A story like that of Stephen’s martyrdom works powerfully on our imaginations, just as it has worked powerfully on Christians throughout the centuries. Upon hearing or reading it, we might wonder whether we would have the faith to make a witness like that of Stephen, or wonder perhaps if we took our faith as seriously as we ought, we might face the same sort of persecution.
At the same time, many, especially conservative Christians fear that they are, or soon will be, subject to persecution of one sort or another—even if “persecution” means little more than having to acknowledge and accept the presence of people who are committed to other religious traditions in our communities and that we must allow them free expression of their religion as well. And then we hear the story of the young woman in Sudan who has been condemned to death because she became a Christian and we realize that whatever struggles Christians may have in twenty-first century America, it’s not persecution at all, by any stretch.
There’s something else. We live in a society with many different forms of religious expression and commitment. For many of us, this is all very confusing. It often leads us to privatize our religion even more. We’re reluctant to share our faith with others, or even to admit that we are members of a congregation or attend services regularly.
Part of our reluctance has to do with the negative perception many people have toward Christian conservatives whose strident faith often turns people off; whose efforts to evangelize by threatening an eternity in hell are embarrassing, and whose exclusivist claims to the truth of Christianity often begin with a verse we heard today, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” In fact, today’s gospel offers a very different, more open, and reassuring vision of our faith and relationship with Jesus Christ than the one we often see portrayed in our culture.
In today’s gospel, we have part of Jesus’ long good-bye to his disciples. It’s long, really long, because it begins in chapter 13 and continues through chapter 17. Jesus has just told his disciples in enigmatic language that he is about to die. He has said that he will be leaving shortly, that where he goes they will not be able to follow immediately, but will come after him. That statement is the catalyst in the Gospel of John for Peter’s promise to follow to the very end, to lay his life down for Jesus. But Jesus replies with his prediction of Peter’s three-fold denial of him. We have here a first example of the disciples’ confusion and uncertainty. In today’s gospel we have two other examples of the disciples’ response to Jesus’ words. Thomas and Philip both ask Jesus questions in hopes of hearing words of comfort and in hopes of understanding what he is saying.
It is in that context, that Jesus utters these familiar words of comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus is consoling his disciples. Having told them he is about to leave them, he will also tell them over the course of the next chapters, that he is not abandoning them. They will not be left to their own devices. Rather, Jesus makes a series of promises that are intended to give them hope in the face of a future without him. The colorful imagery of the first few verses of chapter 14 often lead us to imagine a sumptuous heaven. The King James translated this as “In my father’s house are many mansions.” What we need to keep in mind is that the Greek word behind the translation of “mansions” or “dwelling places” is the noun form of a very common Johannine verb—to abide. So rather than promising his disciples that heaven will be filled with lots of good stuff, Jesus is promising them his continued presence with them, even beyond the grave.
It’s language that goes back to the very beginning of the gospel. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. A few verses later, when Jesus calls the first disciples (Andrew and Phillip, by the way), they ask him, “where are you abiding or staying,” He says, come and see. So Jesus here is evoking all of those meanings of this word and assuring the disciples of his presence among them.
But there’s another important idea here. My father’s house. In Genesis 12, when Yahweh calls Abraham, God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” “Father’s house” means more than a house or dwelling place—it refers to a kinship group, community, connection. It refers to the group of people who take care of you, and who you are responsible for taking care of. In these couple of verses, Jesus assures the disciples of his continuing presence among them, and that together they make up a new community of love and discipleship.
That latter notion is underscored by what comes next: that famous verse, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” As we all know, these words are used by many conservative Christians, and some not so conservative, to assert that only Christians will make it into heaven. And of course, it’s usually not just any old Christian—it’s usually Christians of my denomination, or who agree with me on this or that matter of doctrine or practice, who can be certain that they will be saved.
But to interpret these words to emphasize their exclusivity is to miss the point. Thomas does not ask Jesus, will anyone else get into heaven? Rather, he asks, “Show us the way.” Thomas’ question is at best redundant. Jesus has just told them that they know the way to where he is going. But Thomas is processing the words that Jesus has spoken, the talk of his imminent departure, and he seems not to have understood. So Jesus needs to remind him of what he’s just said, to reassure him, and all the disciples, that he will be with them.
Statements like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” are often used in precisely the opposite way than the gospel writer intended them. They are used to strike fear in people’s hearts, to cause them to doubt whether they’ve been saved or not, and to get them to sign on. Instead of fear, in the gospel of John, these words and indeed the entire passage are meant to reassure and to comfort. “You know the way,” Jesus says. “I am the way.”
But there’s more in this passage. Philip asks a question. It is one of the few times in the gospel of John when the disciples seem as clueless as they do in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replies, somewhat testily, that whoever has seen the father has seen him. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus asserts his identity with God the Father. To see Jesus is to see God. To know Jesus is to know God.
There is a third promise that Jesus makes in this text. He reassures his disciples that they are as powerful as he is. In fact, he goes further, promising them that they will accomplish greater things than him, and they will do those things in his name.
So we have three promises—a promise of Jesus’ continuing presence with us, a promise that he and the Father are one, and a promise that we, Jesus’ disciples, have power. All of those promises come at a time when the gospel is showing the disciples at their most confused and most uncertain. They are meant to comfort and reassure.
Of course, when we think of reassurance and comfort, images of protection and safety come to mind, perhaps images of the good shepherd like we saw last week. But Jesus’ words here take us in a very different direction. Instead of closing in, retreating behind the high walls of a fortress, Jesus is telling his disciples to go out. He is telling them to take action in the world, to move forward in faith. With that faith, he says, we can do great things.
But faith in the risen Christ is not meant to be kept behind the walls of a fortress. Faith in Christ calls us out into an uncertain world. It calls us to make our way, knowing Christ is present in us and with us, giving us the power to hope for ourselves and to offer hope to the world.