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I Am with You on the Way — John 14:1-21

Kathleen Rushton reflects on Jesus’s farewell address in John 14:1-21 in light our challenges in this time of COVID-19.

John’s Gospel has two concerns — telling the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and the implications of that story for the “now” of the reader. It is worth reflecting on a part of Jesus’s farewell address to the disciples to encourage us in this time of COVID-19.

Farewell Discourse

At the time of Jesus (ca 30 CE) and later when John’s Gospel was written (ca 90 CE) people recognised the talk of Jesus in John 13–17 as a “farewell address”. It was a genre when a well-known leader or teacher gave instructions before death. In the address the leader expressed deep concern for the well-being of the group and for individuals after his death. He announced the imminence of his death, reviewed his life to set the record straight, stressed that relationships were to continue and talked about the good things as well as the hard times ahead. He encouraged his followers to practise virtues, to avoid vices, named a successor, gave a legacy and usually finished with a prayer.

In John 14 we have Jesus’s farewell address. The Evangelist gives a sense of all that has happened — taking us back to “before the festival of the Passover” on the 14th day of Nisan (Jn 13:1) and forward to the end of Jesus’s life on Earth. We hear about the situation of the disciples. Jesus talks of “going away” and “coming to you.” He will depart when he dies and will “return” to the disciples in three days. The other time is when the disciples face Jesus’s departure from this Earth.

The “now” in the Gospel is when the Evangelist wrote the Gospel in the 90s CE with communities, probably in Ephesus, a prosperous city in the Roman Empire. The “now” for us is May 2020 when people of Earth are in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concern for the Disciples

Jesus’s words can touch our hearts now. He is deeply concerned about our feelings and responses. He begins and ends saying: “Let not your hearts be troubled” (Jn 14:1). The word translated as "troubled" means literally "stirred up". We find this word in other places in the Gospel — the movement of the water at the Bethesda pool (Jn 5:7), Jesus's agitation and emotional distress at Lazarus's death (Jn 11:33) and the prospects of his suffering and death (Jn 12:27; 13:21).The emphasis on our “hearts” continues as Jesus implores: “Believe into God, believe into me” (Jn 14:1).

Setting the Record Straight

Jesus assures the disciples: “You know the way to where I am going”. But Thomas objects: “We do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5) His question may be our question, too, when our usual “way” has been turned upside down. Jesus sets the record straight: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Jesus makes this claim at a time of crisis — he is “going away” and the disciples will face uncertainty and impending persecution.

How can we hear Jesus’s claim anew in our time of crisis? We can ponder being on “the way” at this time. It implies being earthed, embodied and finding our way with Jesus. We can hear biblical resonances — Isaiah’s words “Make straight the way of the Lord”, later quoted by John the Baptiser (Jn 1:23). When Jesus adds “the way” to his “I am” sayings, he is revealing himself in relationship to disciples. His “I am” sayings are about what Jesus brings uniquely to the world, how he benefits the world, rather than being just about himself (Jn 6:35,41,48,51; 8:12; 10:7,9; 15:1,5).

Jesus is "the way" because he reveals who God is ("truth") and when people come to believe into him, they share in eternal "life" in the present. Jesus is taking to himself Wisdom who is named as “the way” (Prov 23:19; Wis 10:17). 

In the troubled times when Jewish people were adjusting to having no temple, many believed Wisdom was found in the Torah (Ps 119). Controversially, Jesus claims to be “the way” of Wisdom. The early Christian movement becomes known as “the Way” (Acts 9:2). “Life” is a persistent thread in this Gospel. At the heart of Jesus’s ministry finishing the works of God is the sharing of eternal life in the present (Jn 1:4; 3:16).

Relationships Continue

When Jesus is absent, he is present through the Holy Spirit. Being with Jesus is about lasting relationships of “abiding” (translated as “stay”, “dwell” or “remain” Jn 14:10; 15:4–10). Jesus says the Holy Spirit “abides with you and will be in you” (Jn 14:17). The evangelist does not describe Jesus’s return in the future or of the heavens opening or Jesus coming on the cloud of heaven in judgement as in other Gospels. Instead, the language centres on a person, on a relationship and on finding Jesus in “the now” — “I … will take you to myself” (Jn 14:3).

The Way

The two Sundays when John 14 is read will take us into Laudato Si' Week (16–24 May) which marks five years since Pope Francis gave his encyclical Laudato Si': On the Care of Our Common Home to the world. One of the many outcomes has been the establishment of the Global Catholic Climate Movement.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen the global community come together in unprecedented ways for the common good. We’ve recognised Earth as our common home and experienced how closely the Earth community is interconnected.

We can use Laudato Si’ Week as “the way” to encourage us to care for Earth as part of the whole common good. We can “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents” (LS par 14).

We have seen how, with a pandemic before us, the global human community acted radically and decisively to save people’s lives — we all participated. Fundamental changes to the way we live could be made quickly, effectively and with little resistance. We can put the same effort into saving Earth — and with the same willingness to participate. We will all have a part to play, work to do. Jesus speaks of God doing works through him and says “the one who believes into me will do the works that I do and, in fact, greater works than I do”. 

This work of saving Earth from ourselves will stretch us because the human community has hurt and mistreated our common home over the last 200 years. Now is a new beginning. Let us take up the challenge to awaken a new reverence for life, a firm resolve to achieve sustainability, a quickening of the struggle for justice and peace and the joyful celebration of all life in our world.

Kathleen Rushton is a Scripture scholar and Mercy Sister in Canterbury.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 248 May 2020

The Gospel readings for 5th and 6th Sundays of Easter: 10 and 17 May 2020