Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (10 May 2020)
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 know 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.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 Feb 1906 – 8 April 1945) was also an intellectual and a fine Christian thinker. In his posthumously published book – Ethics (1949) – he offers an insightful interpretation of Genesis 3:1-5. The “serpent” insinuates itself between humanity and God: “When you eat of (the fruit) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:4-5). Adam and Eve are initially shown to be in complete union with God. However, at this point at which they come to “know good and evil” the structure of their existence changes radically. Bonhoeffer writes: “Knowing of good and evil in disunion with the origin, man begins to reflect upon himself. His life is now his understanding of himself, whereas at the origin it was his knowledge of God” (Ethics, edited by Eberhard Bethge and translated by Neville Horton Smith, London: The Fontana Library, 1963, 25).
In today’s Gospel – John 14:1-12 – we hear Thomas: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5). Thomas is, in effect, asking for “directions” – he wants to know “right from wrong”/”good from evil”. When he knows this, he will be in control! This is the Adam and Eve story all over again. Jesus counters: “I am the way”. In other words, “Change your thinking Thomas! I am offering you the possibility of becoming again what God made you to be – a being at one with God”.
Sadly, too many “teachers” in Christian history have answered Thomas’ question as Adam and Eve did, rather than as Jesus did. Thus, they replaced the person of Jesus as the Way with a moral program. Laws and doctrines thus gained precedence over people and relationships. Moralism replaced mysticism. All of which makes it difficult if not impossible for us to really hear the words of Jesus: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).
Mysticism – to put it simply and most fundamentally – is the experience of the unity of all things. Mysticism is a natural human capacity. For the disciples of Jesus, that natural human capacity to experience the unity of all things, is found most fully in and through Jesus Christ. Moralism leads us away from this natural human capacity for experiencing unity. Moralism teaches us – at least implicitly – that our life in Christ is the result of our knowing what is “right and wrong”/”good and evil” and acting on it. In fact, the opposite is true. The Christian moral life is the fruit of our life in Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). We will never even begin to approximate a renewal of the Church unless we recognize the destructiveness of moralism and embark on the journey of embodying the mystical heart of our faith in our daily lives.