important present participles from the fourth gospel: believing

John 14:1-14

So here we are. The sermon in three words: here we are. The words of Jesus we read earlier are part of Jesus’ so-called farewell discourse in John’s gospel. These are words directed to those Jesus is leaving—those who will need to negotiate life and faith in Jesus’ absence … or with Jesus present in a new and different way. So they’re quite specifically words for us too.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says to his disciples, and the word here really reflects an inner turmoil (George R. Beasley-Murray, John in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1987) 248-9). Now what do you think? Does it make a difference to how we hear this imperative—this command (“Do not let your hearts be troubled”)—does it make a difference to how we hear these words that Jesus has himself been described as having been “troubled” (same word) three times already in the gospel? Once in the midst of grief at Lazarus’ death (John 11:33), once contemplating his own imminent death (John 12:27), and once contemplating Judas’ betrayal (John 13:21)? So is Jesus telling his disciples to not to do what he did? “Do as I say, not as I do,” seems more the last resort of, at best, the inconsistent, at worst, the hypcrite. Doesn’t set quite right with us as a comment on Jesus, does it?

Is there another way to understand this? Most straightforward would be to suggest that Jesus was speaking to himself as much as to anyone else, but that’s not at all in keeping with the theology of the fourth gospel in which Jesus knows everything and is in complete control. I always think of Jesus’ last words on the cross, which in John are nothing like Matthew and Mark’s cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), nor even Luke’s much cooler “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46), but the so absolutely in control, “It is finished” (John 19:30). A Jesus in need of a reminder—a Jesus in need has no place in John’s gospel.

So, another option? How about this: Jesus’ experience changes ours. Not so much “I went through this so you wouldn’t have to” as “I went through this so when you do, you might know—you might remember that I did too.” Maybe these words are meant less as words of expectation (obey this command) as words of hope and comfort. Jesus does, after all, go on: “Believe in God, believe also in me,” and that “believe also in me” is new. Jesus, in the incarnation, had believed in God. Now, post-incarnation, people can believe in God and in Jesus, and that makes the difference.

Jesus goes on, “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.”

Very concrete imagery here that has gone into shaping theology—into constructing the popularly imaged mansions of heaven and the eschatological second coming associated with the rapture! A word, by the way, that appears nowhere in the New Testament. Particularly interesting this morning on the day after, right?! But the noun translated long ago as “houses” or “mansions” comes from the verb “to remain,” “to dwell” or “to abide” and is more appropriately translated “in my Father’s house there are many abiding places.” And the Fourth Gospel consistently uses such very concrete imagery “to describe the mutuality and reciprocity of the relationship of God and Jesus” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 741).

Later in our text, Jesus will say, “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” (John 14:10). In verses shortly after our morning’s text he says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them (John 14:23). In the next chapter, he will say, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10).

The use of this noun [abiding places] here … points to the inclusion of others [… the inclusion of us …] in this relationship, this ‘house’ ” (Ibid.). We are, in other words, invited into the abiding relationship God and Jesus share. So while we’re not offered heaven as a place, a location, a destination, a goal, a future reward, we are offered heaven as a present relationship—a mutual indwelling with so much room to abide. Here we are.

And in truth, the disciples were less “concerned about where they [would] go after they [died], but how they [would relate] to Jesus since he [was] going away” (R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John in Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998) 210). Even with regards to the specificity of Jesus coming back (“if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again”), while it’s probably inappropriate to completely deny an eschatalogical dimension to this text—an endtimes dimension, “[t]he reference is probably not primarily to the Second Coming but to post-Easter experiences” (Ibid.). God and Jesus making their home with us. Talk about heaven, huh?

Our friend Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Remember Thomas? Mr. Literalist. Mr. Mapquest. And we really shouldn’t be too hard on Thomas. It was Jesus, after all, in just the preceding chapter who told his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards” (John 13:36). Who can blame Thomas, “Is it already afterwards? I’m so confused.”

And “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’” And how helpful is that? Seriously, how helpful? And we have to hear the humor! Jesus is the way—okay, the way to the cross—the way to death. Remember it was Thomas, contemplating their trip to Jerusalem who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Jesus is the truth—the truth the disciples have consistently not understood, the truth that will leave Pilate, in his later exchange with Jesus in this very gospel, flounderingly asking, “What is truth” (John 18:38)? And Jesus is the life that will die—that will be put to death—the very next day! There’s nothing straightforward about this! Absolutely nothing.

Jesus goes on, “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.’” These days, we can’t afford to not comment on the exclusive assertion, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” remembering that at the time of its writing, it was not the exclusive claim of a powerful world religion in conversation with other world religions, but the particular assertion of a religious minority still seeking to define itself as distinct from one of the other world religions. These are words to be heard addressed to those whose life had been changed, whose view of God had been changed by their own personal experience of Jesus. Remember, these are words directed to those Jesus is leaving—those who will need to negotiate life and faith in Jesus’ absence … or with Jesus present in a new and different way. Again, quite specifically, words for us.

“Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’” Now Philip is closer to getting it than Thomas. He gets that Jesus wasn’t talking Mapquest—wasn’t talking geography—gets that it’s the way of God that’s the way to God. But he also misses the bigger more profound point. “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.”

Can you imagine Jesus’ frusration level? stress level? Here it is the review session before the test tomorrow, and the teacher’s realizing no one’s gotten it yet! “Why don’t you believe? We’ve been together all these years now and you don’t trust me? Believe in God abiding with me. Believe because it’s been God speaking through me. Don’t you get that? That’s where the authority comes from. It’s been God acting through me. Don’t you get that? How else do you think these things would happen? But if you don’t believe because of that—if you can’t believe because of that—because I say so, then just look at what we’ve accomplished—look to your own experience and believe because of the words and deeds of truth you’ve heard and seen—paying particular attention to how that truth works—is working—will keep working in and on you.”

Reminiscent of those wonderful words from Isaiah, don’t you think? “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 55:10-13).

I would invite you to note that we go back and forth in our text from believing Jesus to believing in Jesus. Notice that? Sydney and Audra have learned not to always believe me. They’ll ask, “What’s for dessert?” and I’ll say, “Broccoli pie with spinach ice cream.” They’ll ask, “How long will it take us to get there?” when we’re ten minutes away from where we’re headed, and I’ll say, “Oh, four or five hours at least.” “What are you doing?” they’ll ask when they can see I’m washing dishes. “I’m in the final stages of a month long ascent of Mount Killiminjaro.” Before their eighth and sixth birthdays I enthusiastically celebrated with them how great it was that they were turning seven and five. Sydney and Audra have learned not to always believe me. I trust and pray they will never learn not to believe in me.

And I believe that belief in Jesus is much less propositional (believing in Jesus means you have to believe this, this and that)—I believe that belief in Jesus is much less propositional and much more relational.

“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.”

Remember how we started? We believe in God and Jesus, and because we do, everything is different. That’s how we end, too. Because we believe in God and Jesus, because they make their home with those who keep God’s commandments, we can do greater things than were possible before. Mind you, we’re talking about what Jesus considers greater things, not what we might. The miracles? were always but signs pointing to the greater truth, right? For us to do greater things than Jesus doesn’t mean we’ll heal and raise from the dead and turn water to wine, but that we’ll live in such a way that we ourselves are sign to the imminence of the greatest truth. Here we are, abiding together. God and Jesus with us.

Facebook was full of preachers yesterday jokingly wondering about whether to prepare a sermon for today! There were invitations to post-rapture looting. There were some who after the 6:00 p.m. deadline lamented having cleaned the house and washed the car so the post-rapture looters would be impressed. Some were in touch with friends in China where the deadline approached earlier. All in good fun, of course!

I was wondering how a crackpot gets this much press, and wondering if it’s because the popular media couldn’t resist a joke on religion that simply required waiting for the clock to inexorably wind its way down to the punchline. As ludicrous as I found all this hoopla, it’s a sad emphasis on our faith making too much of entirely too much that is vitally important, a joke. Not when Jesus comes back, but that Jesus is always coming to us.

My guess is there were and are film crews waiting to film the reaction of those who believed. At least they risked believing, but why not risk something more worthwhile … more significant … more transformative? Why look away from life as we know it—where we know it? Why look away from the relational possibilites of God and Jesus making their home with and in us?

“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.” While we wonder about what all we ask for that we don’t get, mindful of Jesus’ priorities, I wonder if a G.K. Chesterton quote Jim Cumbie and I were remembering several weeks ago is apropos. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” (http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/27973.G_K_Chesterton). “Try me,” says Jesus. “Really try me. You might be surprised!”

My seminary church history professor, former dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School and friend to many of us here, Bill Leonard, wrote in an Associated Baptist Press article, Thursday, May 12, “For now, let’s keep last things last. The end will come, for individuals and ultimately for the entire enterprise, but perhaps the answers lie, not in escapist theories, but with dying whales, vanishing forests, polluted water and rising ozone, “the fire next time.” We recalculate yet another “Great Disappointment,” but refuse to listen to what the world and its non-human inhabitants are telling us. We hope for “peace and security,” plotting our escape as the planet cries in pain, edging toward its own end.

So if there is an ounce of Jesus in any of us, let’s opt out of the Rapture and stay right here to the bitter end, because there is still justice to be done and too much good to be accomplished to forsake this world, even in Jesus’ name. For Jesus’ sake let’s stay behind, loving God with all our hearts, and if we can muster it, loving our neighbors as ourselves. What Rapture” (http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/6387/9/)!

Here we are.

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