In my work as a hospice chaplain, I am often asked to read a Scripture. Usually, the request is for Scriptures that are familiar, that are comforting, that answer the question what happens when we die. Again and again, I find myself returning to these words of Jesus. These words are familiar. These words bring comfort by reminding us of God’s love for us all the days of our lives and that God has prepared a place for us. Death doesn’t need to be feared. Jesus came to bring peace. Here is Jesus speaking in John 14.
Jesus the Way to the Father
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 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? 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 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”? 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. 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. 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
The Promise of the Holy Spirit
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 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. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.¹
Jesus says so much to his disciples (those listening then and us sitting here now) in this chapter. Jesus offers us words of comfort and instructions on how to live. Jesus promises us we will never be alone. Jesus leaves us with his peace which passes all understanding. And in the midst of these awe-inspiring words, some of the disciples speak.
Too often, we give the disciples a hard time for asking silly questions and making mistakes. I love the disciples because I see myself in them. They ask the questions I, too, have asked. Jesus has just promised a prepared place for the disciples and tells them they know the way. Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Thomas is asking for a map or directions so he knows where to physically find Jesus. What is hard for Thomas and us to understand is that Jesus is our map just not in the way that Thomas imagined. Jesus uses Thomas’ question to get even more profound. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Thomas is not wrong with his question. Jesus is our way and leads us in truth to life. Theologian, Gail O’Day, describes these verses in this way, “To recognize Jesus as the truth is to affirm that as the Word made flesh, Jesus makes the truth of God available to the world. It is to acknowledge that one’s relationship with Jesus is relationship with the liberating truth of God, that Jesus’ life and ministry are the ultimate witness to God’s truth. Jesus is the “way”, the promise of the possibility of unity with God, because in him one meets the truth of God…Jesus is life because Jesus brings God’s gift of life to the world. Jesus is “the way” because he is the access point to God’s promise of life”.² For all of us who identify as Christians, we know God because of Jesus. Jesus is, for us, the way to God, the truth we build our lives on, and the life we live now and in eternity.
The next disciple to speak, Peter, doesn’t ask questions, he makes a demand. “Show us the Father.” I wonder how Jesus felt by this point-knowing he didn’t have much time left with his disciples. Imagine yourself as a teacher. It is the last week of class and a student asks questions about something you covered months ago. And this concept was important. Everything you taught in the class hinged on the concept the student did not get. I imagine this is how Jesus feels. Come on, disciples; please listen because this is super important. I’ll go over it one more time. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The words I say are because the Father dwells in me. When I speak, you hear the Father. When I act, you see the Father. All this time we’ve spent together, I have been showing you the Father.
A third disciple asks a question, “Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’” Jesus answers-When you love someone and respond to that love with action, you see that person in those you meet and in memories you shared. A personal example of that-My best friend, Kristi, died more than four years ago from colon cancer. I don’t see her physically anymore. I do hear her voice giving me advice. I remember her when someone does something she would do or says something she would do. When I have pizza on Thursday nights or hear the Friends theme song, I remember her. The same is true for those of us who love Jesus. Because we love him, we look for him in others. Because we love him, we care for each other. Because we love him, we remember what he said. Others do not see him because they are not looking.
Jesus tells his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Love God. Love each other. That’s all. Why don’t the disciples ask a clarifying question here? Help us out disciples because this is a lot to do in a simple sentence. Loving each other is hard. I know I am hard to love. Now I do not know you all-I’m just basing this next statement off every other person I’ve ever known-you all may occasionally be hard to love too! Jesus didn’t leave us any wiggle room here. If we love Jesus (and like Peter will say later in this same Gospel-yes Lord, you know that we love you), then we must keep his commandments. Do we hear this as Jesus demanding we keep the commandments or as a reminder that living the commandments is how we live out our love for Jesus? We respond to Christ’s love for us by keeping the commandments. It isn’t easy. It is how we put our faith in action. So, we will continue to love each other and God.
This Scripture brings us comfort and leaves us with many questions. What does believing in God look like? What do we mean when we say we believe in God? In his book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned about Life, Harold Kushner³ argues that belief used to mean something different than it means today. Using the examples given by Kushner (115), here’s how today’s passage would begin. Cherish God and be loyal to me, or Care about me and love me. Our ancestors in the faith spent less time worrying about whether or not God exists and more time trusting in the goodness of God. That is the difference in the way some people hear these words. God doesn’t need us to believe in God’s existence. God wants us to be relationship with each other and with God. God wants us to rely on each other and God. So when we say we believe in God, we are saying we trust God, we rely on God, we listen for God, our whole life is lived as a response to God’s love for us. Saying I believe in God and meaning all these things may make it easier for us to live out the first line of this text. Our hearts are not troubled because we believe in God. Our hearts are not troubled because we love God. Our hearts are not troubled because we rely on God. And yet there is much in this world to trouble our hearts and upset the peace Christ brings. How do we answer that? We put our trust in God and we work together to lessen the troubles of each other. We love Jesus and we work together to keep his commandments. We listen and look for the Holy Spirit and we work together to live out our faith.
Advocate, Spirit of Truth, Holy Spirit are all descriptors used for the One who is with us even as Jesus returns to the Father. Other translations use descriptors like counselor, intercessor, comforter, and strengthener. Jesus promises us One who will be with us on the journey in the way we need. When we need a listening ear and good advice, the Holy Spirit is our counselor. When we need to pray and have no words, the Holy Spirit is our advocate. When we need a reminder we are loved, the Holy Spirit is our comforter. When we need strength and courage, the Holy Spirit is our strengthener.
Also in his book Kushner said, “Religion is like love. The difference between religion as feeling or believing and authentic religion as how you live out your faith is like the difference between love as a teenage girl’s crush on her favorite pop singer and love as the relationship between a husband and wife who have shared years of good and bad experiences and know how to reach out to each other to gladden or to comfort. The first is a pleasant fantasy; the second is life-defining” (106-107).³ And this life-defining relationship is what Jesus was creating with his disciples. He taught with his words and deeds every day he was with his disciples. Hopefully, our faith is life-defining for us too. With the words of Jesus, the example of our ancestors in the faith, the pray-ful companionship of our fellow congregation members, we have a wealth of help available to support us in our continued faith formation.
In our country, we hear divisive messages everyday. We could be led to believe that we have nothing in common with our neighbor. Jesus tells us this is not true. All those we meet are our neighbors and we are called to love all through our actions, deeds, and thoughts. Kushner said this about belief-“Belief exists inside a person. As such, it has the power and tendency to separate a person from his neighbors, who believe differently. But authentic religion connects people rather than separates them into the elect and the misguided, the saved and those who walk in darkness. The primary function of religion…is to bring people together rather than to separate them, thereby increasing their joy and diluting their sorrow. For that to happen, one’s theology has to escape from the prison of self and translate into sacred deeds shared with others, deeds sanctified by having the fingerprints of God all over them” (117).³
This week I was sitting with a woman who is dying. She is a woman of strong faith and as she feels her own death coming nearer she has many questions. I read her the first few verses of this text and she asked how do I know that He has a place for me? And I said, Because God loves you more than you know and we can trust these words of Jesus. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
We hear this Scripture at funerals. What is it about these words or what words are here that provide us (the living) so much comfort when we are saying good-bye to one we love? Is it that these are the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples as he was preparing to leave them? He knew the words of comfort they needed to hear. And to this day, these words bring us comfort. These words told the disciples what they would need to do when Jesus was gone. And they tell us, his disciples, what we need to do since he is gone from our sight too. These words of Jesus are a gift to his first disciples and his disciples today. They challenge us. They comfort us. They give us courage as we walk our faith journey. Amen.
This sermon was preached Sunday, October 9, 2016 at Community of Joy in Salisbury, Maryland.
¹The Scripture is the New Revised Standard Version from http://bible.oremus.org.
²Gail O’Day,”The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible volume 9. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1995, 742-743.
³Harold S. Kushner, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned about Life. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2015.