The Gospel we hear this morning is taken from chapter fourteen of John’s Gospel. Chapter fourteen is the second chapter of part two of the Gospel. In part one, which is called “The Book of Signs,” John has laid the foundation for our faith by recounting seven signs or miracles and then explaining their significance through a dissertation given by Jesus. In part two, which is called “The Book of Glory,” John recounts the events of the last days of Jesus’ life: the Last Supper, the arrest and conviction of Jesus, his passion and execution, followed by his Resurrection, Ascension and Bestowing the Spirit upon his disciples. We pick up the words of Jesus just after he has explained why he washed their feet, the so-called “Farewell Discourse.”
Such discourses are common in the Scriptures. Jacob takes his leave in chapter forty-nine of the Book of Genesis, Moses says good-bye in chapters thirty-one through thirty-three of the Book of Exodus, and Paul offers his final thoughts in chapter twenty of the Acts of the Apostles. If we compare these discourses, we find that they contain similar elements: predictions, words of caution about that same future, and an exhortations to those who are listening that it is their task to pass these words on to others.
As St. John is writing his Gospel, several historical facts are already coloring the way the early Church thinks about Jesus. The concerns that Jesus raises in the Gospel are the concerns of John’s community in Ephesus. The Temple has been destroyed. Christians are no longer welcome in the synagogues. Because of that, they are no longer part of the Jewish community which enjoyed protection under the Roman rule of Israel. Persecutions have begun.
In this context then, we hear Jesus utter these words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” – a tall order indeed.
These people looked upon the Temple in much the same way that we look upon our Constitution. It was the educational, religious, financial and sociological institution of their culture, of their lives. Everything was wrapped up in the Temple of Jerusalem, and by extension, the local synagogue. If they wanted to place themselves in God’s presence, they went to the Temple. If they had questions of faith, they went to the Temple. If they wished to pray, they went to the Temple. Jesus had departed and promised to return. However, his delay in returning brought about another crisis. The eyewitnesses to his life and death and resurrection were disappearing as they died. It is against this backdrop that we listen to the words of Jesus’ farewell discourse.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
“You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”
“I am going to prepare a place for you.
“I am the way and the truth and the life.”
In this last statement, Jesus is harking back to their Scriptures. For instance, chapter four, verse eleven of the Book of Proverbs reads: “On the way of wisdom I direct you, I lead you on straightforward paths.” Jesus identifies himself with the Wisdom tradition of their Scriptures. In today’s world many of us rely upon a navigation app on our phones or in our cars. However, we would probably gain more if we thought of Jesus’ statement more in terms of an ethical or moral direction than driving directions. Or as one Scripture scholar paraphrased Jesus’ statement, “I am the authentic vision of existence,” – not quite as catchy as John’s version. Yet it does help us to see that what Jesus is asking of us is a way of life, not a path on which we are to walk.
Here we might find a little help in understanding Jesus from St. Peter who uses a different metaphor. We don’t really need the Temple or the synagogue, St. Peter tells his community. We are living stones built upon Jesus who is the stone the builders rejected. When we use the living stones of our community to build a new Temple, we become that Temple. The presence of God resides in us, not in a marble or granite edifice. Our lives become the sacrifices we offer in that Temple so we no longer need the Temple sacrifices. We become a royal priesthood as a community making spiritual sacrifices to God so we no longer need the Levitical priesthood. When God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he asked Moses to tell the people: Now, if you obey me completely and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples, though all the earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has transferred that title and that role to us who have placed our faith in Jesus rather than in the Law of Sinai. When we gather together to sing God’s praise, Jesus is here among us. We have not been left orphaned. We need not let our hearts be troubled for Jesus has shown us the Way. He has gone that way before us. It is the Way of Love.
We are being asked to express that love for one another in a different way right now because of the pandemic - maintaining social distance so as not to put others at risk. It a not insignificant complication of our daily lives. May Jesus, our Way, see us through.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator