The Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 14:1-14

If the words of today’s gospel sound a little too familiar, it’s because they are the most popular choice of families selecting Scripture for the burial of a loved one. If you’ve been to an Episcopal funeral, and especially if you’ve been to a few or several, chances are good you heard these words:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would tell you…I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

These words were spoken by Jesus to his friends, as a kind of “closure,” as he prepared, and as he prepared his friends, to face his own death.

Ideally, in what we would call a “good death,” the family and close friends of the dying gather together for “closure.” Maybe this gathering occurs at the hospital, or at the home of the dying, or at a last celebratory meal at a restaurant or a home. Whatever the location, the dynamics are pretty much the same. Memories are shared. Friendships are celebrated. Good-byes are exchanged. Important words get spoken. Tears and laughter intermingle.

Prophecies are shared too—predictions are made about what the survivors will do, and what they will go on to become in the years ahead. Promises are pledged—as to who will take care of whom and who will be responsible for what. Successors step forward to assume the mantle of leadership previously carried by the departing person. The loose ends are tied up. Something of what the family hopes will be a “smooth transition” takes place in this most holy time, of closure.

Scripture itself is full of such farewells, at least among the notables. Jacob says farewell and blesses his twelve sons (Gen. 49). David offers a farewell, along with instructions to Solomon and the royal court (1 Chron. 28-29). In the lengthiest example in Scripture, the whole book of Deuteronomy is a series of Moses’ farewell speeches to the Covenant people.

John 14:1 through 16:33 has been termed the “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus. He is with his “family,” his closest companions, for the last time. And knowing he is about to die, Jesus holds nothing back. The ones to whom he had pledged his life, and with whom he had shared that life must be listening closely. It is the last will and testament of Jesus. And the last word, is something you don’t want to miss.

And Given that John uses the second-person plural pronoun (“you”) throughout the entire discourse, the Evangelist wants us to know that Jesus’ last words to the disciples are intended for all of them, the whole family. Not just for Peter or James or John but for all of them, and for all of us.

Usually, the pattern of John’s Gospel has been to move in sequence from the event, to dialogue about the event, to, finally, discourse on the event by Jesus. For instance, in John 9 (in a passage we heard read just a few weeks ago), Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath. That event leads to a lengthy dialogue about what happened. Neighbors, the blind man himself, his parents, some Pharisees, and the temple priests all get a word or two in. But finally the dialogue gives way to discourse. Jesus ends with the words” “I came into the world for judgment so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind” (9:39).

However, here in the “Farewell Discourse,” the pattern changes. Jesus interprets an event—his death, resurrection and ascension—before it ever happens. The Pascal event and its significance for faith is explained prior to its coming about. No wonder the disciples hearts were “troubled.” Everything— everything they had planned for, hoped for, expected—has been turned upside down.

It been said that John 14:6—1 verse—comprises the high point of John’s theology. Not just because of the verse’s setting in this final discourse of Jesus, but also because it contains that monumental, definitive assertion of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The distinctiveness of Christian identity lies at the heart of this teaching. It is what constitutes the core claim of the Jesus-follower. It links Jesus and God together as one in the same. It distinguishes the faith from other faiths and the Christian follower from other followers of other ways and other truths and other promises of life.

Remember, at the time, John could have cared less about one-upping the Buddhists or the Hindus or the Muslims, (as many try to do when interpreting this verse today) because, first, John never knew a Buddhist or a Hindu or and Islam didn’t yet exist; and, second, his small company of Christian companions had no power or prominence in society whatsoever. How were they going to lord it over anybody with their ecclesiastical clout? Prayer breakfasts at the forum in Rome wouldn’t have attracted many. Forming a Christian Coalition in Jerusalem would have gotten them nowhere.

One-upping doesn’t interest John. He isn’t trying to provide a proof text for Christian triumphalism. Nor is he implying that only Christians are loved by God. Nor is he claiming that people of other faiths are not only wrong, but condemned. No. Here John is proclaiming a blessing, not providing a bludgeon. It is a glorious, spine-tingling affirmation.

He is saying that in following Jesus as the way, in trusting Jesus as the truth, in experiencing Jesus as the life of the Spirit, the believer comes to a knowledge of God in a wholly new and unprecedented manner: as “Abba.” That is, the believer comes into a relationship with God assuming a preposterous familiarity and intimacy and confidence—the kind of relationship that a toddler instinctively has for a momma or a daddy.

Buddha never said this. Moses didn’t either. Neither did Confucius. Nor did Muhammad. That is just the point. John is contending that—through this Jesus—humanity’s relationship to God, and God’s relationship to humanity, are uniquely and decisively revealed. The “Abba experience” lies at the heart of the Gospel. For while many roads might lead to “God,” only one road leads to God as Abba—God as mama and papa, and us as God’s beloved children. That road—that way, that truth, that life—is only through Jesus, in his incarnation. Nobody else—nothing else—comes close.

The “Abba experience,” through Jesus, is the ultimate blessing; it is never a religious bludgeon. In the end, the Gospel says that we are all saved by grace, and not by any “works righteousness”
or “believer’s righteousness” or moralistic stance we might parade before God in order to be accepted. A wonderful old story helps make just this point.

In a far-away place, the emperors of the land, upon their deaths, were customarily entombed in the burial vaults at an ancient monastery. As per ritual, the burial procession made its way from the emperor’s castle, through the streets of the villages, through the wilderness and, finally, up the mountain to the monastery. Proceeding with the ceremony, the herald, who led the procession, would knock at the massive, closed monastery gate. From within, the Abbot would say,
“Who are you? Who knocks?”
“The Emperor of this country. King of all kings.” was the reply.
“I don’t know you,” the Abbot would say. “Who are you?”
Again the herald would exclaim, “I am the Emperor. The great grandson, grandson, son, and father of kings.”
“We still don’t know you,” the Abbot would reply. “Who are you?”

The herald would hush for a long moment, and then, kneeling and with tearful remorse would respond, “I am a poor sinner, humbly begging for God’s mercy.”

The Abbot would then reply, “You may enter, then, and find God’s mercy and grace.” And the gates would be opened wide.

One day, we will all stand at the gate of this life’s passage to the next. We will knock and identify ourselves, not as who we pretended to be, or struggled to be, or longed to be, but as who we really are: each one of us, poor sinners, humbly begging for God’s mercy.

May we claim our place before God, and, in God’s mercy, may we receive his blessing and grace. May Abba, the way, the truth and the life, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, embrace us as his beloved children and keep us as his very own. Amen.