John’s Gospel often sounds like a theology essay, and today gives us some of that flavor. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the bigger plan. This stretch of John gives the gist of what is going to happen after he is no longer with us. The disciples will follow Jesus to his father’s house, where there are many rooms. This metaphor sounds great, except they don’t exactly know where Jesus’ father’s house is located. Thomas, ever the one to say what I would say, points this out to Jesus, thereby teeing up one of the most important lines in the Gospels.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s how you usually here it quoted. This line has become the prooftext for Christians who want to deny the validity of other religions. The way it’s read is that Jesus is asserting that he, contrasted to other ways of accessing God, is the singular mode of connection that actually works. Any other way of trying to be with God will not get the job done, in this interpretation. It must happen through Jesus. Hence, the well-intentioned desire of many Christians to bring people of other faiths to Christ, in order to save them. On the face of it, that is where the text seems to lead.
The context of the passage doesn’t quite fit that reading, though. This is an intimate teaching, just Jesus in his disciples, on the evening before he would be arrested and crucified. This is on the day we observe as Maundy Thursday, just a little while after the Last Supper. Jesus has already predicted Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s eventual denial of knowing Jesus. He’s not preaching to the masses here. He is tying up loose ends with his closest friends.
Notice that Jesus promises to personally help them. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This passage is saturated with human connection. Jesus senses the fear in his disciples, and is assuring them that the terror of tomorrow will not sever the ties between them. In the passage immediately following this one, Jesus promises also to send the Holy Spirit to guide his disciples.
The question he is answering, then, is not “is Judaism as good as Christianity” or “say there’s this prophet in Arabia in 600 years or so. What would you think of him?” No one in this scene is shopping for a new religious paradigm. The question is one of grief, asked from within the circle of those who love Jesus the most, and it is asking “how are we possibly going to manage without you?”
Jesus’ answer is that they are already folded into the household of God. “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” This is much more than Jesus saying, “I got a guy, he’ll hook you up.” This is getting into some levels of divine connectedness that we still marvel at.
When Philip says, “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” or to put it bluntly, “just show us God,” he gets the theology drop. “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The theological term here is “mutual indwelling.” Jesus and God the Father, though distinct persons, dwell within one another, and are each full manifestations of the divine. You see Jesus, you see God. You see God, you see Jesus. They aren’t the same thing, but also they’re the same thing. Got it? No? Good. This is how words can express a mystery without exhausting it.
The mutual indwelling explains how Jesus could radiate divinity here on earth. How he could raise Lazarus, cure lepers, give sight to the blind, how he could teach with astonishing clarity and depth. He is a human, one of us, and he is also God, both in full measure. But what is this going to matter after Jesus ascends back into heaven?
Jesus continues to be that aspect of God, that person of the Trinity, who is a living avenue of God’s love, a portal into the divine. Even absent his physical form, those who seek the way he established, who gather and remember him and become part of his spiritual body here on earth, these Christ-followers are able to find God because they have a path to follow.
Jesus says, “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.”
The love he showed here continues after his physical incarnation is over. The love he showed his disciples was not conditional to his physical life, but is in fact a characteristic of God. God always reaches out, listens, attends to God’s relationship with God’s people. This flows right into the promise of the Spirit, that aspect of God that moves among us still and guides us, nudges us, whispers to us, constantly reaching out and folding us into this divine life.
The rush to read this as a message of exculsivity, I think, forgets the question Jesus was answering. I simply don’t think Jesus is making a comparative religious claim here. This teaching doesn’t come in a debate of Christianity vs. other religions. That, to be perfectly blunt, is much more superficial than what is happening here. When we focus on finding a winner in our own competitions, we forget that God likely isn’t playing our game. This passage is about how those who follow Jesus are part of a broadly inclusive and deeply loving community with God. It is about how a triune God—always three, always one—embraces the world with love and shows us how to more deeply connect with the source of our being. It is, then, about how you came to be part of that same community. Thanks be to God.