanding them. So what is Jesus telling his disciples in their confusion and feelings of abandonment?
First of all he says, look, there’s plenty of room where I’m going for all of you. Now these verses have been translated numerous ways. I grew up with, “In my Father’s house are many mansions” the King James version, which in some ways doesn’t make a lot of sense when you stop and think about it. Some translations talk about rooms, and the NRSV uses the terms dwelling places. And some people have made a big deal about various levels of heaven and so forth. The joke is that there are separate rooms in heaven so that each group that thinks they’re the only ones there in by themselves and doesn’t know about everyone else. But I think the point Jesus is making is simply that there’s room enough for everyone. You’re not going to get left out because the place is full!
And, Jesus says, you’re going to eventually be there with me. We’re all headed for the same place. Which is when Thomas throws up his hands and says, “Look, we don’t know where this place is, how can we know the way?” To which Jesus replies with that familiar line, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s one of the familiar “I AM” statements of John’s gospel, and yet, as with many statements of Jesus, even we don’t always understand them either.
Here I’m borrowing from David Lose and Karoline Lewis, commentators at WorkingPreacher.org. I’ll quote David Lose,
“But as is often the case in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ conversation partners — in this case the disciples — do not understand what he is saying and mistake his metaphorical reference to a place — his Father’s house — for a geographical space. And so Thomas asks for directions to plug into his GPS. Jesus then responds, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ This is also sheer promise. In other words, Jesus is telling Thomas that he already knows the way. Precisely because Thomas knows Jesus, he can’t get lost.
But then comes the next line, and this is where semantics become important. Jesus continues, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ So here’s the question: is that a promise or a threat? Of late, a lot of Christians hear it mostly as threat. Sure, there’s a promise about being joined to the Father, but one that is simultaneously exclusionary and conditional. And that’s where the threat comes in. ‘If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re finished.’ Or even, ‘If you don’t believe in Jesus the right way, your salvation may be in doubt.’”
And then Jesus goes on to say, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” And while it’s not clear in our English translations, the Greek is clear that Jesus is not saying, “So you’d better make sure you come to know me” but rather, “If you know me – and you do know me – then you also know the Father.” It a word of assurance to the disciples that they already know the way, and the Father, because they know Jesus who is the way.
Remember the context we are talking about. The disciples are upset because they have just been told that Jesus is leaving them. So these are words of encouragement and comfort, not words of threat. It is an assurance that they are, indeed, part of God’ kingdom because they have already seen the Father.
So now it’s Philip’s turn to be confused. “But when did we see the Father? Isn’t that something for the future? Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” To which Jesus, perhaps patiently, perhaps with a bit of exasperation says, “If you have seen me (and you have seen me) you have seen the Father. It recalls a statement John records way back in the first chapter of his Gospel when he says, “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 then goes on to suggest that it will even be better after he’s gone. He says that those who believe will do even greater works than he did, because he is going to his Father.
Jesus offers a word of encouragement to his disciples who are grieved and alarmed that he is leaving them. He assures them that if they know him, and they do know him, then they need not fear because they know the way. We also need to recall that John is writing to a people, the early Christians, who are being kicked out of the synagogues because they have come to know Jesus. It may have seemed to them that they were losing out because they no longer had access to the rituals of the synagogue and the priests.
And so, John is also assuring them, as Jesus did the disciples that the important thing was simply to know Jesus, for Jesus is the way to the father and if you know Jesus then you know what God is like, you know the truth, and you have life in a place where there is plenty of room for all. While the disciples were asking how and where, Jesus said you already know the answers, because I am the how and the where. If you know me, then you know the answers already.
Now this passage is often used at funerals to assure people that there is something beyond death, a place to be with God. But the reality is that Jesus was not only offering a word for the future to his disciples, but a word for their present reality as well. Even though he was going away, they were not being abandoned. And as we will see next week, he goes on to assure them of his continuing presence with them in the form of an Advocate, the Spirit of truth.
And that word is here for us today as well. Whenever we feel as though we are being abandoned or when we wonder what will happen in the future because things are changing, we can be reminded that if we know Jesus, then we know the way ahead. We know that we can trust God, because we have learned to know Jesus and Jesus has shown us the way.
Now, I’m not about to compare my leaving with Jesus leaving his disciples; I’m no Jesus. But I am aware of what anyone’s leaving can mean for a group, and I know that it can be a time of uncertainty and wondering what comes next, will we survive, is there life after Ed? And the answer is, most certainly! Why, because you know Jesus and following Jesus is the way ahead, no matter what else happens.
And when we follow the way of Jesus, and the more we come to know Jesus, the more we recognize the truth, and the more we participate in the life that God provides for us. And that should give us assurance for whatever lies ahead. Leaders come and go. Pastors come and go. But Jesus, the one who shows us who God is, remains constant, inviting us to deeper fellowship and knowledge of him as he reveals God to us. With that assurance, we can move forward.