First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 5

William Loader

Easter 5: 18 May John 14:1-14

This is one of those passages from Scripture which has established its credentials as holy by usage, quite apart from the authority it shares with its surrounding pages in the New Testament. It has comforted mourners at funerals, inspired billboards and car stickers asserting the Christian way, and it has raised expectations of success through prayer - at almost anything.

It does not stand alone in its context, but forms part of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples which began in 13:31. There Jesus announced his return to the Father’s glory (his glorification) and went on in 13:32 to explain that he was going somewhere where the disciples could not follow him (at least, not for now). This is the beginning of confusion on the part of the disciples. Peter, missing the point, insists he will follow (13:36) and will even lay down his life to do so (13:37). Jesus knows what Peter does not: one day he, too, will be killed (21:18). But for now Peter will fail and deny belonging to Jesus.

The conversation continues in chapter 14 where Jesus says more about his departure and the disciples take it in turn to ask rather naive questions, right through until the end of the chapter, where it seems at one stage an earlier draft of Jesus’ parting words ended (14:31), before it was supplemented with chapters 15-17 in the final drafts of the gospel.

Why so many drafts? Why so many versions of Jesus’ parting words in the gospels? In Mark the major focus of Jesus’ final address to the disciples is about the fate of the Jerusalem temple and the disciples (Mark 13). Matthew is similar, but supplemented with warnings about the need for future disciples to be disciples of deed and not just word (Matt 24-25). Luke innovates by composing a final address which is given by Jesus at the last meal (22:21-38), as in John. For instance, he transfers some of the teaching he had found at an earlier point in Mark (10:41-45) across to this point (22:24-27).

John’s gospel reveals even more creativity, but, as in Luke, John draws on traditional elements which had formed part of the early stories. These included the prediction of Peter’s denial (13:36-38) and the promise that the Spirit would come to the aid of disciples who were hauled before the courts (Mark 13:11). We can also recognise promises about answered prayer and promises that Jesus would come again. These are all now woven together in John’s version of the last discourse, in which John invites us to imagine Jesus’ parting statements.

In the ancient world a person’s last words were always very special. Biographers would take great care to ensure they contained the most important things which future generations should learn. Deuteronomy, as Moses’ last words, fits this category, as do the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs and many other such writings in the Jewish and Christian world. This is also why people have found in these chapters of John a rich treasury for their faith.

The disciples were confused by what Jesus had been saying and troubled by the foreboding his words evoked (14:1; see also 14:27). The response of Jesus is wonderfully simple: believe in God! believe in me (14:1)! Belief, here, includes believing that Jesus claims to represent God, but it also means trust. The trust is in the person, but 14:2 offers information - quite a rare phenomenon in John. There’s a place for you! One wants to break out into the lyric from West Side Story. What a wonderful summary of the Christian gospel! There’s a place for you - in the heart of God, and that includes the realm of death.

At this point John picks up the tradition about Jesus’ coming again to gather his own (14:3). In typically Johannine fashion, the speech will go to say that this coming also happens when he and the Father and the Spirit come to believers (14:18-24 - more about that next week). The focus is not details of a place but quality of a relationship, which includes that it lasts. So, despite Peter’s confusion earlier, it is true: they will follow him and be with him also beyond this life.

Thomas’s confusion about how to get there (14:5) evokes the famous response: ‘I am the way’ (14:6) John is in no doubt: Jesus is the way. It is not claiming that Jesus points to the way, but that he, himself, is the way (and the truth and the life). This only makes sense if we see the focus on the relationship. The verses which follow make that clear (14:7 and 9-11). Jesus is not claiming any of this independently of God, but rather saying that they should ‘believe in God’ as they have seen God in Jesus.

Philip’s confusion (14:8) helps move us further into what that means. Jesus’ response uses words of intimacy and trust (14:9-11). The challenge is to recognise God in Jesus, in his words and deeds. This is a fundamental Christian claim. For some it justifies an exclusive claim that denies that God is to be found anywhere else. For others it justifies the claim to find God wherever God is recognisable by such words and deeds, even where Christian claims are not made or not known.

14:12 makes the extraordinary claim that the disciples will outdo Jesus. I’m sure his PR advisers would have counselled otherwise! The focus is not bigger miracles, but bigger mission, because he will send them equipped with the Spirit to speak of God’s reality to people far beyond Galilee and Judea. Jesus sees his departure as making this explosion possible. So 14:12 must be read closely with what follows in 14:15-17. On commission (14:15), equipped by the Spirit (14:16-17), they will go out to do greater things. This is also the setting for the promise about answered prayer in 14:13-14. It is not a blank cheque for every whim, but a promise about help for the mission.

John has been portraying Jesus’ last words to his disciples, but doing so with an eye to his hearers and future generations, including us! Their distress and confusion about Jesus’ fate becomes a paradigm for confusion and distress in our own experience. While John employs the individual disciples to enhance the drama, its message is simple and telling. Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us. That means two things, especially as we now think canonically and include more of the story of Jesus from the other gospels: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us (even if we know nothing else!) and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world - there’s a place for all! We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way.

First Reading: Easter 5: 18 May Acts 7:55-60
Epistle: Easter 5: 18 May 1 Peter 2:2-10