Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
The Climax of Christ’s Manifestation
The Gospel of this Fifth Sunday of Easter offers us the most important points of theological and Christological thought in the Fourth Gospel and the New Testament. In the mystical context of the Last Supper before the Passion and within Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to His intimate disciples, He self-reveals Himself as “the way, the truth, the life” and as the image of the invisible God. This dual self-revelation, “dizzying” in its content, requires all faithful disciples of Christ, then as now, to listen seriously and reflect constantly in order to grow more and more in faith and knowledge of the identity and mission of their divine Master. These few lines of commentary that follow would like to propose just a few useful points for further meditation on these profound pronouncements of Christ that we have heard today. (Cf. D.A.N. Nguyen, “Gesù via-verità-vita e la missione in Gv 14,1-14: Rilettura esegetico-teologica per una spiritualità missionaria ‘sapienziale’ in un contesto asiatico,” in T. Longhitano [ed.], Spiritualità missionaria [Quaderni ISCSM], Urbaniana University Press, Vatican, 2019, 47-100.)
1. “I Am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No One Comes to the Father Except Through Me”: The Self-Revelation of Jesus’ Identity and Mission in Jn 14:4-6
Jesus’ quoted pronouncement is part of the set of seven Christological “I am” self-revelations with nominal predicate in the Fourth Gospel, in which Jesus applies concepts or images known in the Jewish tradition to Himself (cf. Jn 6:35: the bread of life; 8:12: the light of the world; 10,7,9: the gate for the sheep; 10:11,14: the good shepherd; 11:25: the resurrection and the life; 14:6: the way-the truth-the life; 15:1,5: the true vine). Precisely in this literary context, we see that, on the one hand, the statement “I am the way and the truth and the life” in Jn 14:6a actually summarizes the attributes of Jesus mentioned in the other self-declarations and, on the other hand, the formal uniqueness of the phrase in question becomes clear. In fact, it is the only one to include three predicates, all with the definite article, somehow indicating the concrete and singular character of the noun: the way, the truth, and the life.
About this statement, its poetic structure with the “thematic chiasmus” ABB’A’, should be revealed, as in the following scheme: (A) “I am” (B) “the way…” (B’) “No one comes…” (A’) “except through me.” Thus the emphasis on “the way (to the Father)” and the person of Jesus (“I” - “through me”) is clear. He declares that He is the “only way” that leads to the Father, and this is true not only for Thomas or the small group of his fellows, but for all people, as suggested by the use of absolute and totalizing “no one.” The explanation then focuses entirely on the way.
Thanks to Thomas’s rather “banal” comment (“Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”), Jesus stated that he was the only way, the only true way, to the Father, that is, to life. It is therefore about the mission of His existence. Indeed, the whole person of Jesus becomes the obligatory and necessary point of reference for those who want to come to God the Father, to the truth in Him and to life with Him. In this regard, we should note the Christological context of the section of Jn 13-17 in which the following names for Jesus recur: Lord, Master, the Envoy, Son of Man, Christ, the Son. (The latter, although recurring only in Jn 17:1,12, is the frequent image implied in the sentences, in which Jesus hints at the Father.) Moreover, Jn. 13 seems to set the stage for the revelation of Jesus as the way to life through the emphasis on the figure of Jesus as “Master and Lord” who left the washing of feet an example to the apostles of how to behave toward each other. Thus, “the way” such as Jesus is that way of Jesus.
Then, the statement in Jn 14:6b (one comes to the Father only through Jesus) emphasizes as a prerequisite for coming to the Father not only faith in Jesus as the only Son and Lord, but also the observances of His commandments, as an example of life, that is, following Jesus on His way that leads to life with God from whom He came out/descended. The image of Christ as “way” turns out to be of twofold character: ontological (Christ in Himself) and functional/soteriological (Christ for us), in accordance with other Johannine passages that employ the image of the way (cf. Jn. 8:12; 10:9; also 1:51).
2. “Whoever Has Seen Me Has Seen the Father”: The Dizzying Revelation of Mutual Immanence between Jesus and the Father
After the revelation of Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” we come to Jesus’ mysterious and provocative statement to the disciples, “If you know me, then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him and have seen him.” This statement refers back to what was already stated in the conclusion of the prologue of John’s Gospel, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (Jn 1:18).
In Jewish tradition, seeing God and remaining alive is impossible for humankind (cf. Ex 33:20), but it also represents its highest dream, for it is life in its fullness. Then, Philip’s reply to Jesus in v.8 (“show us the Father, and that will be enough for us”) is only seemingly inappropriate. Indeed, it seems that the apostle had not understood the importance of Jesus’ statement about the fact that they had seen God. Nonetheless, this misunderstanding, moreover typical in John’ dialogues, echoes humankind’s deepest desire to see God as the fullness of happiness (“and that will be enough for us!”). It was Moses who addressed a similar request to YHWH God, and then had to settle for a vision only of God’s back and not His face (cf. Ex 33:18,23). On the other hand, Philip’s “naïve” words set the stage for the further revelation of Jesus, who, in the midst of two question-begging in v. 9, declares another dizzyingly elevated truth, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And this declaration will be explained and complemented with an even stronger one, repeated twice in vv. 10.11: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” With such concrete language, the revelation here perhaps goes far beyond being a mere application of the well-known Jewish missionary principle of “ juridical-legal” equality between the one sent and the one who sends, affirmed moreover by Jesus Himself in Jn 12:45: “whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.” It directly concerns the intimate koinonia “communion” between Jesus and God the Father, or, as scholars define it, the mutual immanence between the Son and the Father and their perfect unity, hinted at insistently later on as well (cf. 14:20a; 17:21, 23). It has already been announced by Jesus with the same wording in 10:37-38, where he also declared that He was one with the Father (cf. 10:30; 17:22). Moreover, on that occasion, there is also mention of the necessity of believing in Jesus or at least believing in Him because of the works the Father does in Jesus the one He sent.
Therefore, the thought of Jn 14:10-11, particularly the revelation of the mutual immanence between Jesus and the Father, is shown to be not accidental but well-grounded and rooted in Johannine theology and Christology. Moreover, the fundamental characteristic of Jesus’ mission is affirmed again, which simply consists in “letting” God the Father speak and work in Him (v. 10b). This is obviously an active “letting” in the sense of a “doing,” a creative collaboration in absolute obedience to the Father’s will, as Jesus Himself solemnly declared several times in Jn, particularly in the bread of life discourse: “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (Jn 6:38; cf. 4:34; 5:30).
3. “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.”
With the initial double “Amen, amen,” distinctive of Jesus’ speech, the sentence quoted above solemnly closes the discourse and recalls what was mentioned at the beginning: belief in Jesus and His going to the Father. These two themes, however, are not simply repeated just to close, but open up a new horizon, according to the Johannine “spiral” dynamic. In connection also with the previous mention of the works of the Father/Son (vv. 10.11), Jesus announces with certainty that the believer will do the same or even greater works than Jesus. We are again confronted with something grandiose, even and especially from the point of view of mission.
Beyond a strong universalism of the sentence that is applicable for everyone who believes and not just the group of Twelve, the emphasis is all on “greater works” than those of Jesus. What are they and how are they explained? First of all, the use of the original Greek term for “works” should be clarified. It seems to indicate that we are not dealing here exclusively with miracles, for which the Johannine word “signs” would be used; the “works” here are connected with those of Jesus, which also include His “words” to bear witness to the Father (cf. Jn. 14:10a; 15:22.24). It thus refers to all activities of life, i.e., words and deeds, in continuation with those begun by Jesus in His earthly mission. Obviously, in light of the Johannine narrative about Jesus doing “the works” entrusted to Him by the Father (cf. 5:36; 10:25), such works include miracles, which, however, do not constitute the main aspect, which consists in giving life to the world. And since the mention of Jesus’ works in Jn often hints at the unity of Him as sent with the Father, some allusion to the union between the disciples and Jesus in doing the works can already be sensed in the use of the term in question. The aforementioned union between Jesus and the disciples actually explains why the disciples will be able to do greater works than their master.
As exegete Beasley-Murray points out, the expression “(works) greater than these” has its parallel in Jn. 5:20, where Jesus mysteriously declares to the people that in His love for the Son, the Father “shows him everything that he himself does, and he will show him greater works than these, so that you may be amazed.” The context of the phrase indicates that these greater works refer to the manifestations of resurrection and judgment that the Father will accomplish in the Son to give life to those who believe (cf. Jn. 5:21-25). This perspective matches well with the motivation at the end of Jn 14:12 about the possibility of doing greater works: because Jesus goes to the Father. The return to the Father is precisely the process of Jesus’ death and resurrection that, as its effects and consequences, will finally flood all humanity with the grace of eternal life.
The greatest works are but the concrete realizations of this new life, fruits of Jesus’ redemptive death. Everyone who believes in Jesus will be able to do them, because it is actually the glorified Jesus who does them, or rather, it is the Father who does them in the glorified Son. Then, it becomes clear that doing greater works than Jesus’ is possible only because of Him, in faith in Him and in close communion with Him, as He Himself states in Jn. 15:5, “without me you can do nothing.” Jesus’ disciples, then as now, will do nothing but carry on Jesus’ own mission with the same “missionary” principle and spirit: just as Jesus accomplishes nothing except what the Father wants, so too His disciples cannot and should do nothing from themselves, but only from communion with their Master Jesus and to fulfill solely His ultimate purpose of glorifying the Father by giving life to humankind.
In this light, Pope Francis’ recall and exhortation with which we can conclude our commentary are significant: “Christ, indeed Christ risen from the dead, is the One to whom we must testify and whose life we must share. Missionaries of Christ are not sent to communicate themselves, to exhibit their persuasive qualities and abilities or their managerial skills. Instead, theirs is the supreme honour of presenting Christ in words and deeds, proclaiming to everyone the Good News of his salvation, as the first apostles did, with joy and boldness. […]I exhort everyone to take up once again the courage, frankness and parrhesía of the first Christians, in order to bear witness to Christ in word and deed in every area of life.” (Message for World Mission (Sun) Day 2022)