In light of Easter and the truth of the cross, the way we interpret the words of Jesus should shift. Arguably, our post-Easter perspective is the most common lens to employ due to the fact that modern readers treat the entirety of scripture as a past tense account. For example, when we read John 10 from our modern perspective, we don’t typically feel the gravitas of the tension between Jesus and the Jews regarding the topic of the Messiah. In fact, if we try to place ourselves in the contextual moment of this passage, much of what Jesus is promising seems quite far-fetched. Yet at that moment, before He died on the cross, Jesus declares the ways that He is caring for His sheep. I love this passage, especially considered in light of Easter, because it is a reminder of God’s consistent character. When we consider this passage in the midst of its contextual moment, we receive Jesus’s declarations as a promise made. When we revisit these promises after Easter, we recognize and revel in the fact that they are truly a promise kept. As God’s sheep, we are known (v. 27), cared for (v. 28), and receive new life through Christ Jesus (v. 28).
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We’re jumping in this week with Maundy Thursday. Maundy is an old word that is derived from the Latin word mandatum, which translates to mandate. This title was adopted by the Church due to the mandate that Jesus gave to His disciples in John 13:34-35. Let’s take a deeper look at Jesus’s new commandment and talk about its gravitas in light of the context in which Jesus gave it.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, NRSV).
This commandment was given during Jesus and the disciples’ final moments together before the crucifixion. This scene, the last communion in the upper room, has been a prominent part of the Christian story and has been rendered time and again by artists throughout history. The focus of the upper room is typically on the communion meal wherein Jesus instructed His disciples to reenact their time together as a reminder of the lessons that Jesus had taught them and the sacrifice that Jesus made to save us from our sin. Communion is important and should be conducted in our churches regularly as a part of our worship. But, as is seen in our reading for today, communion is only part of the story. The first thing to note is that this whole evening was conducted with Jesus’s betrayer Judas involved. This is important because it shapes the way that we understand Jesus’s actions. Second, in addition to sharing in the communion meal, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, which was a gesture that was reserved for the socially elite and was usually conducted by the socially ignored.
When the foot washing and the communion meal are considered together, a picture of the love that Jesus is mandating becomes clear. Loving others is built on service and sacrifice. This love is abundant, generous, humble, and ultimately selfless. Finally, it is a love that extends to all people, friends and enemies alike. It is only when we break down social divides and extend the love of Jesus to all people that the Church will be known as a group of people who are doing the work of Jesus Christ.
According to the church calendar, we are now in the sixth week of Easter, which means that we are squarely positioned in the in-between. We are in-between the promise of Easter and the fulfillment of Pentecost (the day that the Church commemorates the arrival of the Holy Spirit). Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven to be with God, and we are waiting on the Holy Spirit.
Our main text this week, John 14, is a perfect transitionary text because it provides the opportunity to unpack a couple of key truths that will prepare the way for the Holy Spirit during Pentecost. If we look at chapter 14 as a whole, Jesus’s responses are predicated on two big questions that the disciples are asking, both of which set the stage for the truths we want to unpack.
The first question comes in the form of a demand made by Philip, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). This question comes after Jesus explained to the disciples that He is the way by which someone pursues a relationship with God. Jesus responds to Philip’s demand by saying, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). As we can see here, the disciples are struggling with understanding God’s nature. The underlying questions they are asking are: What do you mean that you are God the Father? Who is this advocate you are promising? What do you mean that God is sending the Holy Spirit by your name? The list of questions regarding God’s nature is long and complex. To be fair to them, these questions took a long time for the Church to answer. But near the end of the fourth century, the doctrine of the Trinity was agreed upon and printed in a document widely known as the Nicene Creed.
Let’s take a minute to unpack the doctrine of Trinity. In Christianity, we believe that God is simultaneously three persons (read: divine beings), yet one. These three beings are often referred to as God the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit, or God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. The doctrine (a set of beliefs taught by the Church) of the Trinity is quite vast, so for our purposes, let’s zero in on two key aspects of the Trinity. First, we believe that God has been trinitarian for all time, which means that before creation, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were present together. Second, due to the unique interrelated nature of the Trinity, God’s three parts are understood to be in perfect relationship with one another. Therefore, whenever Jesus is at work in the world, God the Father and the Spirit are as well.
As we prepare for Pentecost, it’s important to understand the nature of the Trinity, so that we can fully embrace the truth that God is with us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, which guides our thoughts and transforms our hearts to be more like Jesus Christ.
The idea that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through us brings us to the second question asked directly before our passage picks up: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22). In other words, the disciples are asking how others will come to know the truth of Jesus if He leaves. Jesus’s answer is rather profound. He responds by saying, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” To get at the full meaning of this statement, there are three phrases to unpack from Jesus’s response: “love;” “keep my word,” and “make our home with.”
The phrase “make our home with” should elicit images of proximity, presence, and dwelling with us. This is an extremely important piece of Jesus’s answer because it answers the fears of the disciples who had been in the presence of God through Jesus and were afraid that they would lose that proximity. As Jesus reminds the disciples in John 14:28, the beauty of Jesus leaving is that “He is going away, and He is coming” in the form of the Holy Spirit, which can be present with everyone at the same time.
The Greek word for love is agape, and its use in this passage keys us into the ways that we relate to God and to others. Agape takes on a very specific interpretation in the context of the Bible. It is uniquely used to connote a selfless, others-focused love. A word often used to describe agape is forfeiture, which is almost always combined with the idea of care. In the context of our passage, it reminds us that loving God means prioritizing our relationship with God above all else and embodying an others-focused love. Jesus goes on to say that God has this same kind of love for us, and Jesus Himself delivers on this promise when He forfeits His own life so that we can live. This is the love that’s present in our lives because of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, the phrase “keep my word” can be understood as adhering to Jesus’s teachings. In other words, Jesus is saying that those who love Him embody His teaching to love God and others and to be known for that love. This is the phrase that unlocks the disciples’ question and unveils one of the key roles that the Holy Spirit has in our lives: to reveal God to all other people in the world.
As we wait here on the threshold of Pentecost (the Church’s celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit), we are invited to ponder one of the more intimate moments that Jesus has with God His Father. Jesus’s prime concern is that His disciples would experience unity, specifically the level of unity that Jesus experiences in relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Two weeks ago, we took a look at Acts and talked about the ways that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world transforming the Church and followers of God further into Christ’s image. Last week we explored the Trinity and talked about the importance of recognizing that when one person of the Trinity is at work, the other two are working alongside them simultaneously. Next week, we are going to talk at length about the Holy Spirit, the way they act as an agent of transformation and unity in the Church, and a bit about the significance of the Pentecost moment. Today's passage from John will prepare us for next week's text as that which Jesus prays, for comes to fruition in the work of the Holy Spirit. Our primary focus for today is to unpack Jesus’s request in John 17:21 and define three terms by asking three important questions: Who are “they?” What does it mean to be one? What is the significance of “being in God?”
While Jesus partially defines who He is talking about in verse 21, the question of who is included in Jesus’s request is integral to understanding unity. At first, it is clear that Jesus is talking about the disciples, but then He goes on to include all who come to believe through their words. This means that “they” is a cascade of inclusion that spreads to all who hear and believe in Jesus Christ. This is incredibly important because it reveals Jesus’s desire to reach all people. As word spreads one by one, from believer to new believer, the whole world is included in Jesus’s prayer and finds themselves sharing a new common foundation as they are absorbed into the body of Christ. In other words, “they” ends up being the Church. Not as we know it, not bound together by denomination, scientific classification, or cultural definitions, but rather in a oneness, extended to all, that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
This oneness is tied to a superseding unity that transcends the human condition. When Jesus is pleading for all believers to experience oneness, He asks for a very specific oneness. The oneness that He asks for is that the unity of believers would mirror the relationship that is expressed between the three parts of the Triune God. As we talked about last week, the oneness of the Trinity is an unparalleled and unique relationship where one person acts with the full participation and consideration of the others. The oneness that Jesus is asking for here is an invitation to participate in a deep and meaningful relationship with God and others. This oneness sets a precedent that is unlike any practiced by the secular world because it points to the importance of human beings acting selflessly in participation with one another and in partnership with God. Oneness means experiencing an integrated relationship with God and others that mirrors the relationship of the Trinity.
Finally, this all ties together with our last question regarding what it means to be in God. In short, when we enter into the oneness of relationship discussed above, we are participating in the relationship for which we were created. When Christ asks for God to be in us as Jesus is in the Father, Jesus is literally asking for us to receive the access to God that humanity hadn’t experienced since sin destroyed our connection to God at the beginning of the story (Genesis 3). The beauty of this moment is that Jesus is asking that God would reinstate us, and the truth is that we have been reestablished as children of God because of Jesus’s work and His death on the cross. Being in God is significant because it beautifully illustrates full redemption. When the Holy Spirit comes to be in us, celebrated next week during Pentecost, the connection that was lost in the garden of Eden is returned and we as followers of Jesus Christ experience complete redemption.
The tangible application of these truths is two-fold. First, there must be acceptance. You have heard Jesus’s request, we have discussed what it means, now you have to receive it. This penultimate moment—found in chapter 17 of John which comes right before Jesus is betrayed in chapter 18—is representative of the whole reason that Jesus came: that we might be one with God and return to the relationship that we were created to have.
Second, we must fulfill our role. As we talked about in the first part, we are to be the voice of the good news as it cascades from one believer to the next. God has something better for every person, and it isn’t our job to convince; rather, we are to testify to that truth by pointing to our own lives. As we will talk about next week, the convincing is the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, testify to God’s goodness by living out of the abundant love that you have been shown. Seek unity, justice, and love, allowing your oneness with God to have an impact on the lives of the other.
This week’s Gospel text from John focuses on the time directly following the resurrection of Christ. Chapter 20 of John is such an important part of the story of Jesus’s life because we are seeing proof of Jesus’s resurrection. The beginning of John 20 tells the story of Mary who bravely went to the tomb, found it empty, and had an encounter with Christ. When we pick up in verse 19, we find the disciples afraid and huddled in a room. It is to this group that Jesus reveals Himself and exhorts them, empowering them through the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2) to go out and continue the work of the Kingdom.
The section of this passage that has been discussed for centuries is Thomas’ response. The scripture says that Thomas heard the news and his response was effectively, “prove it.” This moment, as recounted by John, has earned Thomas the title of Doubter in Christian circles over the course of the last couple of millennia. But today, I want to ask a few more questions because when I sit with this scripture, I don’t see a Doubting Thomas, but rather an honest one.
Doubt is a word that comes with many negative connotations. This is especially true when it comes to the Church. In my experience, doubt often seems to function as a dividing line: those that are the in-crowd or the out-crowd, the strong or the weak, the faithful or the skeptical. It’s almost as if when someone has doubt, they’ve already started to “stray.” This is a by-product of the fact that doubt makes people nervous and fearful, which is okay. But if we are going to empower one another, including the kids in our lives, we are going to have to take another look at doubt.
There are many places within scripture where biblical characters express doubt. One of my favorite examples of this is Gideon. In the Old Testament book of Judges, there is a judge by the name of Gideon. In Judges 6, Gideon is called by God to lead God’s people out of the oppression that they are experiencing from the Midianites. But Gideon isn’t very comfortable with this idea and decides to test God. He lays out a fleece overnight and tells God that if God is truly going to deliver Israel, then God needs to send a sign by only putting dew on the fleece. Sure enough, it happens, and what does Gideon do? He asks for another sign, and once again God comes through. Here’s the key takeaway: Every time doubt is expressed in the Bible, God meets the “doubters” in their midst.
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if Thomas hadn’t questioned his friends? I wonder if Jesus would have still come to Thomas? I wonder if Thomas would have been the one to intimately touch the hands of the risen Lord? I wonder if we would have had an eye-witness account verifying the resurrected identity of Jesus in the Bible?
You see, I wonder how often we get to the end of this passage of scripture where it reads, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe” (John 20:29, NRSV) and assumingly plop ourselves in this camp. As if by default, because we believe in God and have never seen Jesus Christ, we have believed and not seen.
Yet, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I’ve had my doubts: doubts in my faith, doubts in my call, doubts in my abilities, and doubts in my work. And you know what? That’s okay because it’s in these moments that Jesus shows up. This happened over and over again in my life, and it happens twice in our reading from today. Obviously, we see it happening with Thomas, but don’t forget those in verse 19. Jesus had already promised that He would be coming back (see Matt. 12:39-40, 16:21), but still those in the upper room were afraid. Yet Christ met them in their fear as well.
Whenever we are faced with doubt, we have a choice to make. We can choose to step towards God or away from God. Let’s remember that doubt is nothing more than an opportunity to step further into intimacy with God. I greatly appreciate Thomas’s honesty, and I love the picture of Thomas throwing up his hands and asking, “He is risen… really?” and Jesus appearing behind him responding with a simple, “Indeed!”