A reflection on John 14:1-14 by Janine Goodwin
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
I once watched a friend, whom I’ll rename Stephanie for this meditation, undergo a radical conversion. When I met her, she was a teenager more interested in fashion than in faith, a kid who went to a mainline church because her parents said she had to. In the course of a few weeks, she became a passionately enthusiastic member of a small church that her understandably distressed parents called a cult. She changed her style of dress, her way of speaking, and the entire focus of her life. She believed in miraculous healings, and she spoke in tongues, things that both unnerved and thrilled me. She also preached hellfire to an extent that eventually led me to universalism because I couldn’t love a God who would send people to hell nor a human soul that could hold out against infinite love for all eternity.
Once, when we were out for a walk, Stephanie began lecturing me about the last verse of this passage. Her preacher had told her that if she asked for anything in Jesus’ name, God would have to give her what she asked, because God never broke promises. At this point, a dog ran out of nearby yard and began to follow us, barking. She told it to go home. It didn’t. She commanded it, in the name of Jesus, to go home.
I couldn’t decide whether she was being heroically faithful or blasphemous. The dog followed us for another block as we walked slowly away, barking so loudly we couldn’t discuss God’s failure or refusal to make it go home. When it turned away, we talked about something else.
I don’t know what Stephanie got from that experience. I got the beginning of the sense that God’s promises are never a way to use God for our ends, and a sneaking sense of relief that her invocation had not worked—because if that dog had immediately stopped barking and trotted home, I would have felt obliged to join her church, which I did not want to do. In either case, I knew I would never have tried what she did, because I didn’t really want God to be close enough to me to disrupt the fragile balance of my life with miracles and demands.
It would be easy to dismiss Stephanie’s faith as immature, and to stop there. Of course her faith was immature: she was a teenager. She did, however, have the kind of courage Stephen had in today’s epistle reading, and I did not. My faith was immature, too, though in a different direction. I didn’t want the power she wanted, because I didn’t want to be called to do the strange works Jesus did.
Like Thomas and Philip in this Gospel reading, both of us were engaged in the lifelong task of learning to trust a God we can never fully understand. My friend believed in Scripture as a sort of magic, in which the power of God could be called down for her purposes. In contrast, I was more frightened of passages like today’s gospel than I was of the growling dog. On Sundays, I sat in a quiet church with nicely dressed people, hearing these wild promises and impossible demands from Jesus and wondering why no one else noticed the kind of danger we were in. God was calling us to do greater works than Jesus did. I found that terrifying. Even if I dismissed the miracles of healing and feeding and the raising of the dead as things that didn’t happen anymore, with a vague sense that it would be both upsetting and somewhat tacky if they did, there was a lot of work to do: the work of justice and peace, the work of preaching and teaching, the work of showing God to one another. I couldn’t help noticing that the followers of Jesus tended to upset the way people thought and worked, and that a disproportionate number of them were ostracized, ridiculed, and even killed. True, not everyone was called to be a prophet or a martyr—but you never knew who would be. I used to revise the hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” slightly:
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce, wild beast,
And there’s not one reason, no, not the least,
That I shouldn’t get chomped, too!
I wanted a safe life, and the Gospels offered no safety at all. I didn’t want to be Stephen. His assurance was wonderful, but his death was still an ugly death. He saw God, true, but I would rather not have done so while being murdered by an angry mob. I strongly suspected that if Jesus had walked by and said, “Follow Me,” I would have said, “Er, thanks, but I really don’t think I’m up to it.” I still wonder whether I am. He still keeps calling.
It has taken me a long time to see that the disciples in today’s Gospel passage were just as confused and frightened as I. Jesus tries to reassure them at the beginning of the passage, telling them that they will be with him always, that he is going to prepare a place for them. They can’t hear what he is saying. They can’t hear what they have already heard: that they know the way to the place where he is going. They don’t dare know what they already know. They respond to Jesus’ assurances with demands for certainty. Thomas wants a heavenly road map. Philip wants proof of Jesus’ authority. How does Jesus respond? He answers them with surprising pragmatism. Jesus may rebuke the disciples, but he is not a perfectionist. He reminds them of what they have learned about him, then tells them to believe in any way they can. “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” I like to have a proper theoretical foundation for things, so this, for me, is one of the most radical and shocking utterances in any Gospel. If living in an imperfect faith is more important than being right, I have no excuses left. I am called to am uncertain, vulnerable life, a life in which the only assurance is that I will be with Jesus when it all ends. That has to be enough.
My friend and I both wanted a God who would give us certainty, and were met by a God whom we could not understand. We looked for the knowledge of God in groups of people who had differing ways of looking at the Gospels. We were both wrong, each in our own way. We told each other why each others’ churches were wrong, but never admitted where they might be right, never looked at what we might teach each other about the life of faith. Perhaps that was our greatest error: we let our very real and often deeply painful differences become a barrier that prevented us from sharing what we knew of God. In our desire for certainty, we lost the holy uncertainty that is humility before God.
We are all wrong, to varying degrees at varying times, and we are all right, and we are none of us all right or all wrong; we will never be entirely sure when we are right and when we are wrong, and Jesus doesn’t seem to care nearly as much about that as we do. Jesus wants us to believe and do his work, despite our misunderstandings and imperfections. What would happen if we would all spend more time listening to each other and believing that Jesus has already told us what we need to know? If we could listen more to Jesus, and less to our own desire for power and our own fears, what miracles could we do?
Janine Goodwin is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader who lives with her husband, dogs, and cats. She holds a B. Mus. and an M.S. Ed. in Special Education from the University of Oregon and an M.A. in Theology from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. When she is not working with words, she makes jewelry and rosaries.