Easter 6: 1 May John 14:23-29
Last words are important. Deuteronomy presents itself as Moses’ last words. It was common in the ancient world to record or to imagine the parting advice of a revered figure. It generated a type of writing called a testament. One of the best known sets of such testaments is the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, where each of the 12 patriarchs offers advice to the next generations and thereby to all following generations.
The gospels also use this device. Mark offers the discourse in Mark 13, which Matthew has expanded in Matthew 24-25. Luke draws diverse material together, some of it from earlier in Mark, to create a last discourse given at the last supper (22:21-38). John has also done this. It is likely that at some stage 13:31 - 14:31 was the main substance of the discourse. 14:31 has Jesus say: ‘Get up, let us go from here.’ This leads naturally to 18:1. In the final form of the gospel, however, we now find an expanded final discourse together with a final prayer (13:31 - 17:26).
The gospel passage for today is therefore an excerpt from what was seen at one stage as the latter part of Jesus’ discourse. Last week we noted that John has used Jesus’ words about going away in 13:33 as a basis for developing the discourse. Jesus announces he is going away. The disciples ask where to. They ask about the way. They are also reassured that Jesus won’t stay away. He will come again. That was in part traditional and referred to the so-called second coming (14:3). In a manner typical of John’s gospel Jesus also speaks at a different level of coming again when he refers to Easter. Jesus reassures his disciples in 14:18 that he will not leave them as orphans, but will come to them. 14:19 picks up ‘a little while’ from 13:33: Jesus declares that in ‘a little while’ they shall see him.
That theme is being continued in our passage. Just exactly who is going to see Jesus? At one level one might think of the disciples to whom he appeared at Easter. That is true (especially in 14:19), but this passage is also making connections with future ‘generations’ of disciples. Jesus will come to them, to us! But not just to anyone. Who better than Judas Iscariot to ask the question in 14:22, ‘How is it that you are going to show yourself to us and not to the world?’ The answer has already been given in 14:21: Jesus shows himself to those who keep his commandments, those who love him and so are loved by the Father.
Our passage begins by restating that answer: people who show they love Jesus by keeping his word will be loved by God. God and Jesus will come and make their dwelling in them. This echoes 14:2 where Jesus speaks of many dwelling places in his Father’s house, speaking there of heaven. Here, in 14:24 this image is given a new twist: we are to be the dwelling places of God and Jesus! With that the traditional second coming is also given a new twist: Jesus (and God) will come again to these kinds of people.
It is not surprising that the attention moves in 14:25-26 to the Spirit. Paul, too, had understood that the way Christ dwells in us is through the Spirit (see Romans 8:15-17). As Jesus is above all the helpful instructor and teacher (the paraclete), so the Spirit (the other paraclete of 14:16) will also play that role. Lest we think differently, the verse emphasises that the Spirit will teach us nothing other than what Jesus said.
14:27 is beginning to sum up the message: disciples of Jesus then and in future without the concrete presence of Jesus in a hostile world are not to surrender to hopelessness and despair. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ (14:28) is also how Jesus’ words of comfort began (see 14:1). There in 14:1 Jesus urged them: ‘Believe in God and believe in me!’ Here in 14:27-28 he is also challenging them to believe in him and believe in God. They are to believe: Jesus is going to God and is coming again to them. They are to believe that God is greater than Jesus. The word ‘greater’ is a deliberate echo of 14:12. They are going to do greater things than Jesus. Why? Because God is greater and will start something which will reach out across the world and across time by sending the Spirit (14:12-17). That same Spirit will bring the reality of God’s and Jesus’ presence to these disciples as they keep Jesus’ word and engage in his mission.
14:29 is really written for us. When it happens, you will realise this is so. Is it so? Indeed, what John sketches here is nothing short of the rationale for the Christian and the Church. John pictures those who keep Jesus’ word as dwelling places of God and Jesus in the world. Loving Jesus and keeping his word may be variously defined, but at a fundamental level it must mean being a lived-out word of God’s offer of love, just as Jesus was.
John does not abandon the traditional ideas of second coming and heaven, but he does put the emphasis on the here and now. In the face of the chaos of rejection of God we are called to be people who serve as dwelling places for God. The image is not of dwelling places huddled away in seclusion away from the dangers, being a city for themselves, but of dwellings in the midst of life. After all, the God who takes up board and lodging neither wants all our attention as a selfish guest, nor comes to retreat into the armchair. Rather this is the guest who refreshes, encourages us to come out of ourselves and join in the adventure of creation and challenges of healing and liberation in the world, and leads us also to rest.
John must have been aware that the impending depression which would strike the disciples for ‘a little while’ between Good Friday and Easter morning would strike their successors often. Ultimately the comfort is not so much a promise of what lies beyond death, although that is clearly there, but the promise of a sense of the presence of God (and of Jesus and of the Spirit - all merged in John’s spiritual theology). Perhaps it may be summarised like this: look less for the dwelling of God than to be the dwelling of God. In that is peace.
First Reading: Easter 6: 1 May Acts 16:9-15
Epistle: Easter 6: 1 May Revelation 21:10,22-27; 22:1-5