[Jesus said to his disciples] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
The verses we hear in this Gospel are so beautiful if it sounds familiar they are heard at many funerals. The image of God’s house having many dwelling places where we can see God and our loved one’s who have gone before us is comforting. Unfortunately some of the verses we just heard have caused a lot of division for how they have been understood, but these verses I believe can bring hope when looked at a little differently. The verses I referring to are verses 5-7:
“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”
These verses have caused me worry and concern my whole life for several reasons but let me begin with where it all started.When I was growing up I was raised Roman Catholic through the early part of my life. I went to Perochial School from 1st – 6th grade. I was the last call for altar boy because I lived close but if I got called into Mass I usually made the priests life miserable during worship, altar boys have that kind of power 🙂 During the week if I had to see Father Geiger, which happened from time to time, it was interesting because there was no direct access to his office. To reach him, you had to go through the office of the chief parish administrator, a severe, no nonsense gatekeeper whose door plaque bore the following line from the above cited verses: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I share this memory because it is precisely the interpretation too often given to this verse. Rather than the door through which the sheep are free to enter, as we heard last week, Jesus is portrayed as the one restricting access to the door. Consequently, all who do not know, fail to recognize, refuse to acknowledge or lack trust in Jesus have no access to God. That, of course, led to endless worry and concern among young people in my circle.
- “What about babies that die before they can be baptized?”
- “What about people who never hear the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
- “What about people whose only exposure to Christianity has been mistreatment and exploitation?”
- “What about people who are warm, caring, compassionate and active in doing good but, for whatever reason, don’t know or believe in God?”
All of this goes to show how dangerous it is to take a single passage of scripture out of its context and treat it as an absolute statement in itself. We should have known better. After all, John the Evangelist told us over and over a different side to Jesus:
- At the very beginning John tells us that Jesus is the light sent to “enlighten everyone.” (John 1:9)
- God so loved “the world”- not just Christians—that God sent the Son, not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:16-17).
- Jesus himself informs us that he has “other sheep” that have yet to be brought into the fold and that he himself will see to that (John 10:16).
- The whole point of Jesus’ abiding among his disciples is that, through their life and mission, “the world may believe” God’s love manifested to Jesus’ disciples in the sending of God’s Son (John 17:20-21).
It is not God’s intent to rescue a few souls from the deck of a sinking ship. God means to save the ship. God is at least as faithful as the US Army Rangers whose motto is “no one left behind.”
That said, there is a scandalous particularity about the good news preached by the church. John’s gospel begins with the assertion, “no one has ever seen God.” (John 1:18). Once again, context is essential. These words are not directed to outsiders. It is not as though we are saying to Muslims, Buddhists and persons of other faiths that they know nothing of God. Rather, John is reminding his audience of believers that they know nothing of God apart from what God has revealed to them through Jesus Christ. In short, this passage and the one cited above are designed to form and direct the disciples’ thinking and speaking about God. Disciples are not to begin with their notions, beliefs and human understandings of God to figure out where Jesus fits in. Rather, they begin with Jesus and, in communion with him, learn of the Father.
In verses 8-11, Jesus responds to Philip’s frustrated demand: “show us the Father.” Jesus then makes the startling assertion that he is all the God there is to be seen. In so doing, Jesus turns everything we thought we knew about God on its head. He delivers the news Friedrich (FREED-rik) Nietzsche (NEET-sher) was to bring us nineteen centuries later: God is dead. To a large extent, Nietzsche was right.
- The God who sits at the apex of the universe pulling the switches that make things happen does not exist.
- The God who manipulates everything from pandemics to the weather in order to reward good and punish evil does not exist.
- The God who is driving history toward the rapture, the great tribulation and a final violent divine conquest of our planet does not exist.
The only God who does exist pours out God’s very life blood to reconcile the world to God’s self. God saves the world by loving it—at great cost to God’s self and to the community of disciples formed by that love. That is all.
Such an image of God is not particularly comforting to those of us who are looking for a divine protector who will take our part and make everything turn out right. Our preference is for a “strong God,” just as it seems the world is becoming increasingly attracted to “strong men” as national leaders. We cannot rid ourselves of the primitive belief so aptly expressed by society: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” By that measure, God is the one with the biggest and most powerful gun.
God is too powerful to be sucked into the vortex of retributive violence in which families, tribes, nations and peoples are helplessly trapped. God’s heart is too mighty to be tempted with the use of coercive force to accomplish God’s purposes.
God is too strong to be baited into retaliating against us—even when we crucify the only beloved Son—the best God had to give us. As it turns out, Jesus is God being God in the most graphic, concrete and powerful way. This God who is love is God. There is no other.
Our temptation always is to settle for a lesser god, a god who is merely a projection of ourselves on a divine scale, a god who deals with us and our world as we would deal with it if we were God. We are constantly tempted to look beyond Jesus to a god more amenable to justifying the means we think are necessary to achieve the ends we believe are good. We are enticed by the image of a god whose purposes are perfectly aligned with our patriotic instincts, our clan loyalties and our economic self interest. We seek a God who is “on our side,” rather than the God who is on the side of the stranger, the poor and, worst of all, on the side of our enemies. We look for a god with power to do what we believe must be done, but in Jesus we find a God whose loving power would transform us into the people we must become in order to show the world how deeply it is loved. This God may well appear weak and ineffectual to a world in thrall to “strong men,” military parades and firearms. The God revealed in Jesus might not appeal to a church accustomed to having the societal respect, financial support and political clout to press its agendas. But this God’s non-coercive, patient and determined love is the only force powerful enough to save us.
Because in Jesus’ own words: Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. And those works that Jesus started, continued in the Apostles, and continue in us today. So let us continue the works of inclusion into God’s Kingdom living out Jesus’ commands, and leaving the saving acts to God.