5th Sunday of Easter

12 May 2017

Genesis 8.1-19; *Acts 7.55-end; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16 (or 1-5); 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14

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Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Amen.

 

JOHN 14.1-14 has its own status in the literature of Christian consolation, as its regular inclusion in funeral services confirms. That interpretation is faithful to its position in John’s account of Jesus, instructing and strengthening his disciples before the events begin that take him to the cross.

Peter, in anguish, has just asked Jesus where he is going. Instead of a direct answer, Jesus says only that Peter cannot follow him immediately (John 13.36).

Peter is sincere in his protestations of faithfulness to death, but Jesus sees more deeply into the weakness that will show when the real test begins (John 13.37-38). If “follow” is a synonym for being a disciple, then Peter has not yet learned enough about Jesus — or about himself — to share his teacher’s calling.

Jesus does not leave him to wrestle alone with that hard statement. Instead, he goes on to comfort his friends, urging them to trust in the promise he has already made: that their future is to dwell with him in the place that he will prepare (John 12.26, 14.1-2). John makes repeated use of the Greek verb menein, meaning “to dwell”. It conveys permanency and commitment — God’s commitment to live among his people as one of them (John 1.14, 38-39), and to offer them an eternal dwelling place with him (John 12.26).

The problem that confounds the disciples, as they listen to this reassurance, is expressed with relentless logic by Thomas: if they do not know where the place is, how can they possibly know the way to get there (John 14.5)?

This is the cue for Jesus to name what he has been showing the disciples from the moment they chose to follow him: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The second part of this statement, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” is not apparently part of the answer to Thomas’s question (John 14.6). Yet it is essential to what Jesus is revealing about “place”.

Ordinary spatial categories have little to offer here. The place that he is indicating is the complete unity of being with the Father, which he will go on to speak of as the discussion continues (John 14.18-24, 15.1-12), and supremely in his final prayer for his friends (John 17.11-24). That mysterious relationship is spacious enough to accommodate all who respond to its invitation.

It might be expected that the “way” to a “place” like this would be less about space and direction than about attention and disposition. In one sense, that is prefigured in the tradition that sets out the way God’s people must follow if they are to live well in the land (Deuteronomy 5.32-33, 31.29), and meditates on God’s law as a way of life (Psalm 119).

Brendan Byrne notes that Jesus is also identifying himself with divine wisdom’s claim to be the way (Proverbs 4.11, 8.32, 23.19) (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014). In that claim, there is the reminder that wisdom has been alongside God since the beginning, as co-worker and interpreter, “delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8.22-end).

Jesus offers by his own life and ministry as a way for human beings to see the “true reality of God” (Byrne), and to share in the life belonging to that truth, understanding at the same time that this is hard to comprehend. If the disciples cannot believe in the unity of Jesus with the Father, they can begin with Jesus’s works (John 14.9-11).

It seems presumptuous to think that, even believing that Jesus was in the Father, and the Father in Jesus, they could do greater works than his feeding, healing, and raising of the dead. This promise can be possible only as a consequence of that unity, in which Jesus constantly holds his followers before divine grace (John 14.13). Anything accomplished in that power is to the glory of God.

The story of Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7.55-end), and more advice on how to be a community witnessing to Christ (1 Peter 2.2-10), ask us to reflect on the power of death and life to reveal God’s glory.

Stephen’s death is deliberately linked to that of Jesus, to whom he commends his spirit (Acts 7.59, Luke 23.46), through words from Psalm 31 (verse 5). For the recipients of the letter, the question is how to live a life founded on Jesus. The writer traces references to stones as metaphors for a new work of God (Psalm 118.22, Isaiah 8.14).

If his audience comprised pagan converts, this was a shrewd decision. In giving up the inanimate stones of temples and idols, and moving out of the darkness of false belief into the light of Christ, they, too, become a new work, a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2.4), a new nation, holy to God (1 Peter 2.9).

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