Sunday reflection: John 14:1-12
posted at 10:01 am on May 18, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is John 14:1–12:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”
What is it to have faith? Often, we will talk about our beliefs as interchangeable with faith, but in today’s Gospel we see a subtle difference between the two. That’s because we sometimes confuse belief and knowledge with faith in its true sense, and Philip’s question to Jesus demonstrates the problem that all of us face in truly embracing faith.
Jesus starts John 14 by exhorting his disciples to have faith in him. By this time, they have spent a few years with Jesus, giving up their livelihoods to follow Jesus and to spread His teachings throughout the region. As His ministry comes to its end, Jesus knows that His departure will frighten and confuse the disciples, and so He emphasizes that they must have faith that He will ensure that they will join Him. In the context of their long association with Jesus, asking for faith seems a little strange; haven’t they seen His works and seen Him teach more than anyone else? They have already known Jesus to be The Christ, even if they do not yet fully understand what that means for Jesus in Jerusalem.
So they know who Jesus is, and they believe what He teaches. But knowledge and belief on their own are not faith. Philip makes this clear when he asks Jesus to just unveil the Father for their own knowledge. It’s a test, in its way, as Philip’s question demonstrates a hesitancy to trust in Jesus. Hey, just show me God, and I’ll be on board, Philip says, and we’ll be cool.
Once again, the disciples show us our own folly. When we find ourselves struggling with doubt or unable to relinquish the illusion of complete control through our own reason, we start trying to fit God into our own paradigms rather than fit ourselves into His. Our reason and our sensory experience works within our human limitations, as well as the limitations of time and space. We cannot possibly fit God into our own little boxes, no matter how highly we think of our own powers of rational thought — but we certainly want to try. Jesus asks for faith, for the disciples to trust that Jesus will lead them to the Father, and Philip — and the rest of us — would rather that God just show up here instead.
Well, that would be nice… but that is, once again, trying to make God’s will subservient to our own rather than the other way around. Jesus wants His followers to trust that Jesus is the Way, the path to the Father that we all can take, but that means more than just knowing it exists and believing in its truth. It means putting our trust in Jesus and forming ourselves through His Word, and to rely on the sheer goodness of God’s plan rather than cling to our own.
Our second reading today hints at the same theme as a continuation of God’s plan for salvation from the Old Testament. Peter quotes Isaiah 28:16 in his first letter: Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone, chosen and precious, and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame. Jesus also makes reference to himself as a cornerstone (Matthew 21:42, for example), and here Peter is making the same point as Jesus — that those who trust in Jesus and not just believe or have what is sometimes called “intellectual faith” will be vindicated. For those who lack that trust, the cornerstone will “make people stumble … make them fall.”
The cornerstone theme goes back all the way to Job 38. When Job questions God, He answers from the whirlwind:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?[“]
The cornerstone is the key element to the building. It is the one on which the entire structure rests. The builder and the inhabitants have to trust that the cornerstone will endure and fulfill its mission. In Psalm 118, which Peter also quotes in today’s reading, the added twist is that the true cornerstone was rejected by earthly builders: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” These all point to Jesus, but also to the need to trust in the Lord more than our own reason.
We all stumble and fall, in faith as well as life. I know I struggle against the impulse to limit the world to the boundaries of my own experience and reason, and then demand that God fit Himself into that narrow box rather than open myself to the truth that I am not the center of the universe, let alone its entirety. (And for that, you can all be truly grateful, believe me.) The very desire to build our reality around the limitations of our own reason and sensory experience demonstrates the need for Jesus to wrench us out of ourselves and set us on the Way to reach the Father. And while we can see that path clearly in the Gospel and believe that it tells us truths about salvation, we cannot get there without trusting in Jesus and putting ourselves on His path rather than insisting that we can better get there by relying on our own devices.
We have to be all in.
Today’s image is the central detail of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel (from my own collection).