The promise of life in God’s house after we die is only part of Jesus’ message and call to us: in this life we are to live the way, reveal the truth, and share the life that we have in Christ Jesus so that others may also know that they are known and loved by God.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, year A; texts: John 14:1-10 (add 13:33-38); 1 Peter 2:1-10
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
One of the certain signs that our nature is broken and bent is that human beings – alright, let’s just say it, we – tend to want to respond to security, love, grace, all sorts of good we receive, by restricting it, clinging to it, believing it’s our possession alone. Almost as if we think if we don’t, there won’t be enough to go around. So siblings play the game of “who was Mother’s favorite” with each other well past adulthood, sometimes in fun, but often with an undercurrent of genuine anxiety or insecurity. People who belong to groups which give them a sense of companionship and family become concerned about letting others into their group, about rules for joining, as if the companionship is lessened if others try to share in it. Christians certainly do this on a regular basis.
We don’t just restrict, though. We often warp the whole message of the Son of God so that all we hear is the promise that we are saved and given eternal life after we die, and we hear none of the rest of what our Lord taught. So we sometimes act and live as if the whole point of the salvation the Triune God brought into the world through the Son was to save us. End of story.
This isn’t new. The people of Israel are the chosen people of the Lord God, creator of all. At various times in their life as such, they have sometimes believed that being chosen was for themselves, to be set apart from the rest of the world. Most religions, in fact, bend toward this sinfulness and self-centeredness. As long as we know we’re loved by God, that’s all that matters.
In some ways these words of Jesus today have served as rationale for such thinking by Christians. These words are often read at funerals, and of course the implication is that the one who has died has died in the confidence that he or she has a room prepared in the Father’s house for them. That’s a good promise to hold, a true comfort, and it is truth. Where we’ve taken it too far, however, is to read these verses as simply that, a promise that I can hold that I will have a place prepared for me. That the whole point of Jesus’ words here is to give each of us comfort in life after death.
But in context, and that’s why I began reading the Gospel in chapter 13 and not where the lectionary asked, in context there’s a completely different feel to these words. If we hear everything Jesus says at this moment, it’s clear that the promise of eternal life is only part of what he wants them to hear. The greater message is what he needs of them now, in this life, while he’s gone from them.
You see, all of these words, and the many to follow in John, come on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, his leaving just ahead. That’s important.
Jesus is about to head to his death, and for three chapters John gives Jesus’ words on this night. But they’re not typical “last words” kind of speech. We’d expect the comfort of John 14:2-3, the words about the Father’s house and that Jesus is coming back for the disciples. If he’s going to die, and even after rising only stay for a little over a month, giving them the promise that he’s making a place in the Father’s house for them is important. He’s telling them to trust that all will be well, even if it looks like things are going terribly wrong. That’s a good promise.
But in context, there’s so much more.
He has washed their feet, acted the role of a servant, and told them to take on this role. So even though he is leaving, he is going to die, he needs them to start acting as servants. Life will go on after his death and resurrection, and this he needs them to do.
He deepens the command just after Judas leaves them, with the words we heard today, that they have a new commandment to love each other as he has loved them (and will love them in dying on the cross), that this will be the only sign of their being disciples. So even though he is leaving, he is going to die, he needs them to start loving sacrificially, even to the point of dying if needed. Life will go on after his death and resurrection, and this he needs them to do.
And just after these words of comfort about his Father’s house, he tells these frightened and confused disciples that they will do great works in his name, greater even than his works. So even though he is leaving, he is going to die, he needs them to expect that there will be ministry to be done, even great things to be done in his name. Life will go on after his death and resurrection, and this he needs them to do.
Taking these words of promise in eternal life as our possession and the end of the story misses the tremendous call to follow and serve that Jesus is speaking in these words.
Think about it: we know the whole story. We know that he’s hours away from a brutal death. We know that Peter’s hours away from a humiliating betrayal. And his first thought, after telling Peter that he will deny him, is to calm Peter’s heart, calm all their hearts: “Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.”
But this is not just a comfort to hold on to when they see him die the next day. Because he almost immediately says that belief in him will empower them to continue his ministry, regardless of what happens tomorrow, and do even more amazing things.
That is, serve others even more deeply than he does. Love each other and the world even more sacrificially than he does. And bring God’s love enfleshed into the world by their lives even more than he has. This isn’t last words that are intended to make them, or us, feel only comfort. These are last words that are giving us a job to do, and the power to do it.
And the only way we can hear it is to stop thinking that “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the rooms in the Father’s house, are a private message for us to cherish and hold and keep locked in our hearts until we need them.
When Israel turned in on itself as chosen people, God told the prophet Isaiah to change their direction. Now Jesus is doing the same to us.
In an astonishing sentence, the prophet, in speaking of Israel as God’s servant, tells them they have a new job. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel,” the LORD speaks through Isaiah. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Isn’t that breathtaking? Saving Israel isn’t enough for God; they are chosen to bring light to the whole world.
And that’s absolutely what Jesus is about.
At Pentecost Luke says there were about 120 believers gathered, so in the course of Jesus’ three years he developed a core group of 12 and about ten times that in other followers. That’s not insignificant. But if his promise in John 14 was only for those 120, it’s a pretty paltry promise.
Of course, for Jesus it was never just that. His coming was for the whole world, John says in chapter 3, and Jesus himself says in chapter 12 that when he is lifted up on the cross he will draw all people to himself. All people. That’s a few more than 120.
And now we see part of what he means by our doing greater things than he did: in our embodying the love of God in the world as his followers, serving as he serves, loving as he loves, sacrificing as he sacrificed, we will reach all people.
Given that there are well over a billion people alive today who find life in the risen Christ, the Son of God, I’d say that was a greater reach than 120. And if all of those well over a billion stopped thinking it was all for them, and heard this call to a greater vision, that all people would know God’s love in Christ Jesus, can we imagine what that would do in the world?
What this might mean is that we hear these words of Jesus as a job description instead of a doctrine of entrance.
Our call is to live into the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, instead of claiming that exclusively as if we controlled who is loved by God in Christ.
So if we follow the One who is the Way, that means we begin walking the Way with him. The early Christians called the Church “the Way.” We might want to return to that. To live our lives of faith as if they are primarily a way of life, a way of journeying, shaped and guided by the teaching of our Lord and Savior, and a way to life in this world that is abundant and whole and radiating with grace and love.
So we aren’t seeing Jesus as “the Way” and thinking “ticket to heaven,” we’re seeing Jesus as “the Way” as our pilgrim guide in our journey of faith. And in our walking, we begin to accompany the rest of the world on their journey, and perhaps, because we have learned something of what this Way of life means, we can be of help to them, be guides ourselves.
And if we follow the One who is the Truth, that means we begin to live as Truth with each other and the world. This is a big change from seeing Truth as a thing to be owned, a thing to fight over, a thing to beat other people up with who don’t believe what we believe.
If our Lord Christ is the Truth, then he is the voice who speaks the truth about us to our inmost hearts, to those locked places we’ve been talking about, and calls us out to see not only the truth about our lives but the truth about God’s love that can change our lives.
When we begin to hear that truth about ourselves, then as we walk the Way with each other and the world, we can become truth-tellers to each other, helping each other deal with the ugly and the beautiful truths about us, and always living the great Truth of God’s undying love for the whole world that will end even the power of death over this world. If in our walking that Truth radiated from us, think of the difference God could make in the world through us.
And last, if we follow the One who is the Life, that means we begin to live abundant life and be bearers of that divine Life in the world. Think of the world if we were people who not only knew that the Way of Christ was the way out of death which only truth can reveal, but was a way to abundant, full life in the face of whatever happens, think of what the world would be.
If our response to death and evil and pain and suffering was to be Life in that place for others, and not to add more of the death and evil. If our way of being brought life into the pain of this world, then in our walking the Way we could be part of God’s abundant life spreading to all people.
I know there’s a possibility that this all sounds too good to be true, and that a realist ought to have lower expectations.
I only know that Jesus told us this the night before his death, when he was fully aware of what he was going to, and fully prepared to do it. I can’t imagine anyone more in touch with reality than our Lord at that moment. And still, knowing what pain and confusion lay ahead for his beloved followers, he felt he needed to give them hope in what he would be able to accomplish through them. And call them to that ministry.
Anything they ask, he said, he will accomplish. Anything. That’s the promise that comes with the call. That we live the Way, live the Truth, live the Life we know in Christ Jesus, and that such living will do amazing things. That we, as Peter says today, realize we are called and set apart not for ourselves but to declare the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. So that all can see that light. And through us, with the working of the Holy Spirit, even greater things than these will be done.
It might sound too good to be true. But that’s only because it’s the most true thing we have ever heard.
In the name of Jesus. Amen