- T. S. Eliot
“Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.” Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.” Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.
- John 14.1-14 (Common English Bible)
I adore the words of T. S. Eliot cited above in which life – and all its pursuits – is portrayed in broad strokes as a journey of discovery whose end offers a new vision, a fresh perspective, a more profound understanding of the life we thought we knew so well. When and if we finally make our way home, we find it both strange and familiar; as if we are seeing it – truly seeing it - for the first time.
I wish we students of the Christian bible would take this wisdom to heart, and approach our studies as a journey of discovery in which we dare delve beneath the surface of the texts to the wonder, mystery, profundity, and challenge that reside within. I wish we would just own up to the fact that we never exhaust their meaning; and that there is always more to discover. More often than not this fresh perspective challenges our smugly held beliefs about the meaning of a passage of scripture, and how it informs our faith.
I’ve been thinking in this vein all week, because the gospel reading for Sunday is John 14.1-14; and I don’t want to preach from John 14. I don’t want to preach from this passage because of the many ways its meaning has been coopted, misused, even abused for the sake of supporting a cherished belief, or from the unwillingness to look beyond a traditional reading of the text.
And, let me tell you, several aspects of this passage have been misrepresented and misused. The first section about the troubled heart has been used so often at funerals that we think of it in a morbid sense as a reference to a smattering of comfort during a period of mourning. Released from this mindset, the passage offers a vivid, expansive hope of life lived in fullness both now and into the future. No modicum of comfort is offered in this passage; but rather a bold affirmation of fullness, meaning, and joy! Too often this is overlooked, and this passage becomes to funerals what Paul Stookey’s Wedding Song (a.k.a. There Is Love) is to weddings; bland, boring, and played on the wrong instrument altogether.
Would that this was the worst abuse this passage has seen. This oversight pales in comparison to the rigid, absolutist claims that have been made about Jesus’ self-proclamation as way, truth, and life. The profundity and subtlety of John’s message here is oversimplified, suppressed, or missed altogether so that the passage can be used to support a flat-out condemnation of a big chunk of the world God loves so much (at least according to Jesus). Isn’t it possible that life in its fullness is about something more than a statement of belief about Jesus? Is it inconceivable that God’s grace and compassion have just a bit more wiggle room than this reading allows?
Jesus as the way is an affirmation to be lived out in our life. Jesus as the way is a Jesus to be followed, not simply affirmed as an article of belief. This is underscored by the reference later in the passage to the disciples of Jesus doing the same works – even greater – as Jesus. And folks, this work is not that of a creedal statement. This work, exemplified throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, is an overflowing of compassion and grace; a refusal to allow any individual to go unrecognized and unvalued (like the Samaritan woman); the courage to stand for and with the marginalized and oppressed; and the will to let the love of God flow through us into the world.
Wow! I think I see something new here; or at least a profundity I have missed before. Perhaps there is more depth to be plumbed; perhaps this passage can inform our life of faith in new and powerful ways. I invite you to explore this possibility with me in worship on Sunday.