Many Rooms, but Only One Way Into Them?

This week I'm wrestling with the Gospel reading and it has some difficulties. Your thoughts are appreciated.


Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

John 14:1-14

1 “Do not let your[i] hearts be troubled.[ii] Believe[iii] in God, believe also in me.[iv] 2In my Father’s house[v] there are many dwelling places.[vi] If it were not so, would I have told you[vii] [that] I go to prepare a place for you?[viii] 3And if I [do] 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. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.”[ix]
5Thomas[x] said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also.[xi] From now on you do know him and have seen him.”[xii]
8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us[xiii] the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?[xiv] Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.[xv] How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?[xvi] The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.[xvii] 11Believe 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.
12Very 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. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me[xviii] for anything, I will do it.[xix]


First some context. This passage is in the middle of a much larger portion of John’s Gospel, usually referred to as the “Farewell Discourses” and runs from 13:31 through 17:26. The setting is roughly the “Last Supper,” though it does not look or sound or feel like any version of that supper found in the other Synoptic Gospels. No bread, no wine, no nada, and even occurs on a different day. Instead, it is a dense, often repetitive, and often hard to follow speech to the disciples followed by a chapter-long dense, hard to follow, prayer to God (17:1-26). The reason for the repetition, according to many scholars, is probably because “John” (or the Gospel’s final redactor) is drawing from several sources that say much the same thing but gathered together at a later time. Instead of choosing between him, “John” decided to include them all in the same place, so occasionally they have a kind of jumbled sound.
Or, as conservatives occasionally argue, John wrote (compiled?) all of this material but at different times in his life with different perspectives on the original story, and then included all of the revisions in the final narrative. Or it could be that different writers from his community, over time, could have had many hands in revising it. Whatever is the cause, it will take some work to pull together into a coherent reading and sermon based on the reading.
Note John’s is the Gospel that portrays the closest relationship between God and Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is downright evasive, refusing to state who the Messiah is. But you don’t find that in John. In John’s Gospel, there is a deep relationship between God and Jesus: “I and the father are one.” “I am in the father and the father is in me.” Those aren’t statements of physics, they don’t mean that Jesus and God are the same in biology, they mean that Jesus and God are one in relationship and intent.
The Gospel is also full of metaphors preceded with “I am.” And seven of those are found only in John’s Gospel, and not in the other three. Jesus said: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the vine, and…I am the way, the truth, and the life. This last one is present in today’s John 14 reading.
There are a number of preachable themes in this brief passage. The first we will look at is also probably the primary purpose of Jesus’ words in this section. It is to comfort his disciples about the fact that he will soon die and not be with them (physically) any longer. There are words here that reflect genuine grief or fear at his absence. And as you know, it is that element that makes this a frequent reading at funerals. The message is that (paraphrasing here) “I will never leave you and even if I go, I will prepare a place for you and I will come back and take you there.” This has been helpful to believers for millennia. And feel free to walk your parishioners through it one more time this week, with stories of people who had lost a loved one and felt the comfort of the Holy Spirit. To some pastors, who aspire to political, critical, exegetical relevance (and honesty), lines like this feel unnecessarily schmaltzy and syrupy. But to the elderly woman in your congregation who will leave the service and go to the nursing home to sit for the rest of the day with her dying husband, it could be the strength she needs to get her through the next week.
There is reason to believe that the promise in this and other passages was written (or spoken by Jesus or created by his followers) to respond to a very real crisis in John’s community that came about when Jesus did not return as (soon as) they had expected and hoped. You can hear in his words here an assurance that everything is okay, this was the plan. The assurance and promise of these words thousands of years ago can still resonate today too.
According to Fred Craddock, there are three promises in this reading.
  1. The promise of an “abiding place with God.” “It “represents a relationship characterized by trusting and knowing, such as exists between Christ and God. Christ’s death and departure will not sever, but will rather fulfill that relationship between the disciples and Christ.”[xx]
  2. The promise of a sure and clear way to God (vv. 5-7, “I am the way…”).
  3. The promise of a power not only to sustain the believing community in the world, but also to enable it to do even greater works than Jesus did.
Following this, one could create a rough three-point sermon. Point one, there is a place for us with God, and we will never be alone, but will have a deepened relationship with God both in this world and in the next. Point two, Jesus is the way, the door, the gate, by which we (and all of humanity?) can find God. (I’ll return to this in a moment.) And point three, those who believe in Jesus will continue his works, and in fact do even greater works because Jesus will be gone, but you will be here.
This is all well and good, but that theme in the middle (v. 6) is troubling.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
What does that mean? What it sounds like it means (and for countless Christians for twenty centuries, it does mean) that Jesus is the only way to salvation for all people of all times in all places. Do we really still believe that in 2017? Do I still feel comfortable saying that to Jafar, the nice Muslim guy from Turkey who owns the Sunoco station I take my car to every week? Is he going to Hell just because he was raised with a different religious comprehension than I was? That may not be what Jesus (through John) is intending here, but it certainly can be implied in these words.
This is such a difficult, but important issue that I could envision an entire sermon solely wrestling with this question. If you do believe that the sacredness of life is above all religions and expressions of religions, and that there is something globally unifying yet individually personifying all of our spiritual longings and yearnings, then you in some way must eventually come to terms with this issue.
One thing I would not recommend your saying (though there is nothing wrong with lifting it up as possibility number one that you will later refute) is that “we’re all going to the same place,” or “well, we’re all worshiping the same God.” On the one hand that does have a noble sound to it, and it does try to get at the interconnectedness of all of humanity, and at one era of our development it was a wise and profound thought. However, on the other hand, today it diminishes the complexity and dynamism of many cultures and ethnicities through history who responded to their own challenges and boundaries and fears and joys by creating their own unique and peculiar cosmological understandings of the universe and their role in it. That’s far too long and complicated a sentence, but you get the point. It compresses a whole lot of religiosity into a belief that we are all the same, when clearly we are not.
A second possibility is what some in Catholic circles call “Anonymous Christians.” It is the concept created by Catholic philosopher, Karl Rahner in the mid Twentieth Century, that if someone from any other religious expression would strive to the fullest of his or her ability to be faithful to the tenants of his or her faith, then in a very real sense, they would be a “Christian.” Not one like you and I might recognize, but one that strives for and achieves spiritual unity with whatever higher and creative power that their faith configures and believes in.
Here is one statement of the concept from Rahner:
Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity — Let us say, a Buddhist monk — who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.[xxi]
This idea sounds good and has been helpful to many who want to be inclusive and widen the net of their faith and acceptance of other faiths, but it still has this word “Christian” in it and sounds like it requires all other religions to in some way be like us, or else we won’t think that they are quite right (and therefore sounds a bit like the “we’re all going to the same place” again).
To make this idea work, you have to posit that “Christ” is something far more cosmic than we usually think of it. It would be like the Logos of the prologue of John. It precedes Jesus and even life itself. It was with God before there was time, and in fact is God throughout all of time. (John 1:14) and permeates all that is everywhere. And the name “Christ” is just our way of manifesting that universal spirit that knits us all together.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him” (Jn 1:10).
I’m not smart enough to say those words adequately and make them not sound provincial, but there are others who have pulled it off (or who have believed that they have pulled it off) and if you can do that, then this might be the path you can take.
There is a third option (and maybe more) that you might take, and it in fact sounds similar to Rahner’s proposal but admits and celebrates its narrowness. It notes that when Jesus said those words, they were directed not to the world or to Jews or even to the people or Jerusalem, but to Thomas. Jesus had just said that when he dies, he would go prepare a place for them and would come back and take them there, and that they know the way to that place. Then Thomas says, no, we don’t know that place where you are going. How can we know the way? And it is then that Jesus says the difficult words of verse 6, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
But note that Jesus here is speaking only to Thomas and the disciples. Thomas asks, "How do we know the way?" and Jesus says to Thomas and the others, "I am the way." This doesn't appear to be a truth to be used to judge Buddhists in another continent or Muslims of a later age. It was a truth intended for those who were already followers. For them, Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, and for them, no one can get to the father except through him. 

And I might say today that for me, there is no other way into the abundancy of life offered by the realm of God but by way of the Christ, who is the door, the gate, the way for me. The path way of wealth will not get me there, the path of fame will not get me there, the path of physical strength, or number of degrees, or skills at making a great shrimp scampi or tying catfish flies, none of those will move me into that realm or kingdom. Only the Christ who birthed me and blessed me and held me and misses me. That Christ is in and through my tradition, and for me and my tradition. It is the “Lord’ that I will serve and be led by and fed by.
I can’t promise that this understanding would answer all of the problems with this difficult passage, or that you will have a great sermon if you try it, but it does address some of the difficulties. And it does it by being honest with your parishioners about its difficulties. And now and then parishioners respect that in their pastors. J

Good luck and God bless.



[i] “Your” (ὑμῶν, hymōn). Note that “your” here is plural, indicating that Jesus is not talking to an individual, but to all of the gathered disciples.  
[ii] “Troubled” (tarássō) Stir or agitate. Used only three other times in the gospel: 11:33, 12:27, 13:21. “Used to describe Jesus’ condition of distress….In each of these three uses, the verb refers primarily to Jesus’ agitation and disturbance in the face of the power of death and evil, not simply to his sadness. The same meaning of ‘troubled’ applies here, and it is important that the opening imperative of v. 1 not be excessively sentimentalized. Jesus does not speak to the disciples’ personal sadness, but at his death, but instead exhorts them to stand firm in the face of his departure, when the events may look to them as if evil and death are having their way” (Gail O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 740.
[iii] nrsv note: Or You believe
[iv] “Believe…believe.” The translation of the two uses of pisteuete is difficult. Both may be either indicative or imperative, and results in many possibilities. The first may even be a question: “Do you believe in God? [Then you must] believe also in me.” The kjv (and net) has indicative/imperative: “You do believe in God, [therefore] you must also believe in me” The nrsv has imperative/imperative: “You must believe in God, and you must believe in me.”
[v] “House” (οἰκίᾳ, oikia, n. dat., sing., fem.). This does mean “house,” but that translation is a little impersonal. Gundry notes ‘“home” does a better job of connoting a house that’s lived in.” (Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010], p. 429.) Many translations say or imply that “house” is referring to heaven. More likely he is referring to the temple and to his body. Gundry says, “[I]n 2:16–17 he used “my Father’s house/home” for the temple in Jerusalem and followed up by saying, “Disassemble this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it” (2:19). Then John interpreted this claim as a reference to “the temple [consisting] of his body” (2:21).” (Gundry, Ibid.). O’Day adds, “[I]t is critical to the interpretation of Jesus’ words here that the reference to ‘my Father’s house’ not be taken as a synonym for heaven. Instead, this reference to the Father’s house needs to be read first in the context of the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus, a form of ‘residence’ that has been repeatedly stressed from the opening verses of the Gospel (e.g., 1:1, 18)” (O’Day, Op. Cit., p. 741). Brown adds that “there is considerable patristic evidence for reading ‘with my father’” instead of “in my father’s house” (Ibid.). It’s worth noting that the phrase “my father’s house” occurs also in John 2:16, but there it is referring to the Temple.
[vi] “Dwelling places” (μοναί, monai, n. adj., nom., fem., plural). Dwelling places or resting places. It is the noun form for the verb “to abide,” and a very common term in John. Cf. 14:23, “and we will come to them and make our home with them.” It “represents a relationship characterized by trusting and knowing, such as exists between Christ and God. Christ’s death and departure will not sever, but will rather fulfill that relationship between the disciples and Christ.” Fred B. Craddock, “Fifth Sunday of Easter,” Preaching Through the Christian Year: A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, p. 274). The origin and specific meaning of monē is disputed among translators. Some believe it to be from an Aramaic word for a night stop or resting place for a traveler on a journey. Origen, in fact understood it this way, saying that John was referring to stations along the road to God (De principiis II XI 6; PG 11:246). Brown says, “This may also have been the understanding of the Latin translators who rendered monē by mansion, a halting place. (The standard English rendition ‘many mansions’ stems from Tydnale, but in Old English ‘mansion’ meant dwelling place, and not necessarily a palatial dwelling. It has no connotation of a stopping place). Such an interpretation would also have suited the Gnostic theory that the soul in its ascent passes through stages wherein it is gradually purified of all that is material” (Brown, Gospel of John, AB 29A, p. 619). On the other hand, it is “much more in harmony with Johannine thought to relate mone to the cognate very menein, frequently used in John in reference to staying, remaining, or abiding with Jesus and with the Father…John may be referring to places (or situations) where the disciples can dwell in peace by remaining with the Father [cf. 14:23]” (Brown, Ibid.). (Side note: Brown’s whole comment, almost word for word, is copied in the NET, without attribution.)
[vii] “Would I have told you” Also, “I would have told you” or “would I have told you?”
[viii] Verse 2b is very difficult to translate. It hinges on the word, hoti, “that” or “for” which is found following “I told you…” in most (but not all) mss. The niv and kjv leave it out altogether, and start a new sentence: “…I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” nrsv has “I would have told you that I go…” nrsv footnote has a semicolon. Gail O’Day  (NIB, p. 740) says that it “translates hoti as ‘for’ and positions Jesus’ words about his preparation of a place for the disciples as proof of the truth of v. 2a,” and therefore, it “punctuates v. 2b as a question.” O’Day votes for leaving it out, following the niv and kjv. Metzger goes for the longer reading (with hoti), and believes that copyists shortened it as a simplification. (Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. P. 243).
[ix] “You know the way to the place where I am going.” The nrsv note says, Other ancient authorities read Where I am going you know, and the way you know. Brown says that this variant is much smoother Greek, but it is “for that very reason suspect as a scribal improvement” (John, 29A, p. 620). Dodd believes that the smoother version actually misunderstands Jesus’ point in v. 4, because what Jesus is trying to say is something like, “you know the way (me), but what you don’t know is where the way leads you.” (CH Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 412). The NET Bible says that “either assertion on the part of Jesus would be understandable…although the shorter reading is a bit more awkward syntactically.” (NET Bible].
[x] “Thomas.” The Codex Bezae adds, “this name means ‘twin’” as in 11:16. Barrett, p. 382, says that “Thomas appears in John as a loyal but dull disciple, whose misapprehensions serve to bring out the truth.”
[xi] “If you know me, you will know my Father also.” There is a difficult textual problem here: The statement reads either “If you have known (ἐγνώκατε, egnōkate) me, you will know (γνώσεσθε, gnōsesthe) my Father” or “If you had really known (ἐγνώκειτε, egnōkeite) me, you would have known (ἐγνώκειτε ἄν or ἂν ἤδειτε [egnōkeite an or an ēdeite]) my Father.” The division of the external evidence is difficult, but can be laid out as follows: The MSS that have the perfect ἐγνώκατε in the protasis (Ì66 [א D* W] 579 pc it) also have, for the most part, the future indicative γνώσεσθε in the apodosis (Ì66 א D W [579] pc sa bo), rendering Jesus' statement as a first-class condition. The MSS that have the pluperfect ἐγνώκειτε in the protasis (A B C D1 L Θ Ψ Ë1,13 33 Ï) also have, for the most part, a pluperfect in the apodosis (either ἂν ἤδειτε in B C* [L] Q Ψ 1 33 565 al, or ἐγνώκειτε ἄν in A C3  Θ Ë13 Ï), rendering Jesus' statement a contrary-to-fact second-class condition. The external evidence slightly favors the first-class condition, since there is an Alexandrian-Western alliance supported by Ì66. As well, the fact that the readings with a second-class condition utilize two different verbs with ἄν in different positions suggests that these readings are secondary. However, it could be argued that the second-class conditions are harder readings in that they speak negatively of the apostles (so K. Aland in TCGNT 207); in this case, the ἐγνώκειτε...ἐγνώκειτε ἄν reading should be given preference. Although a decision is difficult, the first-class condition is to be slightly preferred. In this case Jesus promises the disciples that, assuming they have known him, they will know the Father. Contextually this fits better with the following phrase (Joh_14:7 (i.e., John 14:7b)) which asserts that “from the present time you know him and have seen him” (cf. John 1:18)” (NET Bible).
[xii] “And have seen him.” (kai heōrakate). Perfect active indicative of horaō. “The verb here and in v. 9 is horan; in 12:45 we had the same thought expressed with theorein; in both instances spiritual insight is involved” (Brown, John, 29A, p. 622). 
[xiii] Show us (deixon hēmin). To point out, present to the sight, to cause to see.
[xiv] “You still do not know me?” (kai ouk egnōkas me). Perfect active indicative of ginōskō. Vincent has “Come to know me.” NET Bible has “recognized me.”
[xv] “Seen the Father.” Some mss. add: “too.” Perhaps it is added to match with v. 7.
[xvi] “I am in the Father…” “The mutual interrelationship of the Father and the Son  (ἐγὼ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ἐν ἐμοί ἐστιν,
egō en tō patri kai ho patēr en emoi estin) is something that Jesus expected even his opponents to recognize (cf. John 10:38). The question Jesus asks of Philip (οὐ πιστεύεις, ou pisteuei) expects the answer “yes.” Note that the narrative turns here and Jesus is addressing all the disciples, and not just Philip, because the plural pronoun (ὑμῖν, humin) is used. Jesus says that his teaching (the words he spoke to them all) did not originate from himself, but the Father, who permanently remains (μένων, menōn) in relationship with Jesus, performs his works. One would have expected “speaks his words” here rather than “performs his works”; many of the church fathers (e.g., Augustine and Chrysostom) identified the two by saying that Jesus’ words were works. But there is an implicit contrast in the next verse between words and works, and v. 12 seems to demand that the works are real works, not just words. It is probably best to see the two terms as related but not identical; there is a progression in the idea here. Both Jesus’ words (recall the Samaritans’ response in John 4:42) and Jesus’ works are revelatory of who he is, but as the next verse indicates, works have greater confirmatory power than words. (NET Bible note.)
[xvii] “the words”…”the works” The relationship between these two is not clear. One would have expected them to be the same: “the words…I do not speak on my own, but the Father…says his words.” But that isn’t what is in the best mss. Bultmann sees them as both meaning words. Brown says, “more likely the terms are complementary but not identical; the parallelism is progressive rather than synonymous” (p. 622).
[xviii] “Me” Many mss. omit me. “It may have been added by scribes in imitation of the first line of the verse” (Brown, p. 622).
[xix] This whole verse is omitted in some important mss. Perhaps its repetitive character caused them to leave it out. Metzger gives two options for its exclusion: (a) it was due to an accident in transcription, the eye of the scribe having passed from εαν to εαν; (b) similarity in sentiment and even in expression with the first part of ver. 13 prompted parsimonious scribes to delete; (c) it was deliberately omitted in order to avoid contradiction with 16.23” (Bruce Manning Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (London;  New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), p. 208.
[xx] Fred B. Craddock, “Fifth Sunday of Easter,” Preaching Through the Christian Year: A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, p. 274)
[xxi] Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews, 1965-1982, Karl Rahner, Paul Imhof, Hubert Biallowons, (Crossroad: 1986), p. 135.