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Knowing the Way and not the Destination

May 26, 2014

              John 14:1-14

Today’s text is one we have heard many times at funerals. Its also a text which does not spare us the big theological questions. Today I want to invite you to explore it more deeply with me.

Jesus is saying goodbye. Have you ever been with someone who is dying and they are saying goodbye. Jesus is dying. He is not on his deathbed. He’s with them in a room, washing feet, sharing food. He sees what is coming (his death) as a moment of glory. “Now is the Son of Man glorified”. And the disciples will be unable to take up their cross. They will be unable to follow him. Jesus says to Peter, ‘afterward you will follow’ but for now they are unable.

Where are you going? says Peter. And in that question he articulates a deep truth. We might call it ‘heaven’, we might call it the ‘kingdom of God’ but it lies beyond the capacity of our imagination. Lesslie Newbigin comments

“We have no map of what lies beyond the curtain, though theologians – and others – often use language which suggests that we have. We do not know the limits of the possibilities for our personal lives or for the life of the world”.

I like that way of putting it. There are possibilities for human beings that we have no idea of. We do not know the destination.

Chapter 13 ends with a stunned silence. Jesus has just told Peter that he won’t be able to follow, that he will deny him three times. It’s a great conversation stopper.

So today’s reading (Chapter 14) begins, Let not your hearts be troubled... there is plenty troubling them. You believe in God, believe in me also… or a better translation You entrust your life to God, entrust it to me also. That’s a wonderful summary of the faith, entrusting our life to the God who makes room for us in Jesus.

They don’t know the destination, they can’t follow just immediately… and yet they know the way. That’s the point of todays lesson. The destination may be a mystery… but the way is with them. The way will, in Jesus words, ‘come back and take you to myself’ and thus into the house of the Father.

This is where I think we need to clear our heads of clutter. This is not the rapture Jesus is talking about. I don’t think this is even the return of Christ at the end – the final judgement or parousia. Jesus, according to John’s gospel, is concerned with his resurrection, and the way that builds the Fathers house, not just after death but before death in this life. Jesus (the Risen One) is coming back from his death (his preparation work – at the conclusion of which he declared ‘it is finished’) … to be with them as the ‘way’ to the Father’s house. Not to provide a ticket… but to be with them ‘as the way’.

The other time the phrase ‘my Fathers house’ is used in John, he is talking about the temple, the holy place, place of intersection between God and the World. He has just staged a demonstration protesting about the money changers in the temple with the words “stop making my Fathers house a marketplace.” The Jewish leaders challenge his authority to act like this and ask for a sign and Jesus, without blinking changes the topic from the temple in Jerusalem to his own body and says ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” In others words the temple that really matters for Jesus (the intersection of heaven and earth, the Father’s house) is his own bodily life, and the life that will flow from it with his resurrection. Destroy this ‘Father’s house’ and I will raise it up in three days.

In other words the risen Christ (gone away and come back) has done the preparation. He has prepared a place, many places, many rooms in the house of the Father, and he has done so by giving his life up in a brutal death and receiving that life back as a gift from God. He has done so by making peace with a war-like humanity. And in coming back to them in forgiveness he makes space, room for them also in the life of God, in the house of the Father.

In my Father’s house there are many rooms... its a very evocative phrase. Are they rooms like the upper room where Jesus is meeting with them to say goodbye. Rooms where bread is broken again and again and wine drunk in celebration and remembrance. Are those the rooms Jesus means? Is he talking about rooms for many people… the house of Israel opened up to include people of all nations and tribes and cultures and diversities that they or we might barely imagine. Whatever he means, there is space for many, perhaps even for all. After all John begins his gospel by telling us that Jesus is the light that enlightens all people.

Whatever happens after death, Jesus will be with us now on the way, but not just alongside us, he will be with us ‘as the way’… so that where I am, there you may be also”. To be with him, is to be on the way…. and to already have a room in the Father’s house.

Jesus says “You know the way to the place where I am going” Jesus agrees with Peter, they don’t know the destination… but they know the way. Thomas pushes back on this “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus reinforces his point. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also.” If we are going to live in the life of God, if eternal life means life in God, the giver of life… then now, on this side of death it means living in the Son, in the way opened up by his preparation, in the place that he has prepared… in the room, the many rooms that he has prepared for us to live in. And Jesus says it’s not just about words, its also about action. Jesus does the works of the Father. And those who come after and live in him will do “greater works still”. Its not that Jesus comes with a message. The main thing is that he comes with is the action of God, the works of God. He is like God in his action. And those who live in him and the rooms he has created, will in turn be Jesus-like in their action… and therefore like God also.

But here, for many people, it gets a bit uncomfortable. “No one comes to the Father but by me” Is Jesus saying that only Christian’s are saved? (an awfully loaded and confusing way of putting the question). Is he saying that only Christians have a positive relationship with God? Does Jesus mean that some are automatically excluded because he is the way to the Father?

Some people walk away at this point. They say ‘Yes Jesus we liked the lovely comforting bit about the Father’s house and the many rooms and the preparation. But you are just wrong about no one coming to the Father except by you. We make our own way to the Father’s house. So they abandon ‘The Way’, or what we call the Christian Gospel.

Others say, Yep, only Christians go heaven. There’s no point even getting to the end of the funeral service and committing your loved one to the love and mercy of God, if, because of some decision they have made, they are automatically excluded from the Father’s house.That committal would be a lie. For these people funerals do two things. They either farewell Christians to the Father’s house, or they ‘sell life insurance’.

Let me offer instead, two responses to this dillema which, I think, together represent a ‘third way’ – a third way of understanding this passage.

1. All of us need to be set free from the warlike humanity that is built on its victims and is demonstrated in the action of crucifying Jesus. All of us need the preparation work that Jesus has done. All of us need the way of reconciliation that he has prepared. All of us need to be saved from ourselves (our distorted selves) and from the world that has formed us and which is so alienated (so different) from the gracious Father and creator whom Jesus called ABBA. We ALL need this way to the Father.

2. There are many in that way, in those prepared rooms, who neither understand the work that Jesus has done nor think of their lives in those terms. Nevertheless their life shows signs of being formed in his way – their actions correspond to his life, his way. None of us are in the business of judging another person, or even another group. And yet as John says in the beginning of his Gospel… the light of Christ is enlightening all of humanity. The Way can be found in surprising places. The Way is not the property of the church. The church is the property of the Way.

The Way is not the property of the church. The church is the property of the Way.

 And in case all that makes you feel desperately inadequate, about whether you life reflects this way… we need to begin again at the beginning of the Chapter. Let not your hearts be troubled. You entrust your lives to God, entrust them also to Jesus. Death is not the end of the story, either for us of for anyone else. God has prepared and God makes God’s Way in the world and in us.

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