May 7, 2023
When Corrie and I lived in the south, we spent a lot of time exploring the back roads and mountains of Tennessee and the Carolinas. This was before GPS, so we occasionally got lost or found ourselves in places that were sketchy at best. Corrie would warn me that if we had car trouble, or had to stop and ask for directions, to let her talk, because my Yankee accent might have been less than welcome.
Among the many diversions on our travels were the religious signage and other religious imagery. Some of it was unintentionally humorous, like the many independent gas stations that displayed signs like: Jesus saves, buy gas. Other signage was quite intentional and in your face; promising the fires of hell if we didn’t accept Jesus as our personal lord and savior, or the ubiquitous “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the father but by me.” This was long before cell phones with cameras, so we had a camera in the glove box just in case. But usually we were a bit too self-conscious and nervous to stop the car, get out and make photos.
There’s another side to all of this imagery and slogans. As an Episcopal priest in the South and even here, I’ve had to help people deal with the scars of the trauma experienced by this kind of religious abuse that can wreak lasting emotional and spiritual havoc.
In today’s gospel, we have part of Jesus’ long good-bye to his disciples. It’s long, really long, because it begins in chapter 13 and continues through chapter 17. We will be spending the next several Sundays in these chapters, so if you don’t like long good-byes, you might think about spending your time on Sunday mornings somewhere else besides church.
In today’s gospel, Jesus has just told his disciples in enigmatic language that he is about to die. He has said that he will be leaving shortly, that where he goes they will not be able to follow immediately, but will come after him. That statement is the catalyst in the Gospel of John for Peter’s promise to follow to the very end, to lay his life down for Jesus. But Jesus replies with his prediction of Peter’s three-fold denial of him. We have here a first example of the disciples’ confusion and uncertainty. In today’s gospel we have two other examples of the disciples’ response to Jesus’ words. Thomas and Philip both ask Jesus questions in hopes of hearing words of comfort and in hopes of understanding what he is saying.
It is in that context, that Jesus utters these familiar words of comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus is consoling his disciples. Having told them he is about to leave them, he will also tell them over the course of the next chapters, that he is not abandoning them. They will not be left to their own devices. Rather, Jesus makes a series of promises that are intended to give them hope in the face of a future without him. The colorful imagery of the first few verses of chapter 14 often lead us to imagine a sumptuous heaven. The King James translated this as “In my father’s house are many mansions.” What we need to keep in mind is that the Greek word behind the translation of “mansions” or “dwelling places” is the noun form of a very common Johannine verb—to abide or stay. We’ve heard this before repeatedly, in chapter 1, when Andrew asks, “where are you staying?” and Jesus replies; “come and see.”
It is in the context of this promise of his going and return for them, that the famous verse, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” As we all know, these words are used by many conservative Christians, and some not so conservative, to assert that only Christians will make it into heaven. And of course, it’s usually not just any old Christian—it’s usually Christians of my denomination, or who agree with me on this or that matter of doctrine or practice, who can be certain that they will be saved.
But to interpret these words to emphasize their exclusivity is to miss the point. Thomas does not ask Jesus, will anyone else get into heaven? Rather, he asks, “Show us the way.” Thomas’ question is at best redundant. Jesus has just told them that they know the way to where he is going. But Thomas is processing the words that Jesus has spoken, the talk of his imminent departure, and he seems not to have understood. So Jesus needs to remind him of what he’s just said, to reassure him, and all the disciples, that he will be with them.
Statements like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” are often used in precisely the opposite way than the gospel writer intended them. They are used to strike fear in people’s hearts, to cause them to doubt whether they’ve been saved or not, and to get them to sign on. Instead of fear, in the gospel of John, these words and indeed the entire passage are meant to reassure and to comfort. “You know the way,” Jesus says. “I am the way.”
But there’s more in this passage. Philip asks a question. It is one of the few times in the gospel of John when the disciples seem as clueless as they do in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replies, somewhat testily, that whoever has seen the father has seen him. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus asserts his identity with God the Father. To see Jesus is to see God. To know Jesus is to know God.
There is a third promise that Jesus makes in this text. He reassures his disciples that they are as powerful as he is. In fact, he goes further, promising them that they will accomplish greater things than him, and they will do those things in his name.
So we have three promises—a promise of Jesus’ continuing presence with us, a promise that he and the Father are one, and a promise that we, Jesus’ disciples, have power. All of those promises come at a time when the gospel is showing the disciples at their most confused and most uncertain. They are meant to comfort and reassure.
Of course, when we think of reassurance and comfort, images of protection and safety come to mind, perhaps images of the good shepherd like we saw last week. But Jesus words here take us in a very different direction. Instead of closing in, retreating behind the high walls of a fortress, Jesus is telling his disciples to go out. He is telling them to take action in the world, to move forward in faith. With that faith, he says, we can do great things. But above all, Jesus is telling them, and us, that what matters most is relationship with him. To be with him, abide with him does not only offer comfort in difficult times; knowing, experiencing Jesus’ presence in our lives, in our community gives us strength for the journey and power to do great things.