The Disciples don’t get it!

Funereal – what an awesome word: “Having the mournful, somber character appropriate to a funeral.”  Yes, the tone of John 14 is somber, but our sense of it comes in no small part from the incredible number of funeral services in which it is included:

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 (John 14:1-6).

Familiarity breeds contempt, as the old saying goes, so let’s visit this text for a wee bit to see if it might surprise us.  

Chapter 13 ends with Peter asking a rather plaintive question.  The scene in the Upper Room ends with Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.  And then Jesus goes out into the night, and to his fate.  As he departs, Jesus gives a new commandment of love, warning the disciples, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer…” (John 13:33).  At this, Peter asks, “Lord, where are you going?” (vs. 36), and “Lord, why can I not follow you now? (vs. 37).  Remember last week I spoke of God responding in love to human longing?  Here God in Christ Jesus does so again; that’s why Chapter 14 begins: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…”

This is a heartfelt farewell to those whom Jesus loves.  It is a recognition that hearts indeed break in the face of loss, shock and pain.  True, John’s familiar pattern is followed here: announcement; conversation; directions; promises.  However, don’t get lost in the weeds of literary analysis – this is a loving and affectionate goodbye.  

There are many dwelling places in the Father’s house, Jesus tells us.  Not palatial mansions – the old English “mansion” simply means house.  Interestingly, the word here translated as house can also refer to a “night stop” on a journey; or a tomb as a resting place after the struggles of life are over.  The point is that there is a place for us.  This is a human longing which Stephen Sondheim beautifully describes in his West Side Story song, Somewhere. The need to belong, to have a place where we are loved and accepted is powerful – the opposite of which is alienation (a form of death).  Yet, in grief there is not only the loss of a loved one, but a sense that we ourselves are lost in a life that we no longer recognize.  Landmarks no longer make sense, and the disorientation is dizzying.  Here Thomas speaks for us all: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).  In response, Jesus makes three I Am (Ego eimi) statements.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (vs. 6).  Ego eimi reflects Exodus 3:13 where the divine name is revealed to Moses:

“If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”  He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations (3:13-15).

And so, it is God who is the way, the truth and the life. 

In the Acts of the Apostles, Christians are called People of the Way (for example, Acts 9:2).  This reflects the call for Christians to live a life that is centered on the Gospel of Jesus.  This life or way is a journey, mirroring the journey of the Hebrews from Egypt to the Promised Land; as well as Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Thomas Aquinas saw Christ as the Way according to his humanity; and the Truth and the Life according to his divinity.  In other words, the way leads to truth and to life.  

In John’s Gospel (in contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke), sin is not simply something to be repented of.  Rather, sin is a result of ignorance and deception, which is overcome by Truth.  For John, truth is embodied in Jesus as he shows us God who is ultimate truth.  Jesus is the physical representation of what God has to say to us; the demonstration of God’s love for us.  And it is God who sweeps ignorance and deception away as truth is revealed.  It is God who gives true life, which is eternal and abundant, because it is genuine life.  This life is a participation in the very being of God.

So, when Philip asks, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (vs. 8), you can almost imagine Jesus facepalming in exasperation.  Clearly, the disciples don’t get it at all.  But they will.
John 14:1-14 (Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10)