14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
14:2 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?
14:3 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.
14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The passage to the right is a portion of the Gospel reading for today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A, Revised Common Lectionary). The first thing that comes to my mind whenever I hear this passage is my Uncle Freddy. When the new versions (NIV, RSV, etc.) came out he insisted on the KJV for one primary reason: “I was promised a mansion.” That always made me smile and chuckle, even as a kid.
I also remember that whenever you asked Uncle Freddy how he was doing he would always say, “Struggling, struggling.” This was not necessarily said with a deep sigh or measure of sadness, but just how he always answered the question. Since Mack died I have found that the best response (for me) to the question “How are you doing?” is to say, “Hanging in there.” Those that want to pursue my condition and with whom I want to talk will follow up. Those who are just being polite (and I don’t blame them, not at all) will simply reply something like, “Good. Hang in there.” It occurred to me to ask my mother about Uncle Freddy’s similar locution. You see, he had a son who died under difficult circumstances when he was just a teenager. I asked my mom if Uncle Freddy had started saying “struggling” after his son had died. The answer, unsurprisingly, was yes.
This passage is intended to comfort followers of Jesus, on many levels. In the Gospel of John, this passage comes right after Peter has promised to lay down his life for JC and is told, no, actually “you will deny me three times before the rooster crows.” Jesus is preparing his disciplines for incredibly difficult times ahead. It is bad enough to imagine the horrific death of a close friend and teacher, but their fundamental beliefs are about to be destroyed. With Jesus’ death surely comes the end of all his teachings and any hope that he was, in fact, the Messiah. And so Jesus tells them “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
This is faith at its core. To push back the waves of sadness and grief, the feelings that life is overwhelming, even in the day-to-day activities, that it is all just too much, and to rest in God and not be troubled. So easy to say. Nigh on impossible to do. It would be easy to say that it is just optimistic puff, but then we remember the context of these words. The future that he assures us of is not seen, but he goes ahead of us and, through him, we will also be able to come into the life in the world to come. And in the face of all opposing evidence and experience we are to continue to believe in him and so have peace. Jesus even responds to such doubts as presented by Philip.
John 14:11-14 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.
And this is where, for me, it becomes even more difficult. “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Ink, blood, and bits have been spilled to understand how such a statement can be true in the face of the reality that not everything or anything that is asked for in his name is done. I will only offer a few brief, personal observations here. Long before we ever had children I had engaged in a prolonged debate on a Cornell listserv with a fellow who insisted that every Christian should live without suffering from illness, dying only from old age or accident. His reasoning? If we have enough faith prayers of healing will be answered. So obviously those who have battled cancer or endured a lifetime with a congenital disease are, in his world view, the result of their lacking faith. And of course, Mack then died because our fervent prayers weren’t fervent or faithful enough. We can parse this and mince it up, try and suggest that it is only those things we ask that will bring “glory to the Son” that will be answered (and how would we not thank God for saving Mack’s life?) or we could suggest that this was only for the disciples, that all such gifts of the Spirit have ceased, but none of that is satisfying.
So where does that leave me? “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.” I cannot offer you a concise or satisfying exposition of John 14:14. It is not there, so far as I can see. I recognize a tension here, however. Surely the disciples in the hours and days and years that followed (and preceded the composition of John’s Gospel) asked in Jesus’ name that he not die, that lives be spared, and that persecution would end. But it didn’t. This is, in fact, the thrust of these two chapters as Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for the persecution and suffering they are about to receive. So how to reconcile these passages, relieve the tension between them? I don’t.
We live in tension. We live between two worlds. The already and the not yet. Or as Jesus said,
“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)