What was Jesus’ tone in these 14 verses of John’s Gospel?
That’s one of the challenges of a written exchange; the words on the page don’t convey the way something was said, nor do they supply facial expressions, pauses or inflection. There have been times when I have read Jesus’ words to Thomas and then Philip as a rebuke of sorts. I used to imagine Jesus exasperated, like my third grade teacher was with me when I failed (repeatedly) to recite my times tables. I would fumble through a few and then stop, unable to finish the task. She would shake her head and sigh, conveying her utter disbelief that after so much repetition I still didn’t have them memorized. What more could she possibly do to get this information conveyed? I would be sent back to my desk with the admonition to work on them at home. It was an exercise in frustrating futility for both of us. (Not to mention my equally frustrated father, the one tasked with helping me practice at home.)
Over time, I have come to read this text differently. I no longer picture Mrs. Lennihan, frowning and disappointed in me, when I read Jesus’ responses to Thomas and Philip. These verses come just after Jesus foretells Peter’s denial and just before that his admonition to his disciples to love one another. Jesus is preparing his closest friends for the worst, the certain worst that is soon to come. He isn’t scolding; he is reassuring. Knowing their weaknesses and limits, he doesn’t pile on; he builds up. It is, perhaps, a pattern we might try to emulate in these punitive, too often graceless times.
Making a bare bones outline of the appointed Gospel text for this week lead me to the conclusion that Jesus is far from scolding. He is instead offering compassion. He begins with reassurance: Don’t be troubled. Then he offers encouragement: Believe in God, believe also in me. This is followed by an astounding promise – a promise to the very ones he knows will deny and desert him. Even though they will abandon him, he will not ever abandon them: There is a place for you, prepared by me, with God; where I am, you will be, too. Furthermore, you know how to get there.
I hear that promise of Jesus and a verse from Psalm 139 comes to my mind, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.” Unlike memorizing multiplication tables, it isn’t too difficult for me – it is too over-the-top good to wrap my head around, too utterly, mysteriously magnificent. Maybe that was Thomas’ problem, too. Maybe Thomas’ query was akin to Mary’s, “How can this be?” Aren’t divine declarations and heavenly promises beyond our capacity to understand? Isn’t Thomas’ response the right one? How can we possibly know the mind and heart and will and way of the Most High God? How can we begin to understand the place with God prepared for us by Jesus Christ?
The short answer is Jesus. Hence, he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Jesus keeps on caring for those closest to him then and now, reminding us we know more than we imagine, not because we are smart, but because God is good. So good, in fact, that Jesus patiently hears Philip’s plea: “Just show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
How often have you been Philip? Countless times I have been him. Countless times I have prayed, “Just give me this or show me that, God, and I will follow you, do your will, trust you, etc., etc., etc.” No matter how often God has provided in the past, I still want a little more to be assured today that God is still working, present and able to be counted upon. No matter how many times I have been surprised by grace, upheld by mercy, surrounded by loving kindness, I am still not quite satisfied or sure that the Triune God hasn’t left the building. Jesus has every reason to be as irritated with Philip as my math teacher was with me all those years ago. Remember that hymn lyric, “What more can be said than to you God had said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”
And yet, Jesus once again reassures like a patient parent or teacher, telling Philip he has all he needs to be satisfied and certain. Jesus says: You know more than you realize. You have seen God. Heck, you are looking at God right this very moment. But even if that doesn’t convince you, remember all the works you’ve witnessed and hold on to those.
Jesus’ magnanimity is unparalleled, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t require Philip believe his relationship to the Father. If that is simply too much for him to comprehend, so be it. It is enough for Philip, and for us, to grasp whatever of God we can at any given time. Remember the signs, the healings, the meals, the way the blind were able to see and the reality of Lazarus walking out from the grave. Remember and believe in me, as much as you are able. That will do for now.
That will do for us, too. When we can’t imagine more, we can remember the times we’ve gathered around the Lord’s table, the experiences of healing and wholeness that came when we’d thought all hope was lost, the forgiveness we’ve been granted, the mercy we’ve received or extended. All these works point to Jesus, who points to God, who sent the Son to save in order that we, too, can have access to God through Jesus Christ. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. But Jesus says, “You already have. Not through your own efforts, but through me.”
Then Jesus goes one step even further. This back and forth of the disciples’ dismay and Jesus’ reassurance ends with a most incredible divine declaration: Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
Do we believe Jesus’ promise? Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. How can this be? I want to add my questions to Thomas’ and my request for further proof to Philip’s. How, Jesus? Are you sure, Jesus? Just give me a little more information or insight or revelation and then I’ll get it and do as you command.
Jesus, compassionate now as then, says again and again, in full knowledge of our limits and failures: “I am the way and the truth and the life. If you know me, you know the Father. Remember all that you’ve seen and experienced with and through me. Go and do likewise, ask for what you need, I won’t disappoint you. In fact, where I am God is and you will be also and where you are, well, God is there, too.”
Still not satisfied or sure? Is your heart troubled? Do you have doubts? It’s all right to ask Jesus for help, over and over again.
- Consider Jesus declaration: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What does each part of that phrase mean? How are they distinct? How are they interconnected?
- What do you think about when you think of Jesus preparing a place for you? How do you prepare for someone? Make space for another? Think about a time when someone has done this for you or you have done it for another. How does that experience shape your understanding of this text?
- Much of this text, and others in John’s Gospel, reveal Jesus’ relationship to God the Father. Look at other passages where this relationship is discussed. Make a list of the attributes of this relationship. Some of these texts include: John 1:18, John 10:38, John 8:28, John 5:36, John 5:20.
- Look at multiple translations of John 14:2. Notice the different translations of “dwelling places.” What are the connotations of the various translations? Does one translation resonate with you more than another? Why?
- Find the other instances in John where Thomas and Philip are named. How do these stories inform you understanding of this week’s reading?
- Jesus exhibits patience with Thomas and Philip. Where, and with whom, do we need to practice patience?
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