It is the night of betrayal and desertion: Maundy Thursday; just a few short hours before all hell, quite literally, will break loose and the horrible events of Good Friday will unfold. And yet, in a moment of calm before the storm we find Jesus in the upper room with his disciples, sharing a “last supper” and offering words of hope and promise to those closest to him, even as he prepares them for his impending death.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them, and he explains that while things are about to change drastically, his death would not be the final word of God; but would ensure that they would dwell with him in the eternal realm of God: “I go to prepare a place for you,” he says, “[and] I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” And Jesus assures them that they will know the way to this place where he is going because he himself is “the way, and the truth and the life,” both the final destination and the road you must take to get there, because “no one gets to the Father apart from me.”
It’s a powerful assurance. For the Christian, these are words of “sure and certain promise;” words we repeat again and again at funerals and graveside committals, words from Jesus himself that assure us that there is more to this life than what we know here and now, that God does indeed give us life that’s both abundant and eternal. These passages from John are often referred to by biblical scholars as “farewell discourses,” but what we have here in Jesus’ words is in fact an incredible gift of unending hope!
Which is what makes it all the more unsettling that even as this wonderful gift is being given, it’s Philip – not Peter, as one might expect, nor even “doubting” Thomas – but Philip who feels the need to chime in by saying, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” or, as another translations puts it, “that will be enough for us.” In other words, show us, Jesus. Give us some direct, empirical evidence that what you’ve been saying is true; give us something that we can see that will strengthen our faith… Jesus, if you’ll just show us God, right here and right now, that will be more than enough!
As we read this in John’s gospel, the request comes off as unthinking and more than a little ungrateful – but if we’re being honest about it, Philip might well be speaking for a lot of us. I’ve actually heard it said that Philip could well have been a native of Missouri (you know, “the show-me state?”), because Philip, you see, was part of “that great company of rational, reasonable human beings who [tend to] evaluate twice over before arriving at any definitive conclusion.” You know these kind of people – there might be a few of you in this room who are those kind of people (!) – they’re the ones who, when loved ones and dear friends come to them making solemn promises as to what they’re going to do, they simply respond by saying, “well, then, show me.” They listen to politicians and community leaders, go to town meetings and church planning sessions, hear all the plans for the future, and then leave mumbling, “show me first, and then I’ll support it.” It’s not that they’re necessarily distrustful or cynical, but to quote Robina Winbush, “in an age of broken promises and broken hearts, in an age of con-artists and rip-offs… one would only expect to have some kind of proof before [investing their] trust.”
My point here is that this “show-me-ism” can and does tend to infect even one’s faith; that’s what we’re seeing in Philip, and it can happen to you and me, too. Even those of us who have “walked with the Lord” gladly our entire lives will at times find ourselves in the midst of a fog-like faith, in which things in life are not unfolding as we had hope or prayed for; in which the way ahead is not as crystal clear for us as it once seemed, and in fact the signs all seem to be pointing in the opposite direction! At some point amidst the sudden uncertainty of it all, we find ourselves looking heavenward and asking for… something! Lord, give me a sign …anything! I know what you’ve promised; I know that I’m just supposed to have a little faith that things are going to work out… but, just this once, could you maybe show me something that will help me along so I can keep on believing?
Truth is, Philip is only saying to Jesus what so many of us have said to him a hundred times or more!
And so it’s to Philip, and to you and me, that Jesus answers with a question of his own; and it’s one of those questions that have a way of putting everything back into its proper perspective. He asks, “Have I been with you all this time… and you still do not know me?” Haven’t you been with me over these past three years, haven’t you heard what I’ve been saying, haven’t you seen the incredible things that have happened? If you can’t believe me when I say “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” can’t you at least believe me because of the works themselves? After everything you’ve seen and heard, don’t you know me?
What Jesus is doing is presenting the very work of his life as evidence of his truth – in other words, if you can’t believe what I say, believe what you see. I love how The Message translates this: “These words I speak to you aren’t mere words. I don’t just make them up on my own. The Father who resides in me crafts each word into a divine act.” Look at the good news that’s been given to the poor; look at the captives set free physically, emotionally and spiritually; look at how the seeds of God’s kingdom are taking root and growing right before your eyes! If you want to know God, Jesus says, then look here!
You should know me: I am the Bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry! I am the Light of the World; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life! I am the Vine and you are the branches; those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing! I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me! If you’re wondering whether the promises Jesus has made are true and if the way ahead is safe to walk, all you really need do is to see how far you’ve already come with him!
I don’t know about you, friends, but that’s something I need to remember! It’s a glorious reminder that in life’s ongoing struggle between doubt and faith, we are given assurances all along the journey that carry us forward!
But while that’s pretty much as sermon in and of itself, it turns out that this is not all that Jesus is asking of us here. Did you notice in the reading this morning that Jesus shifts very quickly and smoothly from speaking of God’s work in him to the work that’s about to be done by his disciples? “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these… [and] I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
At the very heart of what we know as Christians exists this truth that faith always goes hand in hand with practice – if you know it, then you do it; you live it. If we know Jesus, then we know God; and if we know God, then we do as God would have us, following the example of Jesus in all that we say and do, in the ways we relate to others. When we commit to that, friends, God is at work within us, and God will give us what we need for the way. That’s how we can hold on to those assurances we’re given; and that’s how, when you and I encounter another who, in the midst of their own struggles, has been crying out for some kind of proof, we also can speak the words and offer up the kind of loving action that will assure them of the truth of God’s sure and certain promises.
At the end of the day, you see, this matter of knowing Jesus comes down to actually following Jesus!
One of the more unique complaints I’ve heard about my preaching (and yes, there have been a few!) is that I mention the name “Jesus” too many times in church and especially in the sermon. Too many times! And I remember that this “concern” was brought to me just about this time of year, because at the end, the person added, “and now that you’re getting closer to Palm Sunday and Easter, you talk about him all the time!”
Okay… (Keep in mind, by the way, this was not something said by someone outside of the Christian faith, but actually came from an active member of the church I was serving at the time!) Well, as she explained herself, it became clear that it wasn’t so much my preaching that bothered her as Jesus himself – his name, his teachings, everything he represented to her, and how her life was reflected in his – and the truth of it was that this all made her very uncomfortable. She actually felt threatened by Jesus!
For her, you see, Jesus Christ was just a character in a sweet, biblical story; someone that you sing about in old songs, little more than a small burst of light through a stained glass! She knew of Jesus, alright; she knew who he was, but much to her despair, she didn’t know Jesus. And it was that lack of a relationship with Jesus that was at the heart of her struggle – and lest you thinking I’m singling out one person here, I know the truth of it is that she’s not alone in that struggle!
Let me ask you: how do you know Jesus? I mean, what’s the journey you’ve taken with him been like? What kind of stories can you tell of where you’ve been with Jesus; the struggles you’ve endured together and the countenance and counsel you’ve received from him along the way?
Maybe there was healing – a physical healing, perhaps; or maybe emotional, or intensely spiritual in nature. Could be you heard a “still small voice” in a moment you felt all but abandoned, and recognized the voice as his. Or that day when by some miracle you were able to garner the strength to get out of bed to face a difficult day, even when everything in your being was compelling you to pull up the covers and dwell in darkness – that just didn’t happen, you know; but that someone was there giving you the encouragement! Just like that other fleeting moment when suddenly, everything seemed to make sense, and the world and life was grand and glorious and filled with the presence of God Almighty; and you knew in your heart you didn’t get to such a moment on your own, but only by his unseen presence and constant care.
Beloved, do you know Jesus? And how does that matter in your life?
How does that relationship give shape and form and substance to each day? How does it touch the ways you care for the people you love; how does it inform the work that you do, and how you play, and laugh, and play? How does it affect your intentions for the world?
Because it does make a difference, friends. Jesus said so himself: “The one who believes in me, will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these.” Good works – miraculous works that not only give us life abundant, but can change the hearts and lives of all those around us. If we truly know Jesus, then we will know God. And God will do for us – as persons and a people – far more than we can ask or imagine.
Do you know Jesus, beloved? I hope and pray that you do.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry