Many spiritually-oriented people live in a world of eternal possibilities. What drives this? For one, there is a rich world waiting to be uncovered by those who embrace love and who seek truth. Opening ourselves to God’s spiritual direction can help us grapple with the Bible’s complexities and controversies.
The Bible is full of statements which raise eyebrows—and tempers. Christianity has always been home to theological difficulties. Even while Jesus walked the earth, controversy was his constant companion. Jesus’ teachings have given rise to core religious doctrines, crucial creeds, and his words have been cherished by generations of believers. And here we find them today, in our neatly-bound modern Bibles. As always, Bible verses are subject to a range of interpretations. biases and points of view. Even so, it isn’t so helpful to outright dismiss harsh verses any more than it is best practice to blithely accept biblical teachings in a hypocritical or simply feel good manner.
We will start with today’s lectionary selection from John, a rich collection of verses that are vivid and hopeful. John 14: 1-14 reveals some powerful verses attributed to Jesus. Yes, this is where Jesus describes God’s house containing many dwellings (or mansions as the old-school King James Bible puts it). This suggests that Jesus/God is in heaven preparing heavenly homes for the faithful. This is a tremendously comforting thought to marginalized Christians, those who were persecuted by the Jewish and Roman authorities and in later times by all sorts of hostile governments and living conditions.
Next is a key verse about the source of salvation. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). What do you make of this verse? Many people interpret these strong words as establishing Jesus as the only way to heaven, such that you can’t have salvation from sins and protection from hell unless accepting Jesus in these literal terms. The power of these direct words can be hard to escape, and they tend to polarize opinion about who Jesus was/is, his ongoing role, and what we’re supposed to believe regarding God’s relationship with humanity.
The third section we’ll cover is that of the comparison between Jesus and God the Father. This is a grand controversy because the discussion between Jesus and his friend Thomas tends to remove distinctions between Jesus and God the Father. Jesus seems to say that seeing God the Father is the same as seeing himself. The potent prose continues with statements about Jesus being in the Father and the Father in Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come out and directly say that he is the Father, but he does come about as close as you can get. The idea of the Trinity, comprised of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, receives support from these and similar verses.
Lastly, there is the theme of Jesus promising his followers that they would do greater works than even he accomplished. That’s a tough task given that Jesus did so many spectacular miracles. Then comes Jesus’ promise that “I will do whatever you ask in my name . . .” (John 14:13) and “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:14). On the one hand, we are told that we can do the same works (e.g., miracles) that Jesus did. On the other hand, Jesus offers to do anything for us if we ask in his name. I suppose one way of interpreting all this is that we’re covered no matter what. But as we look deeper, is there an issue? Some suggest that the qualification “in his name” is problematic because many people speak Jesus’ name without miraculous results. Other interpreters argue that these narratives are the Bible’s prolific use of hyperbole, an exaggeration designed to grab attention. Whatever is going on, people from all walks of life have latched onto today’s lectionary verses and much of core Christian theology arises from interpreting them in a certain manner. What do all these controversial verses do for you and how do they shape your belief? Keep your expectations high!