The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 10, 2020
Psalm 31:1-15, 15-16
I Peter 2:2-10
On the Fifth Sunday of Easter, the heart of the lectionary readings is John 14:1-14. This reading is both inspirational and challenging. During this time of pandemic, Jesus’ assurance, “do not let your hearts be troubled” truly hits home. Without denying our anxiety and concern for ourselves, loved ones, and the nation, Jesus’ words with his disciples, with a cross looming on the horizon, invite us to reflect on the scope of salvation and trust that God has prepared a place for us and our loved ones that is more than we can ask or imagine. This does not lure us away from our troubled world but places the troubles we face now and in the future in God’s care. While we cannot truly fathom Jesus’ words, we can trust his words when we are faced with realities we cannot control and must endure. Life’s “necessary losses”(Judith Viorst) can be accepted gracefully when we know that God is with us and that in the here and now and in any imaginable future, God has prepared a place for us. Like Stephen, we can catch of glimpse of everlasting life in times of threat and debilitation. This vision of God’s presence encourages agency, not passivity, in responding to the real problems of our real world – pandemic, poverty, neglect of the vulnerable, political gaslighting, and fear mongering.
From a theological perspective, today’s gospel reading can 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. We don’t know the nature of this place, but 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 spiritual homes in the afterlife. We can imagine that, like the earthly realm, 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. The “dwelling place” is wherever God is present, and that is everywhere and in every challenging situation. God is just as real in the here and now hardscrabble world of pandemic as it will be in the sweet by and by when we die! As Psalm 31 asserts, God is our “fortress” and “our times are in God’s hand.”
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 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. God is in all things, including us and the least of these in our world, and all things are in God, included in the Heart of Reality.
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? Does this mean that we can forgo physical distancing to go to worship services and that our neighbor’s will be immunized from any contagion we might spread? Does this mean we can teleport while we are sheltering in place? For most of us, I suspect not, nor should we assume “greater things” involves Christian exceptionalism that inspires “rights” without responsibilities!
The vagueness in this passage 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, even while we are sheltering in place. As I have said throughout my theological writings, there is a deeper realism, a more lively naturalism, indeed, a theistic 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. (For more on my theological perspective, see “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,” “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”)
In 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 move from “darkness into marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9) and 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. Sheltering in place, we can do great things – we can pray, we can reach out to friends, we can protest injustice to our representatives, we can pray for persons we see on the news, we can examine our lifestyle and explore post-pandemic alternatives.
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, Christian progressives and pluralists, 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. As a college student once told me, “My parents are good people, but because they aren’t Christians, if they were to die tomorrow, they would go to hell, along with other ‘good people’ like Buddha and the Dalai Lama.”
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. Moreover, this passage can be theologically 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. We need this pathway now, out of the chaos of pandemic, toward new visions of our nation, our churches, and ourselves. Let us trust that God’s place is right where we are and we can do greater things as our prayers and calls radiate forth from our households.