Today’s Gospel reading is filled with good news and a little confusion that invites our questions and interpretations. Scripture is not intended to end our questions, but to be the beginning of a spiritual conversation: we don’t check our minds at the door when we enter the sanctuary but open to new possibilities of understanding God, the world, and ourselves. In fact, a living faith calls us to come to scripture with all our questions and doubts. As John Robinson, a Puritan pastor once asserted, “God has more light to shed on the scriptures.”
God is still speaking!
The passage begins with the promise of life everlasting: as he looks toward his own death, Jesus assures his followers – I am going to prepare a place for you. In God’s house, there are many mansions, and God’s eternal home waits for all who belong to Christ. You’ve heard this promise at funerals and memorial services. In the darkest valleys, it gives us hope that God’s love endures forever and that beyond the grave we will be reunited with our loved ones. God does not abandon us, and God has plans for us, as Jeremiah proclaims: God’s plans are for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope.
A few lines later, Jesus tells us about his relationship with God. Jesus and his Father are one in spirit and reality. God gives life to Jesus, and when we look at Jesus, we discover God’s own character. This is good news: you see over the years, many people have seen God as a hanging judge out to get you, or a law officer with his or her speed gun, lying in wait to tally up every wrong you’ve done, or as that cosmic killjoy, ready to turn off the music and close the dance floor whenever you’re ever starting to have a little fun.
Jesus proclaims that his own life and message is the mirror into God’s nature: now that’s a bold claim, and what’s even more extravagant is the God, whose character Jesus reveals – a God who forgives rather than condemns, who welcomes rather than excludes, who prepares a banquet for humanity in all its rich diversity, who loves playing with little children and rejoices in the osprey flying, delights in the colors a monarch butterfly, and the milkweed growing, who enjoys a clambake and a wedding feast, and wants you to have abundant life, a happy ending, and an eternal home with your loved ones.
The final promise is beyond belief: you can do greater things than I’ve done. Jesus doesn’t specify what these great things are: a few chapters later, he compares our relationship to him as being like that of a vine to its branches. Connected to the vine, we experience God’s power flowing through us, giving us energy, vitality, and fruitfulness.
What are these greater things? Well, they all circle around joy and love, and the power to bring beauty and wholeness to our world. Jesus tells us, “Don’t think small. Don’t settle for being average. Regardless of your age, health condition, grades in school, or the size our congregation, I’m working in your life giving you dreams and abilities beyond what you can currently imagine. You are my beloved children and you can do wonders when you open to my loving power.”
But, there is one confusing passage – John 14:6. “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Historically and especially in recent times, this passage has been used – I dare say, misused – as a carrot and a stick, a promise and a threat.
Some people interpret this in a narrow and frightening manner: I recall a friend of mine being frightened by a well-meaning churchgoer, who claimed that he would go to hell because he was baptized as an infant, by sprinkling, and not all the way under, by immersion in his teens, as she believed the bible ordained. I recall another friend being told he wasn’t saved because he didn’t go down on his knees and recite the sinner’s prayer in the right way on a particular date, confessing his sin and begging for mercy. This passage has been used to exclude seekers, honest questioners, divorced persons, gay and lesbian persons, and people from other faiths from God’s salvation. When this passage is taken out of context, it hurts rather than heals, and frightens rather comforts. It makes grace something we must earn rather than a gift from our Loving Parent. It tells us that we must believe the right things or God won’t love us enough to save us.
But, is this what Jesus meant in describing himself as the way to salvation? Jesus is clear that our actions have consequences and that we can choose darkness rather than light. When we are disconnected from the vine, we lose our energy and fruitfulness. But, do we lose God?
Remember Jesus tells us that if you want to know God’s will, look to him. What we see in Jesus is not a threat but an invitation, not an exclusive club but a welcome to all people: remember that Jesus’ most ardent followers were outcasts, sinners, people who didn’t belong, and people whose diseases rendered them unclean. Jesus describes God as the one who seeks the lost, whether they wander off into darkness out of stupidity like the lost sheep, get lost in the cracks of life like the lost coin, or choose to turn from God like the wayward and prodigal son.
Perhaps a better way to interpret this passage involves looking at Jesus’ other promises from John 14: I’ve prepared a home you now and forever, you can experience unity with God just as I do, and you can do great things when you follow my path. Jesus has built a pathway to wholeness and salvation that includes all of us, and even when we step off the path, Jesus has a prepared a way home for us. This path leads to many dwelling places and can be discovered by many ways, but every honest and faithful way leads to God’s realm.
This is good news: a mother once came to me with a question about her daughter, who had suffered with depression for many years, and in a moment of despair ended her life. “Where’s Sarah now?” she asked. She waiting with baited breath, because recently a pastor had told her bluntly that Sarah was in hell, lost completely in the dark and fire of God’s wrath. I said a prayer, because spiritual leaders can do harm as well as good by what we say. “I believe,” I responded, “that God was with Sarah when she died and God is with Sarah now.” As Paul was to say in Romans 8, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” God’s love is eternal.
Today, we can be bold. We don’t need to be scared of God or worried about God’s plans for us. God’s plans are clear: I have a home waiting for you; but in the meantime, be heavenly minded and earthly good – think big, rejoice, use your gifts and talents, open to my blessing, and let my energy of love flow through you to others. Walk in my path, and you will have abundance and joy today, a mission to the world, and a future beyond your imagination.