The Rev. Cynthia Banks--Easter 5—Year A (video link)
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
I Peter 2:2-10
John 14—oh, what a beautiful passage. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places …” In the King James, it’s many mansions…In my Father’s house are many mansions…” Good stuff. Rich images. Dwelling places, mansions, places to abide, places of presence. In God’s home, presence is spacious.
Jesus continues, “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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” This is so tender, so hopeful, so reassuring. Jesus reminding his followers that he’s told them that he is preparing a place for them, and that he himself will take them to himself, so that in that glorious place where he has planted his presence, there his followers will be also.
This is intimate. Taking someone to yourself is intimate. And Jesus reminds them further that they know the way to that place, to that space where he is going. In the years they have spent in his presence, they have garnered some skills, they have gained some capacities to see and perceive and know the way that leads to this place that Jesus himself inhabits.
And this is so hard for us because we, in our flesh and blood material existence, think physical place, physical realm, physical time. But this is mystical language. This is the language of all the realms, and those include the physical realm but move far beyond it into realms that are objectively real, but beyond our objective, rational minds and imaginations. It’s Thomas, good ol’ keep-it-real Thomas, who gives voice to our confusion.
Thomas said to [Jesus], “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Lord, we don’t know this place where you are going. And if we don’t know this place, how can we possibly know the way. We don’t know the destination, and frankly, Lord, after the events of tonight, we’re not even sure of our starting place. Our google maps app is not going to help us here. How can we know the way???”
And then Jesus drops down into the deep, deep waters. Hold on to your hats because he’s dropping us into the kind of mystical truth that will blow our minds and quicken our hearts. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Okay, in these words of Jesus, what’s the phrase that gives you fits? (pause) No one comes to the Father except through me. And why does this phrase give you fits? (pause) That’s right, because it sounds exclusive, because it makes it sound like the only way to access God is through Jesus. And well, what do we do with all the people of all the other faiths? What do we do with all the other ways of knowing God? And what do we do with there being many mansions and many dwelling places in this spacious home of God? And off our minds are running down the rabbit hole with a thousand questions.
But let’s hit the pause button here. Context, context, context. What is the context of Jesus saying these things to his disciples? Jesus and his closest friends are sharing supper on the night before he will be crucified. Jesus knows that everything is falling apart. He knows he’s about to be betrayed by one of his inner circle, and he knows he’ll be denied by one of his closest friends and followers. He’s washed his disciples’ feet. He’s shown his love for them and made clear that this is the kind of love they are to show one another. They’ve shared bread and wine. The night feels heavy. The disciples are rattled. This is the energetic atmosphere into which Jesus is speaking these words.
Jesus is not trying to spin out a systematic theology that deals with who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom; Jesus is trying to reassure his disciples in a more Julian of Norwich kind of way—“Friends, it’s all about love, always and forever it’s about love, and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
And there’s a subtle shift that happens over these verses, and it centers on the word translated as “know.” When Jesus first tells his disciples that they know the way, this knowing is really about what can be perceived with the senses; it’s more about skills and capacities and garnering knowledge; there’s some definition to this kind of knowing. And Thomas isn’t so sure of his knowledge. It’s like EOG’s and EOC’s are coming (that’s End of Grade and End of Class tests for those of you not living this reality right now), and Thomas fears he’s forgotten everything he knows.
But when Jesus answers Thomas, he says that if Thomas knows him, i.e. Jesus, then Thomas knows the Father, but this kind of knowing is a different word in the greek. It’s intimate knowing, it’s the word used to convey the Jewish idiom for the most intimate of relations between a man and a woman. This is knowing that is intensely, intimately relational. And what comes next shows us how hard this is to grasp.
Philip said to [Jesus], “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied. Expose it to our eyes, give us some proof. Prove this God thing, give us some facts, Lord, and it will be enough for us.
And Jesus goes right back to relational, intimate knowing. “You know me from dwelling with me, from communing with me, from being with me. Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but this is about God in me, Philip. Trust me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, and if you can’t trust what I’m telling you then trust me because of the things you’ve experienced with me and in me and through me.” Again, it’s a relational kind of knowing.
But back to this darn “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
When you hear “Father” in this context, what do you see? (pause) Old white grandfatherly guy with long flowing white beard. And who is the “me” here? Yes, it’s Jesus, but this is John’s gospel; this is the gospel of “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” This is the gospel of the Incarnation, God made flesh.
There is no getting to our Divine Source, which is what “pater,” “Father,” means, there is no getting to our Divine Source without understanding that Divinity dwells in our flesh. God is insanely, intimately, relational with our human flesh. That’s what Jesus icons for us.
There is no getting to Divinity somewhere out there without understanding that Divinity dwells so richly in here, dwells so richly in this earthen vessel called humanity.
And you can’t discover this Divinity in the abstract or in the realm of show-me facts; you can only discover this Divinity in the intimacy that comes when you dwell with another, abide with them, commune with them, live with them, set up household with them.
It’s in living our lives with God-made-flesh, in Jesus, in one another, that we discover the Source of that merciful, compassionate, steadfast, unfathomable Love that companions us in our dying and in our rising.
Jesus isn’t teaching his disciples about exclusion; he’s teaching them about the intimacy of relationship with the Divine. Jesus, God—they aren’t an idea; as we discovered last week, they are a portal, a passage, a channel carrying us into the Love that moves beyond words and expresses itself in the flesh.
It’s a little unnerving to think of God dwelling that intimately with us. No wonder Thomas wants to resort to a spiritual maps app and Philip to provable facts. Working it out in relationship is always the harder row to hoe.
Coming to the Divine Source in this way will always be the way of dying and rising, it will constantly ask us to search out a deeper truth that is discovered as we seek to live in alignment with this creative Divine Source, but dwelling in this most intimate of relational spaces with Divinity itself—this truly is the complete, the full, the abundant life that Jesus both describes and promises us.
So, all this mystical teaching, what does it have to do with us and our lives? Well, we can dismiss this passage as exclusionary teaching that has no power to touch us, OR, we can leap with all our heart into the relationship that Jesus is inviting us to know, with all our heart and soul and mind and yes, body.
We can fret about not having our directions in the spiritual life all laid out by every turn and landmark, we can yearn for proof that our senses will accept, OR we can take the lover’s leap that is more intuitive that logical.
And like the disciples, maybe we do a little more trusting—maybe we trust, that even though we may not quite grasp this teaching today, maybe we trust that there will come a time when our hearts will simply know that which our minds struggle to conceive, and in that conception, hidden in the deeper places of our hearts, in that intimate conception, we truly will be born anew. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 14, 2017