The Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2005
“Doing Greater Things Than Jesus?”
(Jesus said) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (NIV)
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Have you ever been involved in one of those “circular discussions” that seem to go nowhere?
I do not speak of the light, frothy types of discussions. I speak of discussions that have considerable content, are very thoughtful, and yet seem never to press forward much less come to a conclusion because the substance of the discussion simply comes back to the starting point every time you think you are about to move forward.
The disciples gathered around Jesus at this last Passover Meal must have felt something like that as they are engaged in the discourse taking place in the Gospel. Difficult as it is for us today to completely fathom the full sense of the words we have just heard, it must have been far more difficult for those who first heard them. We have the advantage of being on “this side” of what happened immediately after they left this upper room, but the disciples who first heard these words were totally unaware of the course of events that would lead within far less than twenty-four hours to the death of this man speaking these words to them.
The Loose Ends of the Gospel Reading
It is precisely because those hearing these words for the first time had no inkling of what was about to happen that the conversation must have seemed to move in that “circular” fashion of which we spoke earlier. It is evident that it was a puzzle to the disciples from the questions that Thomas and Philip asked Jesus during the course of this narrative. So we must note carefully the “loose ends” that gathered around what Jesus said.
From the beginning Jesus urges the disciples to “trust in God, trust also in me.” Have they not trusted him from the beginning – and is not the very fact that they have gathered here with him a sign of that trust? Why urge them to do what they have so clearly and plainly been doing (save for Judas, of course) all along?
Then Jesus speaks of going to his Father’s house to prepare rooms for them. What could this have meant to them? He was securely established, so far as they could see, among the people who had shouted their acclamations concerning him upon his entrance into Jerusalem a few days earlier. That his place was tenuous was certainly the case, for it was common knowledge that the religious authorities (and perhaps also many of the political authorities) were very wary of him and wanted desperately to somehow get him out of the way. But it was he, after all, who had insisted on coming to Jerusalem in the face of the disciples’ expressed concern. So where was he going to go? And what was this Father’s house to which he would go? And what kind of rooms was he going to prepare for these followers of his? It must have been a highly mysterious statement in the final analysis.
Moreover, after he has gone “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” What could that have meant concerning their present situation? Where was Jesus going and where was he going to take them after he had left and returned? Surely it must have been a confusing moment!
“You know the way to the place where I am going.” To which Thomas, almost in desperation, responds, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” A confirmation of the confusion arises from Thomas’ lips. He may as well have said, “You speak in riddles. We have loved you and we do love you and we want to be with you, but you speak about leaving and coming back to / from places we can’t identify in the least. Can’t you speak more clearly?”
“But you do know the way,” Jesus may as well have said. “After all, you know me, and I am the way and the truth and the life.” Thomas is bold enough to ask for clarification, only to get further mystification. After all, although he had been with Jesus for many months now, he must have had a hard time getting beyond his earlier understanding of “way . . . truth . . . life.” In Jewish thought, “the way” had been set forth in the wisdom of those writings known as the Law and the Prophets. They were “the way of life” for God’s people. He may well have understood “truth” as it was understood by the people of his time in terms of “faithfulness to the intention of the speaker” rather than our contemporary understanding of scientific or historical facticity, but it still must have had a ring of “understanding the way of the Lord correctly” to him. And “life”? It was commonly understood among his people that they who lived faithfully according to the Law and the Prophets had the life of God in them. Jesus never argued with that basic Jewish understanding. But how was Jesus, himself, “the way, the truth and the life”?
A good question, but Jesus’ response seemed only to further the ambiguity as he goes on to say, “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Did they not “really” know him by now? Surely they had understood the Father’s will to have been made clear through Jesus, but had they not known the Father before all this?
Philip courageously bares the perplexity: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” He may as well have said, “We don’t even know quite how to get where you are going or how you are the way there, etc., but to have seen the Father in his fullness – that would be enough. We do not ask for more.”
The conversation turns back in on itself once more. “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” “Philip, Philip! Can’t you see past your nose? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.”
They are back where they started. “Trust in God; trust also in me.” What they have seen in Jesus is the work of the Father, and that which the Father wills they have seen in Jesus. It is as simple as that . . . and as complex as that! This is not an early attempt at defining the Trinity or Jesus’ relationship to the Father in eternal terms of his sonship. It is a simple statement that God’s “otherness” has been clearly revealed by the “hereness” of Jesus through all the time that they have spent with him. In Jesus they have been present to the concrete “otherness” of the Father’s presence, for Jesus is the complete carrying out of the Father’s will toward and among humankind. That, Jesus tells Philip, is the “enough for you” for which you ask.
But now the “trust in God, trust also in me” is pushed still further. The “don’t you believe what you have seen” becomes a “do the same and still more!” To use Jesus’ words: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Back again to Jesus’ leaving them and going to the Father! Does the cycle never end? And yet, in his very leaving them, he will make those who believe in him his presence on earth as continuing signs of God’s presence for the world!
It would have been beyond their comprehension at the moment to imagine what this would look like within twenty-four hours! The “works of the Father” are to become far more than healing the sick, causing the lame to walk, or even bringing life once more to the dead! It will become the redemption of the world on the cross to which he is undoubtedly alluding through all this, unknown though this is to the disciples. It will become a “dying for us” that will bring life to all who take this discourse seriously. While he will leave them for a little while, he shall return again in due time before he leaves them in his presently visible form on a permanent basis as he ascends into the heavens. Gathered there, watching the clouds swallow him up, the disciples will again be confounded and confused, wondering what is to happen next? Angels will tell them not to be too presumptuously active. “Go to Jerusalem and wait,” they will be told. The Spirit, whom Jesus promises a bit later in this same long Passover instruction, will come upon them and give them direction. They are not to act on their own. They are to be a directed people led by the same will of the God whose leading was evident in this Jesus of Nazareth. Through them the redemptive work carried out by this New Adam who will give a new birth to the Old Adam who died is to be taken into all the world. They “will do even greater things than these” as his messengers and advocates throughout the world “because I am going to the Father.” He leaves a body of believers to take his body, which is “the way, the truth and the life,” to all people everywhere.
What, Now, Are We To Say About All This?
Are we clear now on what is happening here? I think “clarity” is an overstatement. People through the ages have tried to become “clear” about this text with varying degrees of success. But certain things emerge from this passage that must be taken with great seriousness.
First of all, one cannot encounter this text without coming to the clear understanding that it is through Jesus of Nazareth that we see and know the Father’s presence in the midst of this earth’s history. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” That word stands out as a clear affirmation to which we hold as those who “trust in God” and therefore “trust also in Jesus.”
But we see more than the Father’s presence in Jesus. In Jesus we see and know the Father’s heart by what Jesus has done. The disciples were assured of that, but they still had not seen what he was about to do. In the suffering and death that now lay immediately at hand they would see the Father’s love carried out in its full redemptive mode. The Father’s Son takes up the sins of the world as the full affirmation that the Father is for us and not against us, that he wills our welfare even though there is every reason to judge against us. That is clear in Jesus’ statement.
Secondly, it becomes clear that our “faith” or “trust” is not merely an abstract way of expressing a theory about a way that is fed by a conceptual or philosophical truth leading to a speculative life patterned as best we can do so from the finest thinking at our disposal. Faith, rather, is to be directed toward a very tangible person in the form of the very embodiment of him whom we know as Jesus. Through him it is clear that the Father is not a distant, theoretical presence, but a very real, imminent, genuinely present God whose care for the world in general and for those who believe and trust in him in particular is evident in this one speaking. He is himself the way to the Father. In him truth is found – that is, the faithfulness of God is carried out as a husband true to his wife carries out a faithful love for her. In Jesus the Father’s faithfulness to his promise of forgiveness, life and salvation becomes alive and present for those who trust in him. And thus he becomes the one through whom the fullness of life springs forth in all those who cling to him in faith and trust.
How different that is from philosophical suppositions about truth and meaning in life! The Gospel clearly sets those who believe in Jesus apart from worldly theories about how to live fully and fruitfully and productively! It calls for faith – but that faith is solidly grounded in the concrete person and action of Jesus.
Thirdly, because of all this our hearts need not be troubled, for the one who spoke to these men is present in like form among us today as a living, vibrant person. In only a few days the church will celebrate the occasion of Jesus’ ascension, a remembering that Jesus, the embodied one, did not discard his body in order to assume again the full glory of his heavenly position. Rather, his body remains with him in that divine post of Sonship now and throughout all eternity. The one who spoke the words of the Gospel is as fleshly and real today as he was in the resurrected form in which he showed the marks of the nails in his hands and the spear wound in his side, and he is as present to us today as he was to those who listened to these words long ago.
It is no accident that our preaching and worship is grounded in the words that have been given us by the Spirit whom Jesus promised would lead and guide these, his children, gathered at that last Passover. His word remains among us and is at the heart of our gathering here in all that we do, say and speak. Nor is it an accident that we observe the Holy Meal regularly, for he promises to be present with his body and blood through the bread and wine of the Supper. It is not a matter of sentimentality that we observe this eating and drinking. It is a matter of calling on him to fulfill his promise to be present in this Holy Eucharist . . . and an act of faith that he who is present here “will come again to take us with him that where he is we also may be.” Nor is it merely a ritualistic matter that the Trinity is invoked in so many ways in our gatherings, for each time we name him our baptism is called to mind yet once again . . . the washing in which God claimed us for his own and named us with his name while taking our name up into his own loving heart.
These understandings permeate our entire lives. They saturate our entire being. That is what we mean when we speak of “faith.” It is a way of saying that everything that we are and do and think and experience is filled with the presence of this one who speaks so mysteriously and yet so powerfully to these men who will take this word and conquer a world with it just as our lives have been conquered by it!
Is this not, in the final analysis, the key to those last words of the Gospel? “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these.” What was begun in him was, on the one hand, also finished in him. Yet it will never be completed until he returns. “Because I am going to the Father” is a way of saying, “You must continue that which I have begun, for you will become my body on this earth, making it present throughout the world. Continue that which I have begun . . . healing the sick, caring for the poor, loving the unlovable, pouring yourself out for the untouchables of the world. These, my works, are to be carried out by you until the end of time.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” is not simply a comforting statement. It is a challenging statement. Whatever you do in my name, let it be done boldly as one who follows in the steps of the Crucified One. Do not expect that you will do it without crucifixion. The one in whom you have trust and who went before you was crucified. But “do not let your hearts be troubled,” for you will be sheltered even in death, as was this Jesus. At the resurrection there will be great joy when you hear the voices of those whom you have served saying to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. In you we have seen the Father. Come, let us live together in the rooms our Lord has prepared for us!”
Hubert Beck, Retired Pastor