Fifth Sunday of Easter
Gospel: John 14:1-14
If today’s Gospel reading sounded familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve heard it read at funeral or two. It is popular because in times of distress it is comforting to hear Jesus say, “Let not your hearts be troubled. In my father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you?” We cling to this promise of resurrection, our final homecoming, for our loved ones and for ourselves.
But Jesus wasn’t delivering a funeral sermon when he said this. He wasn’t speaking to people who had their hopes pinned on his resurrection, because at that point, there hadn’t been a resurrection yet. Jesus telling his followers that he’s going ahead to prepare a place for them is a snippet of a long passage in John’s Gospel known in churchy circles as “The Farewell Discourse.” It begins with Jesus washing his disciples feet at what became the Last Supper. Judas has gone over to the Dark Side, and Jesus has predicted Peter’s upcoming betrayal. Right after this text, John describes Jesus arrest, torture, and execution.
So it seems a bit weird that we are reading this text NOW, just a month after the dramatic events of Holy Week. Here Jesus is bracing his followers for the events that they are about to endure, while we sit here having been reminded recently that all their struggles will be redeemed in a great big Alleluia! We know that Jesus will come back to comfort these same disciples with words similar to the ones he utters now: “Let not your hearts be troubled” is not unlike Jesus in a locked room saying, “Peace be with you.”
But Easter is a process not a single day. Maybe your heart is still troubled. Maybe, like Thomas, you’d like some more specifics about how to find God when things get tough: “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus gently assures Thomas and the others, “I am the Way,” and the word he uses suggests a pathway that has been well-trampled.
These friends have been with Jesus for three years now, through days and nights of listening and laughing and eating and asking questions. They’ve seen Jesus feed thousands of people, turn water into wine, heal people who are sick or sad. They’ve even seen him raise their friend Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus tells them that he is the Way, he’s reminding them of all they’ve heard and seen and known of Truth—which is another name God goes by. When the trouble starts, the blood begins to flow, and cruel words and deeds are all anyone can see, Jesus wants them to race back to the well-worn path on which he’s always taken them. To ask themselves, “What have we come to believe God is like? What did we come to love and trust?” Believing in Jesus is really more accurately trusting in Jesus, because it’s not about intellectually agreeing to a doctrine or dogma or a proscribed series of facts, it’s about a relationship. Leaning into the relationship they share with Jesus will keep the disciples from getting lost in the darkness. Follow the Way of Love, and you will know the way to God’s heart. You will have found Life.
But what about those who don’t trust in Jesus? What do we do with Jesus saying, “No one comes to the Father except through me”? Did Jesus, who last week referred to himself as the Gate through which the sheep enter the fold suddenly become a Wall? It troubles our hearts to think what this means for our non-Christians friends and neighbors, doesn’t it? What does it mean for people of other religions or of no religion? What does it mean for your kids who don’t go to church anymore? Does this mean that God is not with them or for them?
Bear in mind the context in which Jesus makes this statement has nothing to do with any of that. Jesus is not speaking to a giant interfaith crowd about eternal salvation. He’s talking to his best friends in an intimate dinner conversation, trying to calm their fears about an uncertain future. He’s assuring them that they KNOW God and have SEEN God because they know and have seen him. They don’t need to master seven habits, or nine steps, or 10 commandments to get to God. The answer lies in an intimate, if confusing and challenging, relationship.
Jesus doesn’t stop with this assertion. He goes on, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” The Greek tense is not conditional but rather announces an already existing state of affairs. “If you know me—and you do know me—you will know the Father.” Jesus’ words are less about keeping people out than they are about assuring Thomas and the rest that they are really, really in! It’s not a threat; it’s sheer promise.
The disciples at that moment could not have imagined what they were about to experience, could not have foreseen an empty tomb, or the Holy Spirit empowering them to build a church that still flourishes to this day. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, showed us the nature of God in all Jesus said and did. Life triumphed over sin, death, and the power of the devil at Easter. On this side of those powerful events, our questions are inevitably different from the ones Philip and Thomas asked. Still, we have no reason to doubt Jesus will treat our questions with challenge and kindness, just as he did theirs. So ask!
One of the questions I have is, “How do we live as Easter people?” Now that we know we are in the one of the many rooms of God’s house, what do we do? We are in a situation no one in John’s Gospel would have imagined, so this question is for our context, not theirs. I think it’s important for us figure out how to be Christian people in a religiously plural world. How do we walk in the Way, the Truth, and the Life without condemning people who understand the divine differently?
I’ve found it helps me to look back to chapter 10 of John’s Gospel where Jesus the Good Shepherd states, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” I don’t know what the correlation is between this passage and today’s where Jesus says that his Father’s house has many rooms. Or even if there is a connection. But it is a passage I like to hold in tension with “No one comes to the Father but by me.”
I also embrace the fact that following the Jesus Way is more about how we live than what we say. Pastor and author Carl Gregg explains it this way:
“The claim that Christianity holds sufficient truth for salvation does not mean that it has to hold that truth exclusively. This revelation became particularly real for me when I realized, for example, that Mahatma Ghandhi (a Hindu) and Thich Nhat Hanh (a Buddhist) come closer to the Jesus truth, the Jesus way, and the Jesus life than most of the Christians I know, including myself.”
So let not your hearts be troubled. Knowing and trusting Jesus as we do, looking at how he dealt with people in his life, I think we can let him work out his various sheep and their various sheepfolds for himself. Let not your hearts be troubled. Instead of fretting about who’s in and who’s out, let’s just act as if everyone is in this fold together. Let’s focus on treating each other as beloved siblings of our patient, forgiving, and saving God who promises to hold us close to God’s heart always. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider