In our Gospel text today we hear Jesus speaking at the Last Supper about where he is going. It is worth noting that in the previous chapter John records how Jesus told the Apostles in heart-rending terms that he was soon to leave them.
The words he used were: “My little children, I shall not be with you much longer. You will look for me and… where I am going you cannot come.” The Apostles begin to realise that what they were celebrating was not so much a Passover Meal to inaugurate Christ coming into his glory as a farewell meal –a Last Supper to commemorate his departure.
In the immediate few verses before the one set before us Peter speaks for the other Apostles and expresses his distress that Jesus is leaving them and asks if he can follow him. Jesus gently tells him that he cannot follow him now but will do so later. Without a hint of irony Peter declares that he wants to follow him now even if it means laying down his life for Jesus. Then we get that most famous prophecy: “Before the cock crows you will have denied me three times.”
All this leads up to and explains the opening words of today’s Gospel: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus is trying to calm them down; the Apostles are obviously quite troubled and anxious because they have begun to realise that Jesus is soon to leave them. Peter is, naturally enough, even more troubled than the others because he is struggling to make sense of the prophecy which foretells his three-fold denial.
We might think that those Apostles were being a bit unreasonable. We do so because, looking backwards at those events, we know that Jesus must leave them in order to bring about the salvation of mankind. But we ought to remember that the Apostles do not know this; they cannot understand his words because they don’t know what we know.
After all, at this point it is less than a week after the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem that is celebrated on Palm Sunday. The disciples must have been full of excitement and full of expectation that Jesus is about to be triumphantly accepted as the Messiah. Of course, that Entry into Jerusalem wasn’t actually very glorious —it was just a crowd of poor people waving palms at a so-called king on a donkey. Not really a particularly auspicious entry, you might think.
But at least it was a procession and there were some shouts of Hosanna. And Jesus was well known for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, such as when he turned water into wine and when he fed the five thousand from a few loaves and a couple of fish.
Now here he is, just a few days after entering the Holy City, talking about leaving them. No wonder they are confused, no wonder they are upset. A few moments ago he had spoken about a betrayer. Well, you would have to forgive the Apostles if they wondered who was betraying whom.
In this wonderful text that we have set before us today Jesus gently reassures his Apostles that while he might be going away this is only so that he will be able to return to take them with him. And then in answering the questions of Thomas and Philip he explains at length the closeness of his union with the Father.
We know quite well that things aren’t going to turn out the way the Apostles expect and all this talk about Jesus leaving them is only just the beginning. In a few hours these men will have seen him arrested, put on trial, found guilty, scourged and executed. And most of them will be so disappointed that they will desert him in his hour of greatest need.
In their shock at what is happening they will forget these words of Jesus uttered at the Last Supper: “Trust in God and trust in me.” “I am going to prepare you a place and after I have gone and prepared you a place I shall return to take you with me.”
They simply don’t get it. They don’t understand what he is talking about because this place that Jesus is referring to is beyond the grave. He is going to the place from which no one has ever come back. That’s why they don’t understand him, that’s why they deny him, that’s why they desert him.
It is not by any accident that the first part of today’s Gospel is the one most frequently selected for funerals. Jesus is, after all is speaking about life after death and he is doing so in very reassuring words and in quite concrete terms.
We all remember how Moses led the people of Israel out of exile and slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. In the new dispensation Jesus leads his people on the much trickier journey through death into the Promised Land of heaven.
Moses didn’t know the way; it took the people forty years to journey through the desert, they got lost many times and they had a lot of troubles on the way. But with Jesus it is different. Here he is quite specific; he not only knows the way he is The Way. He not only speaks the truth; he is The Truth. He not only survives death but he is The Life.
The Apostles leave the Last Supper having heard many reassuring words but they actually leave quite disturbed at the thought that there was a traitor in their midst. Then everything moves very quickly: the arrest in the Garden, the trial before Pilate, the scourging at the Pillar, the journey to Golgotha and Christ’s death in the Cross.
They know that Christ speaks in paradoxes and works miracles but when he says that he will be exalted they do not realise that he means that he will be exalted on a Cross. They do not realise that this greatest of all ignominies will become the greatest glorification of all time. They do not realise that Christ’s death means our life.
Those words of Jesus, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” never meant as much as they did on that most fateful of all days. Never did they need more to “Trust in God and trust in Jesus” than they did on that most terrible of days. This most comforting of all Biblical texts is presented to us for our reflection in the weeks after Easter.
Although the incident occurred at the Last Supper we read it in the light of the resurrection and it is to us a great message of hope. For we know that not only did Christ return three days later but that he will one day return to take us with him. He will return to take us to the place prepared for us in that great mansion of many rooms which is the Kingdom of God. And in the meantime all that he requires of us is to communicate this simple message to the people we meet. What Good News this is!
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket