14 May 2014

Sermon – “How are we to believe?” (John 14:1-14)

In the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke informs us that Jesus “presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs”. We read about half a dozen such incidents in the gospels: Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb; Cleopas and his fellow traveler along the road to Emmaus; the eleven disciples and later Thomas in the upper room; Peter, John and five others on the lakeside in Galilee… To these Paul adds an occasion when Jesus appeared to more than five hundred of his followers.

My suspicion is that Jesus’ relationship with the disciples following his resurrection was quite different from what it had been before. When you think of it, how could it have been otherwise? While they had once admired and followed him, now they could only worship and adore him. The one in their midst was no longer just the carpenter from Galilee. He was their crucified and risen Lord.

Besides that, I picture Jesus’ presence with the disciples not as a continuous experience as it had been previously, but rather as a series of fleeting, often unexpected, interchanges. In between those appearances there were periods, perhaps of days, when they had time to contemplate all that they had experienced over the previous three years. I imagine too that in those weeks between Easter and Pentecost they must have gathered numerous times. And on those occasions they must have spent much of their time bringing to mind Jesus’ words, discussing them, puzzling over them and relating them to their experience as they awaited “the promise of the Father”. Among those words, spoken perhaps in the very room where they were now gathering, were the ones which formed our Gospel reading this morning: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…”

In many ways what we are embarking upon in these verses is John’s equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. Over the next three chapters Jesus gives his disciples some concentrated teaching as he prepares them for his death and resurrection. It was only in the days following the resurrection, however, that the disciples would have had either the opportunity or the coolness of mind to go over what Jesus had said—and I imagine that that was what they spent much of their time doing, again and again and again.

Jesus begins with an invitation—an invitation to trust him. Have you ever noticed that John’s gospel never uses the noun “faith”? For John believing is always a verb, always an action word. In the New Testament the word denotes believing in someone, trusting someone, relying on someone, entrusting yourself to someone. In the verse before us, the action is especially clear because, translated literally, Jesus is saying, not just, “Trust me,” but, “Trust into me.” There is that sense of casting ourselves into his arms, of giving ourselves totally and utterly over to him. On the eve of the crucifixion that would have been a hard sell. But now, after the resurrection, it all began to make a little more sense. And in the verses that follow, Jesus begins to tell them a little bit about what that faith looks like and where it leads.

A place for the homeless

I think that for most of us a sense of place, of having a place where we belong, is an important part of who we are. I am told that the average American moves 11.7 times over the course of his or her lifetime. (I’m not sure what it means to move .7 times!) In my own case I remember as a child moving every two to four years. There can be benefits to that, but it can also lead to a sense of rootlessness, of not having anywhere that you can really call home.

Years ago, when I worked as a student intern in a psychiatric hospital, a number of the patients were Hungarians who had left their country as refugees nearly a generation before. They had not parted with their homeland willingly or voluntarily. They had been forcibly uprooted, and ever since there had lurked deep within them a sense of homelessness. I can only imagine that the same must be true of many of our Karen refugees, who have had to leave everything behind to begin a new life in a strange land, in a foreign language, amid an alien culture and in a forbidding climate. It is a formidable challenge and it reaches right into the core of who we are as persons.

Yet when we read the Bible we discover that at a much deeper level we are all refugees. The cherubim still stand at the gate of Eden brandishing their flaming swords. Generations after Adam and Eve, God promised to Abraham and his descendants a home in the Promised Land. More than three thousand years later Jews still claim Israel as their home. Yet Israel is only a temporary home; and Jerusalem but a type of that city whose architect and builder is God.

If they didn’t know it already, the disciples would soon come to discover their own homelessness in a very blunt and physical sense, as they were driven from the familiar surroundings of Jerusalem and Galilee into the far corners of the Roman world. So it is that Jesus assures them, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

Faith begins, therefore, with the recognition of our own homelessness in any ultimate sense—and the parallel recognition that at the same time that we have an eternal, unshakeable home that no one can take from us in Jesus Christ and in our relationship with him. That does not mean that we need to become ascetics or that we sever all attachments to this world. But rather, amid the transitoriness and even the outright evil that we experience in this world, it gives us an anchor, a guiding star, that rock of which we will sing later in the course of this morning’s worship, on which to base our lives.

A way for the lost

Jesus gives us the promise of a home, permanent, safe and secure—and Thomas’s question that follows it is a natural one. “But Lord, how can we know the way?” To which Jesus replies with one of the most quoted verses in all of Scripture: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

I am afraid that more often than not Christians (myself included) have used these words of Jesus as a kind of club to beat down the followers of other religions. We concentrate on the second half of what Jesus said and give too little attention to the first. As I read them today, it seems to me that Jesus is offering a wonderful, exciting invitation here and we have turned that invitation into a message of “You’re not welcome.”

Now please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there are other ways to the Father, or that we can find ultimate truth or genuine life outside of Jesus. What I am saying is that so often we have concentrated on telling other people that their ways won’t work, that they are dead ends, and somehow in the midst of it all we have neglected to focus on the one way that does bring us to God. The result is that Christian faith ends up looking from the outside as exclusionary. To many we appear to be more interested in shutting people out than in inviting them in—and in many cases we are doing a very good job of it, too!

No doubt there are times when we need to alert the world to the fact that it is on a collision course with destruction, that there is indeed a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12). The apostle Paul wrote about warning everyone. Yet that is not the focus of our message. The focus is on Jesus in all his transcendent beauty and majesty. I think Graham Kendrick puts it well in the words of his song:

Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you,
there is no greater thing.
You’re my all, you’re the best,
you’re my joy, my righteousness,
and I love you, Lord.

When Isaiah stood in the temple and had his great vision of the Lord seated on his throne in all his heavenly glory, no one needed to tell him he was a sinner. He simply cried aloud, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:1-5). When Peter pulled in his miraculous haul of fish after Jesus had told him to let down his nets on the other side of the boat, he didn’t need anyone to tell him how sinful he was. He fell to his knees before Jesus and exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:4-8)

I do believe that the great majority of people in their heart of hearts and if the truth be told, know that their lives are not right. And I believe that if we, as individual believers and as the community of Christ’s followers were living and proclaiming him in power, they would come to him as the way, the truth and the life.

A power for the faint-hearted

This brings us to a third and perhaps the most puzzling of Jesus’ statements in this morning’s passage: “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, because I am going to the Father.” It seems impossible to believe. After all this was the man who cleansed lepers, gave sight to the blind, gave paralyzed limbs the power to walk again—who even raised the dead. What did Jesus mean?

People have put all kinds of interpretations on these words. Some point to the foundation of hospitals and other charitable institutions by faithful Christians that have brought Christ’s healing and love to millions all over the world. Others point to the miracles that continue to happen in our own time, well-documented accounts of remarkable healings and even people being raised from the dead. New Testament scholar Leon Morris thought of Jesus’ words in a numerical and geographical sense. He wrote,

During his lifetime the Son of God was confined in his influence to a comparatively small sector of Palestine. After his departure his followers were able to work in widely scattered places and influence much larger numbers. But … they were in no sense acting independently of him. On the contrary in doing their ‘greater works’ they were but his agents.[1]

I believe that all these interpretations are valid, and no doubt there are other ways in which we might understand Jesus’ words as well. But underlying them all is the power of the Holy Spirit.

So often as Christians we allow our vision to be limited by our resources. We look at the world around us and we compare ourselves with the vast wealth of governments or multinational corporations and we sigh and say, “We could never do that.” Yet we forget that our God is the one who (in the words of the psalm) owns the cattle on a thousand hills, whose resources are limitless and whose power is infinite. It was not that long before those first Christians who sat in the upper room musing over Jesus’ words were being accused of turning the world upside down—and I suspect that no one was more surprised than they were.

Today, as we continue to rejoice in our risen Lord, may we rest in the assurance of an eternal home, may we show him to be the way, and may we know his power, which is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, at work within us.

[1]     The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 646

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