I’ll never forget the way I felt on that long-ago Sunday when Pastor George Johnson announced that he was leaving us. He had been our pastor, my pastor, at Christ Lutheran Church here in Long Beach for twelve years. He had confirmed me. He had performed our wedding. He baptized our daughter, Brooke. I still had so much I wanted to learn from him about what it means to be a Christian—and how to be a Christian. And now suddenly he was telling us that he was going away, that God was leading him somewhere else.
When George told us he was leaving, I felt disheartened and disoriented. I felt dismayed. I felt anxious about the future of our congregation and my own future as a person of faith. My heart was troubled.
I felt sad and discouraged when I learned that Pastor George was leaving, but what I felt that day was nothing compared to what the disciples must have felt when they heard Jesus say, “I am only going to be with you a little while longer. . . Where I’m going you cannot come.”
That evening as they sat down to dinner, he had washed their feet and told them they must learn how to serve one another. Hard on the heels of that teaching, he had told them that he was about to be betrayed. But before they could really take in that troubling news, he gave them a new commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And that’s when he told them he was leaving. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”
So they were upset. They were confused. They were anxious. Their hearts were in turmoil.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus. “Believe in God; believe also in me.”
That’s how it reads in most of our translations. What it actually says in the Greek, though, is slightly different:
Do not let your (plural) heart (singular) be troubled.
It’s possible that this is just a quirk of the language, but it’s more likely that Jesus is reminding them to be unified in their love for one another and for him, to be so united in love and purpose that it would be as if they had one heart. And he wants that singular communal heart to be at peace.
You, plural, do not let your singular heart be troubled.
“Believe in God; believe also in me.” Again, that’s how many of our translations render it, but it really would be better translated and more to the point to hear him say, “Trust God. And also trust me.” The Greek word at work here, pisteuete, can be translated either way—believe or trust.
Believe or trust? They have similar meanings but they’re not exactly synonyms. Believe is a head word, an intellect word. Trust is a word with guts. A word with heart. A word with legs. Belief is isolated and cerebral. Trust is a relationship. I may believe you’re strong enough to hold the rope that keeps me from plunging into the abyss, but it takes trust for me to actually put that rope in your hands.
Jesus is telling them that, come what may, they can trust him. Trust God, he says, and trust me. Trust me to the end. Trust me to beyond what looks like the end. Things are about to get more horrible than you can imagine. There will be betrayal and painful, ugly, humiliating death. There will be astonishing, joyful, unexpected resurrection. There will be mysterious and baffling ascension. Those are just stops along the Way. Keep following me. Keep going. Trust God. Trust me.
“In my Father’s house,” says Jesus, “there are many dwelling places.”
I feel a lot of sympathy for the translators here because the “dwelling places” are not really places at all. The Greek word translated as “dwelling places,” monai, comes from the same root as the word for “abide.” Meno, to abide, is the Gospel of John’s favorite and most frequently used word to describe being in a relationship with Jesus. It’s the word Jesus uses when he tells Philip, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me—abides in me—is doing his works.”
When Jesus tells us that there are many dwelling places in God’s house, he is not giving us a tableau of heaven; he’s not painting us a picture of the great reward at the finish line. He’s giving us a travelogue. Jesus is telling us that faith in him is, in fact, a journey with him. He’s telling us that as we follow him through God’s house in this world and into what comes next, there is no end of places to stop and catch our holy breath. He’s telling us that there are a lot of places to pitch our tent along the Way, a lot of places to enjoy our companionship, to tell stories and sing songs and make s’mores on the pleasant evenings or to huddle together for warmth and comfort when things are cold and dismal.
All along the Way there are places to abide.
“If it were not so,” said Jesus, “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 where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Good old Thomas. He speaks for us, doesn’t he? Throughout the Gospel of John whenever Jesus sounds like an esoteric Zen Master, Thomas is the one who speaks up to say, “I don’t get it. Explain it to me like I’m five.”
“You know the way,” said Jesus. “You know me. I am the way. And the truth. And the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Too many Christians have pulled this statement out of its context and turned it into a proof text to claim that believing in Jesus is the one and only way to get to heaven. Not only does this reduce faith in Christ to nothing more than a ticket to paradise, it is completely contrary to the spirit and intention of the other “I AM” statements in John.
In the seven “I AM” statements in John, Jesus is telling us that he is the ultimate source of abundant life and grace. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” or “I am the light of the world ” or “I am the gate” or “I am the Good Shepherd” or “I am the true vine,” these statements signify the very presence of God. Jesus, himself, makes that clear when he says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. In fact, you already know him and have seen him.”
This is an echo of what he has already said to them at the end of chapter 12 when he said:
“Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”
“I am the Way the Truth and the Life,” says Jesus. “No one comes to the Father except—through me/because of me/with me—those are all legitimate ways to translate that versatile little Greek preposition dia that indicates Jesus is the conduit into God’s presence. Jesus isn’t saying that you have to make some formal statement of spiritual allegiance to him or accept certain doctrinal principles about him. Whether you do these things or not, he is the one who brings you into the presence of God because he is the presence of God.
Frederick Buechner put it this way:
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.
“Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.”
It is possible to be on Christ’s way without ever having heard of Christ. It’s possible to be on Christ’s way if you are a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist. It’s possible to be living in the Way of Jesus even if you are agnostic or an atheist.
If your life is centered in love for God’s people and for God’s creation, if Truth is your highest value and it pains you to see truth devalued, if you believe that Life is a gift to be entered into deeply, a gift to be treasured and enjoyed and shared, then whether you know it or not, you are walking in the Way of Jesus, a Way that leads directly to God’s presence…even if you don’t recognize it.
“I’m going on ahead of you,” said Jesus, “and I know that right now it feels just devastating. But trust God. Trust me. Keep walking in my Way. Keep speaking Truth. Keep empowering and sustaining Life and immersing yourself in it. Our pilgrimage into the heart of God is endless and there will be no end of places for us to meet up along the Way.”
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