GOSPEL: John 14:1-14
On the night that he is to be arrested, Jesus shares final words with his disciples. As the one through whom God is known, he promises to go before them and act on their behalf.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In 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? 3And 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. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus 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’? 10Do 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. 11Believe 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. 12Very 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. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
These words from Jesus have brought comfort to countless families at funeral liturgies, as they grieve and bury their loved ones. Jesus’ words are part of his farewell discourse in John, his words to his disciples after the last supper. But these comforting words get also pulled out of context and turned into law which judges and condemns those who do not follow Jesus in exactly the way we follow. But he’s not preaching a funeral sermon. He’s not answering the question of religious pluralism. He’s not debating questions of who can be saved and how. He is responding to a very unsettling experience within the group of closest followers.
When Jesus says “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it’s because he literally just told Simon Peter that “before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” Troubling news. This is all in the context of the Last Supper. The disciples have all sat around the table, and witnessed Jesus claim that one of them would betray him. Troubling news. They’ve just heard him say that they can’t follow him anymore. Troubling…
It is into this uncertainty Jesus speaks these words of hope and promise and assurance. This is a disturbing and conflicted group dynamic – it is not an individual feeling. The whole group is troubled by what they have just seen and heard, and now by what they are feeling.
It was also troubling times for John’s community. He writes his Gospel, compiled by many stories and witnesses, nearly two generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This community has now witnessed the destruction of the temple in the year 70 CE by the Roman oppressors, and the Jewish world is in a state of upheaval and change. Those who followed Jesus had been separated from their Jewish sisters and brothers, no longer welcome in the synagogue as they once were. Stephen’s prophetic voice as a martyr comes to us from this community in the book of Acts, when conflict in the synagogue turns to violence. John writes to a community whose identity was in flux, as they tried to make their way in this troubling world.
Which is why this passage speaks to us at funerals. When a group of family and friends gather to come to grips with something truly troubling. When a rift in relationship is caused by death. When confusion and grief and betrayal are felt because of loss, Jesus offers us words of hope. Jesus offers us an invitation, and a place to abide, and a way forward.
But which way? Which way is forward? Which way leads us through conflict and through trials – for the sake of the whole body? Through grief for the sake of new life. It is the way of Jesus. The way is not a doctrine. Or a belief system. It’s not a denomination or a religion. The way is the person of Jesus Christ – The way is the incarnate God. The way is a relationship. The way is an invitation to begin or deepen a relationship, not a litmus test to determine who will make it through the pearly gates. These are words of hope and promise – not words of judgement and condemnation. The way forward, the way through this uncertainty and grief, is through vulnerability and trust.
These words are direct to Jesus’ closest friends and followers, in their deep confusion and grief, promising them a way forward. Because they trust their Savior. They may doubt, they may make the wrong choice – they may question or ignore. But they know Jesus. And Jesus knows them. They have made that relationship primary in their lives – and Jesus reminds them that he is in relationship with them too. It’s a two-way street, and Jesus promises not just his care – but empowers them to act in his name.
Which way is Jesus? Jesus is the way that looks at those in the margins of the community. Jesus is the way that cautions people from looking at wealth as the bottom line. Jesus is the way that shows preference to people and their illness rather than religious tradition and laws. A way that seeks the heart of commandments and interprets them in a way that fills deep needs.
But that way is hard and asks a lot of us. The anxious disciples respond to their predicament by demanding certainty. And we want certainty too. We crave it. We need black and white to make sense of things. We too want to know the way. But Jesus just offers himself. Just relationship. Just the messy, intimate, ever evolving, and often confusing business of relationship. The way is a person, not a program or a plan or an agenda. The way is an identity. Centered in the cross – in death and new life.
The disciples are troubled by Jesus words – and tensions are high. From this point on, Jesus will no longer bend down to wash the disciples’ feet. But they will remember that night when he took the basin and towel and showed them how to love one another. From this point on, Jesus will no longer break the bread and bless the cup before their eyes, but when the disciples gather out of love for him and one another, and share in the breaking of the bread, their living Lord will be present in the midst of his beloved community. They will be his risen body in the world. And his works of love, which poured forth from that upper room in Jerusalem, will permeate outward, to every corner of the earth. His work will be our work, done in his name — the works of Christ’s own body — shared with all nations and peoples in every time and place. And indeed, the works his disciples do will be greater, for they will no longer be bound to a single place and time.
The Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged for his role in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler, wrote about Christ’s body, the church, not as some spiritual entity, but as he said, “The body of Christ takes up space on the earth.” “A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities…that is all. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him.” The body of Christ takes up space on the earth.
This is what makes our faith different from any other religion — it is not so much a religion at all, a set of beliefs to be accepted. It is not a religion made up of a group of individuals who choose to accept the teachings of some figurehead. Christianity turns all religions on their heads, for we choose no such person or path. Rather, Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, chooses us — he appoints you and me and all baptized into his death to be his body in the world, as a whole. We are his hands, his feet. Our community of faith is the embodiment of his love, the embodiment of that relationship, the way through this troubling world. Amen.