• Michael Van Dusen

Dense Meanings: May 10, 2020

The Gospel for the Fifth Easter Sunday (John 14:1-14) is a “look-back” at what Jesus had told his closest followers at the Last Supper. By using this gospel during the time after the resurrection, the church reminds us of what Christ had assured them at that time: I am going … to prepare a place for you. And … I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. This is more than a prediction of something that would happen. It was a promise.


In response to Jesus’ promise Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”


Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

This verse is dense in meanings. Frequently, in John’s gospel, when Jesus said I am, he was declaring both his identity with God, his character and his role. His use of I am recalls Exodus when Moses asked God whom he should tell the Israelites had sent him and God said that his name was I am (Exodus 3:14). When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well and she said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:25-26). When he said I am the bread of life (6:35) he was referring to his centrality to all of life and also his personal role in sustenance. When he said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me … will have the light of life” (John 8:12) Jesus implied his role in providing vision, warmth and understanding.

In Exodus, the way referred not only to the geography that the Israelites would traverse… The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, (Exodus 13:12)… but also the manner in which they lived.. they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. (Exodus 32:6) Jesus’ choice of the word resonated with Jewish understanding. The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, enabled by the Father, was on his disciples’ minds as they celebrated Passover that evening.

Personifying himself as the way evoked not only this history but a new manner of thinking about Jesus. He was to be their example, surly, but also the pilgrim spirit inhabiting them. His exact words were, except through me. They were to experience and interact with the world as he did.

Finally, the “destination” of the way was to be the same close relationship with the Father.

**

The truth! Interpreting the world by his words and deeds defined reality. Jesus was to be the lens through which they saw everything. He personified truth.

The life was to be an experience of the essence of being and referred to eternal life.

**

Then Philip, clearly engaged by the conversation Jesus was having with Thomas, and wanting to encounter the Father asked, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?

**

Thomas and Philip’s requests… how can we know the way? and show us the Father… are not out of line. While Jesus had spoken about his death and had recently raised Lazarus, the way through death to the Father was hard to imagine. The place he was going to take them was nowhere they had been. They had not met Jesus’ Father, though they had heard him speak of him often. Jesus had stretched their understanding to the point that it tore open and the questions poured out.

**

We should go easy on Philip for his request that Jesus show us the Father. Jesus had earlier said: I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.” (John 7:28-29)

**

Jesus continued his Last Supper talk, anyone who 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 that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;

Jesus emphasized his identity with the father by repeating the use of in to refer to the “mutual indwelling” of him in the father and the father in him. (“Mutual indwelling” refers to their unity as well as their distinct natures.) Additionally, he repeated the same idea when he said, Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, except this time he added the imperative, Believe me.

Once again, Jesus’ dense web of language deserves attention. Believe me is not only a command but Jesus’ plea that the disciples recognize him as truth.

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· How is Jesus your way, truth and life? How do you aspire to “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly day by day”? (In the words of the 13th-century English bishop, Saint Richard of Chichester…or Godspell…. Which take up the theme.)

· Language and associated images are sometimes a barrier. In the opening lines of this gospel Jesus said, In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. For some, the words house and dwelling place evoke an image of an empty room. Unfortunately, the word Father similarly has negative connotations for others. How would convey the desirability of Jesus’ image? Use the word Mother? Parent? A warm meal at the end of a long cold walk? A smiling face and warm embrace when you felt lonely? Camelot?... where the climate must be perfect all the year, July and August cannot be too hot, an d there's a legal limit to the snow here, in Camelot. The winter is forbidden till December, and exits March the second on the dot”…. With apologies to Fredrick Lowe?

· The word “in” is so small. What do you think is the sense of being in the Father and the Father in me? Think of what it means to be “in love”. (To be of the same mind? To think of the person constantly? To enjoy watching that one person?) What does it mean to “believe in” Jesus or someone else? (To trust when there is no independent experience? To accept the word?) How does joy define the sense of being “in”?


Peace

Michael

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