A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 14, 2017, John 14:1-14

John 14:1-14
14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

14:2 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?

14:3 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.

14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

14:7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

14:9 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’?

14:10 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.

14:11 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.

14:12 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.

14:13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14:14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

A Question or Two:

Some Longer Reflections:

First, some little things.

The verb and its tense:

The phrase in the first verse, “Believe in God,” has implications in American English that it does not have in Ancient Greek.  The verb, “believe in,” implies (in English) what it implied in the Wizard of Oz when the Cowardly Lion kept repeating, “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.”  The experience in the Enchanted Forest had terrified him and he now believed that spooks existed.

That is not what it means in John’s story.  For one thing, the verb phrase in Greek, πιστεύετε εἰς, is usually translated as a present imperative, “Keep on believing in God.”  This is a perfectly workable translation, maybe even preferable.  But the verb could also be a present indicative: “You (already) believe in God.”  Both versions begin by acknowledging the existing belief in God.  That matters.  If the verb is an imperative, Jesus is urging (or even commanding) the disciples to keep on doing what they are already doing.  Imperatives imply that there is a danger that they will cease doing that.  If the verb is an indicative, Jesus is acknowledging the disciples already established faith, in God, and also in Jesus himself.  Either way, faith already exists, and I think this is important to hear, especially for Christians who have been trained to expect that they are continually surrounded by unbelief.  

Not so much, it would seem.

The basic meaning of the verb:

But more important is the meaning of the verb itself.  πιστεύετε εἰς in Greek does not so much express a belief that something (or someone) exists.  The verb πιστεύετε is more about trusting than it is about acknowledging bare existence.  

And this is a Jewish text, written by Jews for Jews who believed that Jesus was Messiah.  But they were all Jews.

That means that πιστεύετε would remind the audience of patterns of faithfulness, of Torah observance, of halakah, the practical application of the Torah to everyday life.  Torah observance is not something Jews do to earn God’s favor; it is a gift given to the Jewish community when God graciously chose to claim them and love them.  This usually surprises Christians, especially some kinds of Protestants, but it is crucial for understanding both Jewish Scripture and the New Testament.  Maintaining patterns of faithfulness is one way Jews bear witness to the lovingkindness of God.

And that is what Jesus is talking about in this scene.

He says, “You live faithful lives shaped by the love of God, and you live faithful lives shaped by the belief that I am the Messiah, the Logos sent to bring the world back into line, and back into love.”

And now some bigger things:

This way of translating sets up the next verses.  Jesus, when he talks about the “many rooms” reserved for the disciples in the “Father’s house,” is not suggesting that Christians have been given membership in some sort of Elite Lodging Club with an especially good Rewards program.  He is saying that, because they are Jews, they have rooms in the heavenly mansion just like all the other Jews.  If that were not the case, says Jesus, wouldn’t he have told them that he was going to prepare a place for them?

This is not the way this verse is usually translated.  Usually Jesus tells the disciples that there is a place for them in the heavenly realm, or he would not have told them that he was going on ahead to prepare that place specially for them.  This seems so comforting.  But of course, Jesus hasn’t told the disciples that he is going to prepare such a place.

Why is Jesus’ statement translated as a question?  After all, there are no question marks in the original manuscripts.  I think that translators liked feeling special.  They liked it that Jesus was preparing a special place just for Christians, even if John’s storyteller never says anything like that.  Maybe it was just left out by some sort of “scribal error.”  Or not.

I think a more natural reading renders Jesus’ words as a statement: “Of course there is room for you, as well.  Of course there is.  And even if there were not, wouldn’t I have told you that I was going to prepare one?  You belong together with all of God’s people.”

This more natural reading is also a more welcoming reading.

The point would be: God has a big house, bigger than you might imagine.  Because there is room for people who are not you, there is room for you, too.

You can find plenty of places in John’s story that are narrow.  You can find plenty of instances where John’s story rejects people that do not measure up.  But those passages stand in conflict with other places in the story (like this scene in chapter 14) where the doors are thrown wide open.  I think that the welcome is the basic message of John’s story, and of Christian faithfulness in a wider sense.  I think that the point of proper faithfulness is that the doors are wide open on God’s house because God is actively involved in making all things new, not in making all things narrow.  And if that is NOT the main point of faithfulness, it ought to be.

So what are we to make of the next verse?

Jesus, in verse 3, DOES talk about going and preparing a place for the disciples.  What’s up with that?

It is worth noting that this statement about “going” and “preparing” is in the subjunctive mood, as part of a conditional sentence.  A bony translation of the beginning of this verse would say something like, “And if ever I actually DID have to go and prepare a place….”  Jesus is picking up the rhetorical device that he introduced in the previous verse.  His words extend his affirmation that there is indeed room for everyone.  “Wouldn’t I have told you that I would go…?” flows straight into “And if I had told you that, wouldn’t I also have…?”

The thing that intrigues me about the way Jesus extended his words of welcome is the metaphor he uses.  “I will come again and will take you to myself,” he says in English.  In ancient Jewish practice, he is describing the process that flows from betrothal to intimate married life.  The husband-to-be goes away from the childhood home of the wife-to-be.  He prepares a place, and then he returns to “take [her] to himself.”  I remember the moment my wife and I, as a part of our marriage service, formally claimed each other and promised ourselves to each other.  I remember it warmly and with amazement.  That moment was the beginning of learning what it meant to love each other and to claim each other.

I think that Christians ought to resist imagining themselves as Jesus’ one-and-only.  That’s the problem with the marriage metaphor: because it is polyvalent it points to a great many things.  Exclusivity is one thing it can point to, and that can be trouble.  It’s time we quit patting ourselves on the back because we, and only we, have snagged us a heavenly husband.  This way of doing theology has us secretly proud that we succeeded in getting God to “put a ring on it.”  It gets ishy from there on.

But other aspects of the marriage metaphor are truly promising: supportive, life-giving intimacy with the Universe and its Creator who promises love and faithfulness.  The theology that flows from that source is warm and welcoming.

It is also truly transformative.

Most every Christian denomination has imagined that it alone had the REAL truth.  Most of us have gotten over that, mostly, and it has been good for us.  It is time for Christians to grow yet more.  God does, indeed, love and choose Christians and welcome them into the father’s house.  God has a great big house, after all.  But God’s promises have always been for the entire Creation that God knows and loves.  The entire Creation.

The rabbis tell stories of how God created the Universe by speaking God’s own ineffable Name.  This Name, the rabbis tell us, is the Name attached to the Mercy Attribute, that character of God that forgives and welcomes.  Think about that: God created the world as an act of Mercy.  That means that any theological separation between Creation and Redemption is an artificial distortion.  That means that this scene in John’s story about God’s really big house, and equally capacious welcome, is a scene about Mercy for the entire Creation.  It’s time we took that seriously.


2 thoughts on “A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 14, 2017, John 14:1-14

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