By Joy Connelly
For me, the Gospel of John is like poetry. I don’t altogether understand what the words mean. But they are filled with power.
Take this morning, for example. I decided not to take my sore throat, cough and sniffles to the Quaker meeting, but instead have my own “meeting for worship” on my back deck. To focus my attention away from gardening chores, I opened the Bible at random, and was struck by the opening passage of John 14:
“Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.”
Ever since I started to read Karen Armstrong’s A History of God earlier this year, I have found it hard to pray. Armstrong’s subject is the evolution of our understanding of God within the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. I found the book a bit heavy-going and read only half of it. But I read far enough to respect and appreciate Armstrong’s perspective, and trace the changes in our images of God from remote Sky-God, through a tribal God of Battle, to the Father who loves the whole world; from one God among many, to the greatest God, to the only God; from the God one cannot look on without dying, to the God that lives within us.
It’s not as if I had not noticed these different conceptions of God before, even within mainstream Christian thought. A cursory reading of the Bible can make the case for them all. But until Armstrong’s book, I tended to think of them side by side – all true, all incomplete. It was from this side-by-side reading that I had developed an image of God for myself, drawn partly from the Bible, partly from my church tradition, and partly from my own experiences.
Armstrong’s book did not make me question the existence of God. (My own personal experiences make it impossible for me to deny Him – it would be like denying my name or that my mother loved me. I can’t prove it, but I know it is so.) But it did make me reconsider my image of God. There’s nothing wrong with that – I think questioning is healthy. The only problem is, without an image of God, I found it impossible to pray or listen for God.
A house with many rooms
The Gospel of John did not answer my questions. But somehow I found the expansiveness, and the simplicity, of John 14 helpful.
It might simply be the soothing opening words, “Let not your heart be troubled.” It might be the reminder of the expansiveness of God’s Kingdom: “In My Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.” What we know is that God has prepared a place for us, and where He is, there we may be also.
Perhaps it is Thomas’ cry, “Lord, we do not know where You are going; how do we know the way?” And then Jesus makes the (astounding) statement. The way is not a path. It is a Person. The truth is not a set of principles. It is a Person. It is an entirely different way of looking at things.
Perhaps it’s the “out” that Jesus offers his followers: “The words that I say to you I do not seek on my own initiative, but the Father abiding in me does His works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.” But if you can’t do that, then “believe on account of the works themselves.”
Perhaps it is the calm reassurance of the rest of John 14. Love Me. Keep my commandments. . . I won’t leave you as orphans. . . . I will send you the Helper (I love this humble name for the Holy Spirit) who will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. . . . Peace I leave with you. . . . Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. . . . Arise, let us go from here.
And so I do arise, and go from here. I still don’t have a clear picture of who God is. But somehow – not through intellect but through poetry — I seem to have re-found my starting point.
I don’t see this as a “bible study” sort of blog. But I would be interested in hearing your own responses to the Bible’s book of John, Chapter 14 – particularly from those of you who do not start from a Christian perspective.
Here’s a link if you don’t have a Bible at home: John 14