Coming and Going: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 6
Easter 6 (Year C): John 14:23-29
1) This is the sixth of the seven weeks of Eastertide; between now and Pentecost, we’ll continue exploring Jesus’ teachings on faith, discipleship, and intimacy with God. Next week is the Ascension; in that sense, then, this week Jesus is on the verge of departure.
2) As we saw last week, Jesus is in the midst of his so-called “farewell discourses” to the disciples (John 13-17), and they are understandably distraught. In their eyes, here was the Messiah, the one who would deliver them and the whole world, the one on whom they had pinned all their hopes, all their lives - and now he was leaving? Not only leaving - now he was going to suffer, to be humiliated, desecrated, vanquished? And his disgrace - wouldn’t it amount to theirs as well? Accordingly, the disciples are disoriented, unnerved and afraid; Thomas’ wide-eyed question is emblematic: “How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This context of crisis is the interpretive key for understanding the farewell discourses in John. So far from a cerebral lecture on salvation or discipleship, this is urgent pastoral care: Jesus is assuring his companions that his imminent departure is not abandonment, but rather a move that will make way for an even deeper intimacy. It’s as if he’s saying, On one level, I’m about to leave you - but on a deeper level, we’ll be closer than ever. Don’t worry; take heart. Trust me - and trust the One who sent me!
3) Peter, Thomas, Philip, and Judas (not Iscariot) all ask anxious questions at this Last Supper, and this week’s passage is Jesus’ response to Judas (John 13:36; 14:5; 14:8; 14:22). Jesus has just said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me,” and Judas is perplexed: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (14:19,22). Part of his confusion may be because many expected the Messiah to come in glory, for all to see (compare, for example, Mark 13:26). In his distress, Judas may be doubting that Jesus is the Messiah after all.
4) The broad choreography of Jesus’ mission in John is worth keeping in mind: Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, comes to dwell with humanity and to recruit the first apostles; Jesus then departs from them in the flesh, precisely so he can dwell with them in a deeper way in the Spirit, “abiding in” them as they abide in him; and in his place, Jesus assures them, God will send the Holy Spirit, who will guide and empower them as the movement grows into the church, a community who will go on to do even “greater works” than Jesus did (John 14:12). Christians tend to valorize Jesus’ time “in the flesh” - but for John, the symphony of salvation continues to crescendo with each movement, and the rise of the Spirited-church-abiding-in-Jesus is an even “greater” phase of God’s redemptive work.
1) In the context of Jesus assuring his disciples that he is by no means abandoning them, his teaching about love and “keeping my word” functions as a soothing word of solace. The connection with his disciples, he insists, will be so integral that separation is virtually unthinkable; their everyday lives of “keeping my word” - that is, of following Jesus’ instruction, especially the new commandment just given - will be signs of their ongoing communion with Jesus. His tone in this teaching, then, isn’t stern admonition; he’s not saying, If you want me to be with you, you’d better follow my commands. Instead, his aim is to console and assure: Just keep listening to me, following my instruction, keeping my word, and we’ll be together. Don’t worry. I will be with you, and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side - but in the days to come I will live in you, and you in me. Today, you walk in my footsteps - but in the days to come you will walk, as it were, ‘in my feet,’ and I will walk in yours. You will be my body, my hands and feet and word for a world that needs healing and good news. Friends, I’m not abandoning you - on the contrary, you and I will now be closer together than we’ve ever been before. I will abide in you, and you will abide in me (John 15:4). I will not leave you orphaned (John 14:18)!
2) And what’s more, in Jesus’ name, God will send the Holy Spirit as an Advocate (Greek Parakletos, “Helper,” literally “called alongside,” as a lawyer comes alongside a defendant, or a teacher comes alongside a student). The Spirit will teach them “everything,” even beyond what Jesus has taught (see John 16:12-13), and at the same time “remind” them of what Jesus said (John 14:26). Thus the Spirit will help them “keep my word,” and thereby maintain their symbiotic communion with Jesus: “because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).
3) The upshot of all this - both Keep my word and we’ll be together and The Spirit will guide you along the Way - is that Jesus wants to leave his disciples with a profound sense of confidence and equanimity: in a word, “peace” (John 14:27). John writes in Greek, of course, but in the background here is the ancient Hebrew notion of shalom - not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of personal and communal well-being. My peace I give to you, Jesus says, a sentiment he repeats when he appears to them after his resurrection (John 20:19,21,26).
1) We often think and speak of the good news of Christ’s advent, his arrival, his coming near - but here we learn of the good news of Christ’s departure, his “going away” (John 14:28). He goes away like a tablet dissolves into water: the tablet is gone, but at the same time its presence pervades the water entirely. His absence, then, is also a new presence of the Spirit, all of which gives rise to the community of the church, the movement that will go on to do even “greater works” (John 14:12). In other words, Jesus leaves in order to make possible an even more intimate communion with us, and with creation as a whole. Accordingly, Jesus is both coming and going: “‘I am going away, and I am coming to you’” (John 14:28).
2) At its heart, this is a passage of consolation, assuring dismayed disciples - then and now - that Jesus isn’t abandoning them. What’s coming, Jesus promises, isn’t distance but rather a radical closeness, a companionship so intimate as to blur any sharp distinction between companions. Jesus is God’s Word (Logos), after all, and so by “keeping my word” (logon), by loving as Jesus loved, we abide in him as he abides in us (John 1:1; 14:23; 15:4).
3) This theme of mutual indwelling is shot through John’s Gospel, and also through the Bible as a whole. Genesis depicts human life itself as possible only via profound intimacy with God: we live each day precisely to the extent that divine breath is in us (see Genesis 6:3, where God says, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever…”). In Galatians, Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). In Acts, Paul preaches to the Athenians that God is the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And in John, Jesus abides in the One who sent him, and we abide in Jesus, as deeply, organically related as a branch is to its vine (John 15:5). For John, the ultimate goal is not merely to follow Jesus or obey his commandments, but rather to live in Jesus as he lives in us.
4) What would such mutual indwelling look like? It would look like Jesus, and at the same time it would look like us - that is, it would look like us being true to ourselves, the people God made us to be. In a word, it would look like love: incarnate, tangible, down-to-earth love. And from another angle, it would look like peace: not just any peace, but what Jesus calls “my peace,” the shalom of God, a buzzing, blooming, fruitful community, coming and going, alive with the Spirit, healthy and whole.