Lectionary Reflections for May 18, 2014
Today’s gospel could be described as “three promises and a problem.” As a congregational pastor, I regularly read John 14:1-3 at funerals and memorial services. The implication of Jesus’ words is that beyond the grave, God has prepared a place for our continuing spiritual adventures. For lack of a better word, we speak of this place as heaven, the realm of the blessed, characterized by many mansions or dwelling places, for our everlasting journey. We have a future and a hope, and may enjoy diverse homes in the afterlife. God’s realm is not uniform, but multifaceted and dynamic, and will be a place of positive relationships in our divine dwelling places. Of course, God’s everlasting realm may be an entirely different plane of existence, whose reality defies anything we can imagine.
John 14:10 speaks of the spiritual unity between God the Parent and Jesus. The Divine Parent and Jesus are one in spirit: Jesus dwells fully in God’s Reality, reflecting and revealing God’s vision and God dwells in Jesus as his deepest self and animating spirit. This spiritual unity has metaphysical implications: Jesus and the Parent are symbiotically related, experientially permeating one another. While this doesn’t necessarily give us a description of the Trinity, it does suggest that Trinitarian thinking must focus on interdependence and spiritual unity as key characteristics. When we turn to Jesus, trusting his pathway to wholeness, we can experience God’s energy flowing through us and we can do great things.
The final promise is that through Christ we can do even greater things than we can imagine. The nature of these “greater things” is left vague: does Jesus mean we can heal the sick, raise the dead, and defy the ordinary limits placed on human life, or that we will resonate with spiritual energy as a result of our nearness to God? The vagueness may be helpful, because in not fully defining the nature of these “greater things,” we are given permission to push our limits individually and as communities. As I have said throughout my writings, there is a deeper realism, a more lively naturalism, than we can imagine in our current state of consciousness and spiritual evolution. This is part of the regular causality of the universe, and is an intensification of our everyday lives in ways that seem supernatural: resurrection is possible, energetic cures are possible, mysticism is possible, for all whom open to God’s movements in their lives.
John 15, Jesus speaks of vines and branches. When we are connected with the divine vine, we can do great things and bear much fruit. When we align ourselves with Jesus, we receive his powers and can manifest his energy of love in our lives. We can do greater things than we can imagine in concert with God’s animating inspiration in our lives. Aligned with God’s vision, our prayers are answered. But, our answers to prayers and our greater deeds are not generic or arbitrary; they reflect our deepest desires in concert with God’s desires for our well-being and the well-being of the world.
The problem in today’s reading emerges in John 14:6. “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” When I use John 14 at funerals, I stop at verse three to avoid theological confusion and the impact of the more popular interpretations of this passage. How often have people been brutalized by this passage! Historically and especially in recent times, this passage has been used as both a carrot and a stick. It charts out a way to salvation, and denigrates any other pathway to God, whether Christian or non-Christian. From this perspective, doubters, seekers, and faithful adherents of other faith traditions are ultimately doomed unless they explicitly accept Jesus as Savior usually through reciting some formulaic sinner’s prayer or creed. Anyone who stands outside these requirements is destined to damnation. This passage becomes the antithesis to the “greater things” God imagines for it when we interpret it individualistically, exclusively, and literally. Imagination is stunted and the gifts of the Spirit wither on the vine.
This passage can be destructive if taken out of the context of John’s Gospel and a holistic understanding of Jesus’ life and message. Jesus ministry was grounded in relationship, rather than creed or theological litmus test. Following the way of Jesus brings joy and salvation; Jesus’ way, however, is not a demand but a graceful invitation. Jesus barred no one from the path of salvation, although we have the ability to thwart Jesus’ vision for our lives. Still even those who turn from God are not abandoned; those who crucified Jesus are given forgiveness. Despite our penchant for following pathways of darkness, God’s light still envelopes and enlightens all of us.
Jesus is the way to salvation in an inclusive way. All paths of salvation and enlightenment are grounded in the graceful energy of God. We walk the pathway to many mansions in many diverse ways, lured forward by God’s moment to moment inspiration. We can still speak of Jesus as supreme without denigrating other faiths and casting doubt on peoples’ eternal destinies. We can understand Jesus pathway as an embracing grace that animates and empowers all authentic paths. We can be confessional pluralists, recognizing that the diversity of spiritual paths is not a fall from grace, but a reflection of God’s personal relationship with every culture and person. Christ is the way that includes all authentic ways, enabling all ways to be fruitful.
When we interpret John 14:6 imaginatively and inclusively, then it becomes our fourth promise: God guides us on the pathway wherever we are on our journey; God’s energy enlightens all persons in all cultures; makes a way where there is no way; and leads all creation in all of its diversity to wholeness.