Even though this is the fifth Sunday of Easter, and we have heard a lot about post-resurrection appearances, our gospel story for today takes place on Maundy Thursday, the evening Jesus first gave his disciples the great commandment to love one another and then spoke to them about his imminent death, resurrection and return to his Father. This an early part of the conversations known as the “Farewell Discourses” when Jesus tries to prepare his followers for the events that lie ahead. In response to the disciples’ reaction to his news that he is leaving, Jesus makes a profound promise to them. “Though I will go away, it is to prepare a place for you in the presence of my Father. I will come back for you, and we will be united again in time.”
This is an absolutely unconditional promise. But as so often happens, the disciples do not understand what he is saying and mistake his metaphorical reference to a place – his Father’s house – for a geographical space. Thomas, who wasn’t afraid to ask questions, requests directions to this wonderful place. Jesus responds, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” That is another unconditional promise and it is simpler than it sounds. In other words, Jesus is telling Thomas that he already knows the way. Because Thomas knows Jesus, he can’t possibly get lost.
Jesus continues, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That raises a question: is that a promise or a threat? Originally that was heard as promise, but today some Christians might hear it as threat. To them, promise about being joined to the Father appears to be both exclusionary and conditional. And that’s where the threat comes in. “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you aren’t going to heaven.” Or even, “If you don’t believe in Jesus the right way, you may not be saved.” We have probably all known someone who understands these words as threat and as a result, worries about a loved one now lost to them that they are not sure believed in the right way.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” This is not a conditional tense in the Greek language. Jesus is talking about an already existing state of affairs, and that makes his statement a promise: “If you know me – and you do know me – you will know the Father.” Jesus’ words are not meant to keep people out, but rather as an assurance to his followers that they have nothing to worry about, they are definitely in.
Then he adds, “And from now on you actually do know him and already have seen him.” Another unconditional promise. But this is where the lack of understanding on the part of the disciples comes into play again. They have already seen the Father? When? Where? Won’t that happen in the future? Perhaps that is what Philip is thinking, when he asks to see the Father. And Jesus responds, “If you have seen me” – which they have — “then you have seen the Father.”
In the very beginning of the gospel, John writes that the only one to see the Father is “… God the Son” – the word made flesh, Jesus. For John, Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension are essentially about one thing: revealing the loving nature of God in order that we may all have access to God’s abundant grace and life. Because John’s Gospel was written in a time of heated theological debate between Jewish communities over whether Jesus was the Messiah, the language can feel exclusive at times. But at the heart of the Gospel is the message not about who’s out, but who’s in – all who have seen Jesus or come to know Jesus through the testimony of his disciples. It is all about God’s unconditional love and promise.
Just to make sure everyone understands, Jesus adds yet another unconditional promise: “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.” That adds another dimension to our usual concept of heaven. When Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for us, we tend to think in very far-off, eternal terms. And yet Jesus’ departure to the Father not only secures our place in God’s presence but also creates the possibility to follow Jesus, do his works, and even do greater works – right now, in this very moment. In other words, John is saying that Jesus promised that through our words and actions we become some of the blessings of heaven right here on earth. This is a very Trinitarian passage – God the Father is in Jesus, and since the Ascension of Jesus, God in Jesus is and will be with us through the Holy Spirit. One God, three means of revelation.
Perhaps it would help to accept these promises if we spend a moment contemplating those who have gone before us and what it means to us that Jesus makes an unconditional promise that we will somehow be with God for eternity. Think about some of the people you have loved and lost. Picture their faces, call to mind what it is you loved about them. Close your eyes if it helps you to concentrate. Now hear these words. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 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.” We can trust in the promise that Jesus lived, died, was raised again, and ascended to God in order that we may have life, here and forever, in abundance.
Now think about a challenge you are facing in your life, something you are worried about, whether you will have the strength and means to confront that challenge. Again, close your eyes if you wish. Hear these words of Jesus, “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.” We can be comforted, strengthened and empowered by the unconditional promises of Jesus, whose Holy Spirit is, and will always be, with us and will work through us. Amen.