Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (14 May 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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. (John 14:1-12 – NRSV)
A serious question for the first disciples would – obviously – have been: What happens when Jesus is no longer here with us? Today’s Gospel addresses that question. A similar text is found in John 16:4-33 – “But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them etc” The text is both explanation and reassurance.
As with just about any substantial text in John, this one presents some serious challenges to the interpreter. But at the heart of it is a theme that is at the heart of the whole Gospel – that of the mutual indwelling. Francis Moloney writes: “(Jesus) is going to the home (oikia) of his Father, where there will be many dwelling places (monai). The house of the Father of Jesus is the realm of God, and within this realm there are many places for the disciples to abide (v. 2a). Jesus has said that it will be so, and the disciples are called to believe in the word of Jesus (v. 2b; cf. 2:1–4:54). Behind the noun monai (“abiding places”) lies the Johannine use of the verb menein, which refers to a permanent dwelling or abiding. The verb has already been used, positively and negatively, in the earlier parts of the narrative (cf. 1:32; 7:27, 53; 8:31, 35; 12:34, 46 [positively]; 9:41; 12:46 [negatively]) with the sense of the presence or rejection of an intimate reciprocity. It will reappear shortly as the leitmotif of 15:1–11. The link made between the oikia tou patros mou and Jesus’ going to prepare a “place” (topon) informs the disciples of a permanent, lifegiving dwelling among the many monai. Jesus’ departure should not be a cause for sorrow, but for comfort and trust (v. 1). He is going away to prepare for them the universal and permanent possibility of an abiding communion with his Father (v. 2).” (Francis J Moloney SDB, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 394.)
Do not let your hearts be troubled: The same phrase will be repeated in 14:27. The Greek word tarassein – translated here as “be troubled” – “was used to describe Jesus’ emotions when confronted with Lazarus’ death in 11:33 (“he shuddered”) and with his own betrayal to death by Judas in 13:21”. (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (XIII-XXI): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29A), Yale University Press, 2008, 618.) We are reminded of the use of the Greek word splagchnizesthai in the synoptics. (See William Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1955/64, 276-280.) Our modern Western manner of engaging the world is much more cerebral. Our language reflects this. It is therefore difficult for us to understand the full import of words like tarassein.
Believe in God: Also “have faith in God” (Raymond Brown). “A thematic parallel appears in Mark 11:22–24, where during his last days in Jerusalem Jesus tells his disciples to have faith in God and not to doubt in their hearts. The Hebrew word for “faith,” from the root ’mn, has the concept of firmness; to have faith in God is to participate in His firmness—an appropriate note in the present context.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 618.)
many dwelling places: Francis Moloney writes: “The expression monai has numerous possible sources from contemporary religious traditions. For comprehensive surveys see Fischer, Wohnungen 105–290; McCaffrey, The House 49–75. Most translations render the expression as ‘dwelling places’. I have translated ‘abiding places’ to show the Johannine nature of the term. The term ‘abiding’ best translates the repeated use of the verb menein in 15:1–11. Both Fischer and McCaffrey affirm the Johannine nature of the expression, despite its possible rich background.” (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 397.)
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life”: Jesus is the definitive revelation of the Father. He is therefore “the way”. Moloney observes: “Both ‘the truth’ and ‘the life’ explain ‘the way’”. (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 398.)
From now on you do know him and have seen him: “knowing” and “seeing” and “believing” are highly significant words in John’s Gospel. They are a particular challenge to the modern Western Mind-set because we tend to be so dominated by rationalism, materialism and functionalism. A good analogy might be drawn with those who genuinely love each other deeply, those who can be said to “abide” in each other’s love. Knowing, seeing and believing are given profound shape by the context of that deep love, a shape that rationalism knows nothing about. Thus when Phillip asks to see the Father Jesus says “I am in the Father and the Father is in me”. The implication is that we are invited into that abiding relationship, to dwell in Jesus and the Father, and to see and known and believe from that vantage point. The world – people, events and things – looks different when seen through the eyes of one who abides in love. Furthermore the presence of one who abides in love – that is, God – will be transforming: “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.”
Imagine two people married for many years, they have worked at their relationship and grown into a communion of life. One of them dies. Is it not predictable that the living one will continue to experience the presence of the other who is now absent? Perhaps that presence will be made all the more intense by their absence? The presence will be shot through with ambivalence though. On the one hand the presence of the now absent one can fill us with deep peace and joy, on the other hand it can fill us with deep melancholy and sadness as we become aware of how much we miss them. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, but it can also break our hearts.
In the middle of that ambivalence however is an enduring and sad truth: The other must go away before we can fully appreciate them. There is a saying attributed to the indigenous peoples of North America: “Before the boy can become a man his father must die”. Perhaps it is also implicit in Jesus’ words: “I must tell you the truth: It is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you”? (John 16:7)
Can we ever penetrate the mystery of absence?
Our English noun “absence” comes from the Latin verb, abesse meaning "to be away from”, from ab meaning "off, away from" and esse meaning "to be". Absence is a mode of being. Strangely, absence is a form of presence. On the Third Sunday of Easter we reflected on “recognizing his presence”. We referred to the encounter of Moses with God on Mount Horeb – see Exodus 3:1-15. Central to that encounter is God’s self-revelation: “I am who I am”. God’s presence will always be a mystery to us. God will be present as God, not as a projection of our fears or wishes or naïve expectations. It is entirely reasonable to expect that God’s presence will at times be experienced by us as absence.
Does absence expose us to a deeper form of presence?
We are pilgrims, travelling ever more deeply into the heart of God. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Hold firm in the dark to what you saw so clearly and easily in the light. Stand your ground when there seems to be no ground. This is the way of purification that cannot be done by us, only to us.
It is a work of grace. Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” – not this or that social status, political ideology, ethnicity, culture or even religious practice. All of these are in some way necessary, but none of them is God. “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.”