Fifth Sunday in Easter/ 18th May 2014
There was a time when I thought that all God wanted from me was my belief. Belief is what mattered, I thought. I went to Sunday School. My mother taught Sunday School for almost forty years; she was my teacher twice (not because I had to repeat a grade). I went to Sunday School every week. I had perfect attendance every year, from kindergarten through 9th grade when I was confirmed—and I have the attendance awards to prove it. Believing in God was important; I came to sense that that’s what God wants from us. When I was in high school I read a lot of religious literature, which, looking back upon it now was theologically very conservative. I’m not sure how I came across such texts. That was not the theological bent of my family or of my church. Yet, verses such as Acts 16:31 were seared into my brain, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (NIV). Or, there was this one from Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV). If you want to be saved, then you have to believe, I assumed. I was worried about being lost. Belief is the key to the door that leads to everlasting life, which meant not believing or doubting would move me into very dangerous territory. Or so I thought.
It was later, in college and in seminary, that I realized two things: first, the value of doubt and, second, the meaning of God’s grace. I came to know what grace felt like. It’s then that I discovered that grace comes first—it always comes first—followed by belief. Belief matters, theological ideas matter, but belief unfettered by grace, belief apart from grace, is cheap and, worse, dangerous. Belief matters, but what matters more is our relationship with the object of our belief, the content of belief, that is, our relationship with God through Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. That relationship, itself, is grace. Gradually, I came to see: God doesn’t want my belief. God wants me.
So, what causes this confusion? Particular readings of John’s gospel get us into this mess; they tend to confuse us. It’s not John’s fault. It has to do with the way we read him. We just heard verses such as John 14:1, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Then there is the conversation between Philip and Jesus. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time,…and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” (John 4:8-11) Jesus is helping both Philip and Thomas understand the unity between Jesus and his Father, with God. Jesus is saying in other words: If this seems odd or foreign to you, Philip and Thomas, then look at what I’ve been able to do because the Father is at work in me.
It might sound like Jesus is being harsh here, even shaming them. There is a gentle rebuke here, but we have to hear the rebuke within the context of Jesus’ deep friendship with them, within his commitment to them, within the extraordinary trust and confidence he has in them. Jesus isn’t some revivalist preacher here demanding Philip and Thomas to make a decision then and there: belief or unbelief. Their conversation is situated within the context of what they’ve already come to know about him.
Jesus here is a teacher, who wants his students to deepen what they already know; he’s sharing this knowledge with them, this wisdom about who he is because Jesus trusts them. In fact, he has extraordinary confidence in them. What Jesus wants them to realize is that through him they are being drawn deeper and deeper into a relationship with the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life. It’s a relationship that the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life seeks to have with you and me. How do we know this? Because it’s the same relationship that Jesus demonstrated to us in his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ disciples—you and me—have been and are being invited to live, to dwell in that same kind of relationship, an intimacy with the God.
This is an extraordinary claim here—radical, life-changing in its implications for us. It must have been staggering for the disciples to hear. There’s nothing like this in Judaism. “I am in the Father,” Jesus said, “and the Father is in me” (John 14:10). This is a mutual indwelling, one participating in the life of the other. Life flowing from the Father to the Son; life flowing from the Son to the Father. The Father dwelling in Jesus works through him. Nothing Jesus says he says on his own. Nothing Jesus does he does on his own. It’s all the result of God working through him. Jesus certainly had more than belief in God. He trusted in God. He rested in the strength of the relationship. He rested in God’s faithfulness and love for him. And in the strength of that relationship, that mutual exchange—God trusting Jesus; Jesus trusting God—Jesus was empowered to act, to serve, to save.
Therefore, when we hear the word “believe” here (and throughout John’s Gospel), we should understand it to mean something more like trust. When we trust in what Jesus has shown us with his life we discover that, like him, we are being drawn into a deep, intimate relationship with God.
God doesn’t want your belief. God wants you. That is what Jesus came to show. This is what God desires for all people. It’s what God desired for humanity since the dawn of time. The Christian life is about more than saying, “I believe in God,” or “I believe Jesus was the Son of God.” The Christian life is about more than belief. It’s an experience. As I came to know—as I continue to fathom the unfathomable—God is in me and I am in God. That’s what Jesus is suggesting to Philip and Thomas. God is in you and you are in God.
Why does this matter? Why is this so important? Because, as Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me”—that is, the one who trusts in me, rests in me, welcomes me, participates 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” (John 14:12). Now, that’s a very bold claim.
How can anyone do greater works than Jesus? Really? How can Jesus make such a claim? Jesus could make such a claim because he knew the potential power of human beings when their lives are bound to God, rooted in that relationship with God, like Jesus, and when the Life of God pours through them. What Jesus knew, we can and do know. When we are rooted in that relationship, when we trust that God is working through us, we will witness the further unfolding of God’s love incarnating itself in the world, in the church, in you and me. God still desires the incarnation of divine love in the world.
Now, that’s not something that I learned in Sunday School. I can remember thinking that God wanted me to believe in something that took place in the past and that by believing that something took place a long time ago somehow made God happy, which meant heaven for me—or something like that. The orientation was looking back. It took me a long time to reorient myself from focusing on the past to the present, becoming attentive to the ongoing work of God in the world, and then looking forward, to the “new thing” God would reveal in the future.
Right here in John 14 you can hear the future orientation of this text. Jesus isn’t calling disciples to look back to a golden age, but to look forward to a new age, to the new thing God was doing in the world in Jesus, but also beyond Jesus, through Jesus into the future. The vision Jesus offers his disciples is that change is inevitable, change is good, and that God is still at work in us and through us, that God is actually trying to take us somewhere, to move us, so we better get used to change. The story of God’s love is still being told. It’s as if this is what Jesus discovered—the story of God’s love is still unfolding—this is what he knew and now he wants the rest of us to know this too, to know this experience first-hand.
And so Jesus says in order for us to discover this for ourselves he has to leave us, he has to go away—although not completely, he promised never to leave us orphaned (John 14:18)—like a good parent, Jesus has to step back, step away in order for us to step up and grow up, to discover for ourselves what God is trying to accomplish through us. As Jesus later says to his disciples, in John 16, “…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
This week I was reading a review of a book about to be released in two weeks, the first novel written by Jöel Dicker, called The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (Penguin). It’s being being hailed as the great American crime novel—although it was written in French. It’s about a crime case in a small New Hampshire town. It was released in France in 2012 and immediately became a best seller, and then it was released in Spain and Italy in 2013 (supplanting Dan Brown). Three years ago, Jöel Dicker, a Geneva Law School graduate, was taking lunch orders from Swiss parliament members and putting off the bar exam. The 28-year-old said, “I didn’t have the holy fire for law.” So he quit his job and started to write. Speaking on the change of direction in his life, he said, “I like it when the end is the beginning of something else.” And I immediately thought of Jesus’ words to Philip and Thomas. Something has to come to an end for something else to emerge. Something has to die in order for new life to follow. And then Dicker offered these words, “A good story is never-ending.”
He’s right. That’s what makes it good. When we finish reading a good story, we want to start reading it all over again. The same is true for what we find in the Bible. The story isn’t over—it’s still unfolding.
The story of God’s love for the world is never-ending. And Jesus entrusts you and me with the story: to not only tell the story, but also live the story, embody it, live the story forward. Jesus trusts us and entrusts us with this work.
We don’t do all this on our own, relying upon our own strength, wisdom, or knowledge. It’s not about us, but about what God is doing through us. And how do we know about these “greater works”? How do we do all of this? Jesus offers the way here too. Prayer. “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). This is not prayer as wish fulfillment. God is not a genie who waits to grant us three wishes. Prayer is not a tool to get God to do whatever we want. That’s childish and selfish. Instead, this is prayer in which we discover and rediscover who God is, where we understand our true relationship to God, in God, and then ask God to help us to do things, new things, new works, that will live the story forward and honor God. We then desire after these things, even greater works, whatever will give glory and honor to God. That’s how we live the story forward. That’s our calling.
What is that greater work in your life?
What is that greater work for the Church today?
What is the greater work for this people of God?
Let’s together be still and listen and open ourselves to the Spirit. Let us pray….
[Several minutes of silent prayer followed here during worship.]
Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the power of the Risen Christ, to the glory and honor of God. Amen.
 Cf. the quote from the bulletin cover: “Change is not what we expect from religious people. They tend to love the past more than the present or the future.” Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011), 11.