John 14:1-14 – We can know God, now

Reflection by Dan Spragg

What are we to think? And, what are we to do in the face of uncertainty, anxiety, worry, and fear…? The disciples in this passage are deep in the midst of these. This conversation is happening at ‘The Last Supper’, the night before Jesus is arrested, put to trial, and crucified. He is talking of going away, Judas has been outed as the one who will betray him, and Peter has been told he will deny Jesus three times. No wonder they are asking, confused, ‘Wait, what? Where are you going? We don’t know how to get there, what are we to do?’ Their ideas about what was going to happen – with Jesus as the Messiah – are starting to fall apart. They are uncertain, they are anxious, they are worried, and fearful. What is the response Jesus gives at this moment?

Uncertainty, anxiety, worry, fear… these are things that we could rightly be feeling given how a few things are lining up in our world. There is the cost of living situation. There’s the rise of political dis-ease and extreme views. There is a rise in crime and violence. And this is just in Aotearoa! These, it seems, get amplified on the world stage. As well as these, we could look at the often-mentioned and long-term trends in the church. The decline in people and energy. The rise of costs. The decline in income. The rise of resistance and scepticism when it comes to organised religion. Uncertainty, anxiety, worry, and fear. These form part of our world too. What is the response Jesus might give to us at this moment?

Jesus opens his response in a very interesting way. He invokes the metaphor of a Jewish marriage. It was customary that the groom would go and prepare a space in his family’s home for the bride before the wedding. Part of the ceremony of the marriage is that he would officially go back to his bride and bring her home, to the place he had prepared, for her to come and live amongst his household. This is a strange way for Jesus to start responding to his disciples, and I’m sure a few of them were curious as to what he was getting at, but the point he was making was that they were family. Those who follow him are family and will be invited in to live with him in the household of God. The assumption most often about these words of Jesus is that they are talking about the afterlife – that there is a literal place for us with God when we die. Now I’m not saying that this isn’t true, but there could be a different way to understand this that could be useful to us. Instead of believing in God so that after you die you can be in heaven, it could be understood that Jesus is saying here, ‘Trust in me, trust in God, for God wants us to live together’. The difference is subtle but it’s there. One is an idea, the other is a relationship.

If we are to believe certain things so that we can go to heaven when we die then the essence of faith becomes an intellectual transaction. Mentally assent to a certain set of ideas so that when we die we can enjoy some sort of afterlife. It’s like a religious insurance policy. If however, we understand the invitation of Jesus as being an invitation to live the ‘with God’ life then this invitation to relationship becomes a whole lot more meaningful as I understand it. It becomes a dynamic, impactful thing with possibilities for the here and now. I don’t know about you but this feels a lot more helpful to help us live with uncertainty, anxiety, worry, and fear than just trying to believe a set of ideas.

Last time I preached on this passage I mentioned the theologian Robert Jensen and his thoughts on the ‘many rooms’ of God. His idea is so good I have to mention it again. Jensen talks of the ‘roominess’ of God.[1] That God is ‘roomy’. That is, spacious. As in, lots of space. As in, God has room enough for all and God has made space for all. Not only that, but God wants us all to come and move in. The sense of this is about ‘being with’. In the next chapter of John’s Gospel (15) Jesus talks of ‘abiding’ – that he is the vine and we are the branches – that we are to remain in him and he will remain in us. Which is understood as something that we are to do while we are alive. God is not concerned with time being divided up between before and after death for all time exists in God. God has all the time God needs. It is we who like to make distinctions between such things. God simply wants us to be in a relationship. God wants us to live in the household, to participate in the way, the truth, and the life – here and now.

Let’s consider for a moment how we relate to people. We spend time with them, they spend time with us. We get to know them, they get to know us. Trust develops. We can speak openly with them and they can speak openly to us. Ideally, we might even get to the point where we can listen to what they might have to say, even if it is challenging for us. Now, what if we were to consider this being how God would like to be with us? That God would like us to spend time together and get to know each other. And that God would like to spend time with us and listen to us and speak to us and occasionally God might like us to listen. To get to know someone we need to spend time with them. How are we to know God? We spend time with God. And of course, we know we have a starting point for this.

We’ve had a saying in The Village, it’s one of our beliefs and values, that in Jesus, God has a name and a face. That is exactly what Jesus is saying here is true. That we can know God because of Jesus. In a Facebook post recently, Pastor and Author Brian Zahnd said this:

“We don’t start with God and say, ‘I know what God is like and Jesus is that.’ No! We do not know what God is like-not in any real, meaningful way. We only come to truly know God when the Word becomes flesh. Until then it’s mostly hints and guesses and our own psychological projections. The theological purpose of the Christian confession that Jesus Christ is ‘true God from true God’ is that we might finally know what God is like. God is like Jesus.”[2]

We know what God is like – God is like Jesus. In Jesus, God has a name and a face.

And what do we see in Jesus? Well, we see Joy, compassion, sorrow, anger, grace, peace… In what we see in Jesus, it seems that God is quite relatable. In Jesus, we can know God. God’s way, truth, and life is what we see in Jesus. This is what we can know of God. And this is the God that wants to be with us – in all time – including and perhaps most importantly, here and now.

In God’s ‘roominess’, in living within a relationship with God there’s one more important difference to make between faith in God being mentally agreeing to certain statements or it being trusting in the presence of God with us. The problem with set ideas and statements is that there often isn’t any room for questions or doubts. These ideas we are meant to agree with often are quite fixed and not interested in a conversation. However, within a relationship of trust what we know is that there can be room for these things. There can be room for doubt, for questions, for a faith that seeks understanding. There can be room for grief and silence, for fear and worry. It’s my conviction that God is up for it all. Within the ‘roominess’ of God there is space for everything. God has enough time and space for all that we bring. Jesus did not come to teach us about God. Jesus came to embody God with us. Ideas are part of it because ideas are part of being human but ideas are secondary to trusting in Christ who holds us within the life of God.

Through this, Jesus says, we can know the ‘with God’ life which is abundant and will contain greater than we can see even in Jesus. The God with us life is abundant life because it is wide and spacious and contains all of who we are and all of who God is. This is the message that Jesus speaks into anxiety, worry, uncertainty, and fear. In the midst of these Jesus speaks reassurance of what we can know and of who we are to trust, despite our uncertainties and the unknowns of what lies ahead. This is such an important message for many people we rub shoulders with. And this is the point of Jesus’ conversation with those disciples. Reassurance and an attempt to help them finally see, before what happens next, that they are invited into something much larger than they had in mind when they realised he was the Messiah. This much larger thing is of course the ‘so what?’ to all of this. Abundant life is great, and it is useful and necessary but it was never just for them, just like it is never just for us. Their living after Jesus was gone was meant to be a continuation of what Jesus had started among them. And it’s this continuation that we stand in now. God is with us just as God was with them. We live, spending time with God, trusting in God’s way, truth, and life but not just for ourselves. As we live with God, do we make room for others as God does for us? Who do we reflect Jesus to? Who sits at our tables? Who do we serve? Who do we pray for? Who do we pray with? Who do we invite to find belonging in the household of God? Who is God inviting us to pass this invitation on to?

[1] See, Robert Jenson, “Aspects of a Doctrine of Creation,” in Colin Gunton, ed., The Doctrine of Creation (London, 1997).

[2] Brian Zahnd, Facebook, April 20, 2023 – ​​