John 14:1-31: Here we begin an extended teaching discourse from Jesus ending with a chapter length prayer (John 17). There is nothing like it in any of the other gospels. It is unlikely that Jesus spoke all these things in just this way and in just this setting, but the writer of John uses themes from the teachings and stories of Jesus to weave together this “farewell discourse.” It is meant to reflect the situation of Jesus’ disciples, perplexed by his imminent death and thought that he would be betrayed. It is also meant to reflect the Johanine Jesus community, a mix of Jews and Gentiles trying to make their way in the world, some of the Jews recently separated out from the synagogue and some of the Gentiles ostracized because they no longer paid homage to the Roman gods. They must have been asking what it meant to follow a Jesus who had been gone a long time now. Especially as you consider this second context, hear these words of Jesus again – “do not let your hearts be troubled.” When we are perplexed about how to follow Jesus in our complex world, we, too need to hear the words, “do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Jesus further encourages the disciples to hold on to the faith they have in him, for it is their faith in God. The God who Jesus has revealed is a God whose household is large, and the disciples have a place there. Remember that this is still a minority religious community, and these words are words of deep assurance – you do indeed have a place in the household of God – Jew and Gentile, you have a place in the household of God, even if their place in some of the religious structures of the time had been taken away. Somehow Jesus departure will secure that place, that relationship to God in God’s household in a new way. Jesus promises not to abandon them in some important sense. Jesus has made a new way to relationship with God, has secured a new way to life in God’s household, but Jesus speaks about it metaphorically, and Thomas misses the metaphor – he is thinking geography. Thomas wonder what road they should take to follow Jesus and Jesus responds with yet another metaphor that explains who he is – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This verse causes a lot of consternation in our day and time, a time marked by religious pluralism. Some claim that this verse seals it – Jesus in the only way to God. All other ways lead to trouble, death, maybe even hell. Again, remember the context. The significant question on the minds of the hearers of John’s gospel is whether or not this new religious faith community, separated from the more numerous and traditional faith communities of the time (Roman and Jewish), provided a way to God, had a place in God. The answer of Jesus in this gospel is a resounding “yes.” To follow Jesus is to be on the way, to know the truth, to be in touch with life. These are words of hope for a beleaguered community. Many have taken them and made them exclusive words for a majority religious community, and there seems something inappropriate about that. I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this verse where the text says that no one comes to the Father “apart from” Jesus. This would open up the possibility that Jesus is a part of all genuine connections with God, whether or not those connections name the name of Jesus. The text does not claim that adherents of all other religions are doomed if they do not make a personal confession of faith in Jesus before they die. The text affirms that all who come to God come to the God who has revealed himself in Christ. (People’s New Testament Commentary).
John 14:6 expresses the central theological conviction of the Gospel of John: Jesus is the tangible presence of God in the world…. Yet John 14:6 is often interpreted in ways that misuse its central theological claim. What John intends as particularism, many contemporary Christians wrongly interpret as exclusiveness. John 14:6 celebrates how Jesus reveals God for those in this particular faith community and is not a statement about the relative worth of the world’s religions. John is concerned with helping Christians recognize and name their God and the distinctiveness of their identity as a people of faith. (New Interpreters Study Bible).
The most important point in these early verses is not a point against other “faiths” but a point for the notion that having encountered Jesus, the disciples have, in the most important sense, encountered God as “Father” (intended metaphorically, and if metaphorically open to new adaptations that speak more truthfully to us). The point is elaborated in the continuing verses. Jesus' teaching and his work have come out of his relationship to God. Then Jesus forwards an audacious claim. “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works that these, because I am going to the Father.” What stirring words – what words of hope and energy. Jesus “disappearance” is intended to make room for all of Jesus’ followers to assume his role.
From one audacious claim to another – Jesus seems to promise that anything the disciples ask for “in his name” will be done. This is difficult to grasp and I am not sure I have grasped it all. In some ways this could be treated as a tautology – asking for something in Jesus name means that your life, your being, is reflecting the very character of Jesus. You request would be in tune with the spirit of Jesus. What these words may say is that when you desires things and ask for them out of this spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus will respond. This is an invitation to pray, but even more an invitation to live life differently.
Living life differently is what the next verses are about. Verse 15 could be read as a command – love Jesus and do what Jesus commands. It could also be read as a statement of fact – those who love Jesus keep Jesus’ commands. The Greek word here connotes “moral precepts.” John Sanford says that this verse could be understood to say that those who love Christ will live consciously, following the Light, and therefore in a moral way (Mystical Christianity, 269). As we live in such a way, we receive a Spirit that helps us continue on the way. This Spirit has been all around them, and will be in them. This Spirit is in some sense Jesus himself – who promises not to leave them orphaned. Recall one context for John’s gospel is his own Jesus community, none of whom probably knew Jesus personally and so must have wondered about his presence in their life together in community and in their lives. Wonderfully warm images of the on-going presence of God are offered to assure the Johanine Jesus community that Christ remains present with them. Christ and the Father will come to those who love and follow, and will make their home with them. There is a place for Jesus’ disciples in the household of God and God and Jesus make their home in and with the disciple.
All these words about the continuing presence of God-Christ-Spirit with the disciples of Jesus are meant to engender peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” The peace of Jesus is a more enduring peace that the peace of Rome. God’s home is not the imperial palace, but in the community of faith. Don’t let fear overtake you, don’t become your fear, don’t let your troubled hearts get the best of you – but be at peace.
It may be that John’s original farewell discourse ended with verse 31 – “rise, let us be on our way.” But sometime chapters 15-17 were also added as a part of this section.