The horrors of the Passion are past; in His glorious Resurrection Jesus has burst forth from the tomb; He has appeared to His disciples and to upwards of 500 persons; He has ascended into heaven to return to His rightful place at the right hand of the Father, where He makes intercession for us and from which place He will come again to establish His everlasting Kingdom. And now, on the fifth Sunday of Easter, we suddenly find ourselves back in the Upper Room with Jesus and the disciples. In the immediate context, Jesus has washed His disciples’ feet, they’ve shared the Passover Seder, the betrayal of Judas has been predicted along with the denials of Peter, and the New Commandment has been issued to love one another just as Jesus has loved us. Now the teaching of Jesus in the Upper Room continues with these words: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in Me.”
Most of what follows in today’s Gospel fills in what it means to believe in Jesus just as we believe in God. The question of Thomas, “Where are You going?” seems like a sidetracking of Jesus, but Jesus artfully brings Thomas back to point: Jesus is not focusing on where He is going, but on how His destination defines Who He is and how we are to relate to Him. Philip’s follow-up request, “Show us the Father,” sounds preposterously naïve to us with our 20/20 hindsight. But in its context it’s simply an honest inquiry into an almost inscrutable truth that later threatened to divide and destroy the early Church: Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.
Today in our catechism class we are going to begin examining what we call the Apostles’ Creed, a critically important summary of what was believed and taught by those who had sat at the feet of Jesus for 3 years. It’s a creed that answers the questions of both Thomas and Philip. It was used, then as now, as a personal confession of faith for those who had been instructed in the teaching of the Apostles and who wished to be baptized into membership in the Church. In an expanded version it evolved into the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday morning. The expansions also are critically important because they further clarify exactly what Thomas and Philip and many fourth-century Christians had been asking. And the formularies contained in these two creeds have remained the ultimate tests of orthodox faith for these 17 subsequent centuries.
Why did Jesus come in the first place? We have many correct answers to that question, no one of which can begin to cover the whole of God’s purposes in sending His Son. Obviously He came to die and to rise again victoriously. He came to seek and to save all that was lost (Luke 19:10). He came that we might have eternal and abundant life (John 10:10). He came that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). He came that the wrath of God could be turned away from our sin (Romans 5:9; Ephesians 2:1-9). He came to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43). He came because, as Paul puts it so succinctly, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Corinthians 5:19).
But having said all that, we’ve not even begun to exhaust the reasons that He came. Answering Thomas’ question, Jesus says that He came to show us the Way to the Father. He reduces His answer to this: “I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life,” and the only Way to the Father, And He came to provide the fullest image of God that humankind could ever hope to see. That’s the answer to Philip’s request: “Show us the Father.” Jesus had been showing them the Father non-stop for three years, and Jesus cannot disguise at least a hint of dismay at Philip’s request to see more when Philip adds “it is enough for us!”
Philip should have sided with the Israelites in the wilderness who were so terrified at the thought of seeing the Father that they begged Moses to continue being their shield, their intermediary, their protection from the vision of God. But Philip wants to see more. And Jesus answers, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Back in the Good Shepherd discourse Jesus had said “I and the Father, WE ARE One” (John 10:30), perhaps the most remarkable statement Jesus ever made. It was a clear enough claim that those who heard it immediately picked up stones to stone Him, just as the hearers of Stephen in today’s reading from Acts stoned him for saying that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.
But ever since the fourth century the Church raises its corporate voice every week to declare its faith by saying that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” “For us and for our salvation He came down from Heaven.” “He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” We make these declarations as the Church of Jesus Christ and no one stones us, even though thousands of Christians have lost their lives for their faith in recent years.
Why is our confidence in these creedal and theological statements so important to us? There are several reasons, the most important of which is that our very salvation is dependent on these beliefs. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27). And shortly before that, He said “Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). If we are to know God and to be accepted by Him, we must also confess His Son before others.
Then there are the promises Jesus makes that are predicated on this acknowledgement of Him. Immediately after the words that Jesus said in Matthew 11, He adds, “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” And in our reading today from John’s Gospel, we have three of the most precious promises Jesus ever made: 1) His promise of a place prepared for us in His Father’s house, 2) His promise that we can do greater works than His, and 3) His promise of answered prayer when we ask the Father in His Name.
We have little trouble accepting the first in this trilogy of promises: whether or not we agree on the exact translation or the precise meaning of places prepared in the Father’s house, we rest in the assurance that such a place is guaranteed by the very word of Jesus Himself Who, like the Father, always keeps His promises. But the other two promises give us pause and make us wonder what Jesus could possibly have meant. Here in John’s Gospel we have accounts of some of the most extraordinary miracles of Jesus, among them changing water to wine, feeding 5,000, walking on water, giving sight to a man born blind and raising Lazarus from the dead. How can we top those?
First of all, a bit of Greek comes to the rescue. John uniformly refers to the miracles of Jesus as “signs,” so that his Gospel is often identified as “The Book of Signs.” This is important because they’re given as signs that point to Who Jesus is: the Son of God Who does whatever He sees the Father doing. But when Jesus tells his disciples that they will do greater works than His, He does not use the word for “signs,” but the word for “works.” This puts a dramatically different spin on things. We know that in some very special instances the disciples were in fact able to replicate the miracles of Jesus: for example, in Peter’s raising of a young girl in Acts 9. But that’s not what Jesus is promising. He promises that every person who believes in Him will do greater works than He “because” He says, “I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
This was not a promise given exclusively to the disciples. Jesus did not say, “You will do greater works than I.” He said “the one who believes in Me will do greater works.” That potential resides in us! Why does it generally seem to remain untapped? Who is to blame that a promise made by Jesus remains unfulfilled for most of us? Who is at fault?
Well, I suppose we are! When Jesus ascended into heaven, His last words were, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). There you have it: Jesus had a three-year ministry in Galilee, Judea and a small bit of Samaria. If we add up all the persons who came to believe in Him during that time, it would be a singularly unimpressive number considering that He was the incarnate Son of God. But those who have believed in Him and done the work of witnessing to the end of the earth began adding souls by the thousands from the very beginning of the account in Acts. And, as we saw last Sunday, The ACNA catechism states that “within a century of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Christian congregations could be found from Spain to Persia, and from North Africa to Britain.”
It’s not about our doing signs or wonders or miracles: it’s about doing the work of proclaiming the Gospel message: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself! This message spread like wildfire and, whenever people obey the call to discipleship and witness, it continues to spread today. The Billy Grahams are few and far between, but the fault is ours. We never will do greater works than Jesus as long as we’re content to be His silent partners. Trust me: it won’t work, it won’t accomplish His work!
This is actually the fifth promise Jesus makes in John’s Gospel for all who believe in Him. The first four are:
- Whoever believes in Me will never thirst (6:35)
- Whoever believes in Me, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water (7:38)
- Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live (11:25), and
- Whoever believes in Me will not remain in darkness (12:46)
The situation may in fact be quite similar with regard to the other great promise in this passage: the promise of answered prayer when we ask the Father in Jesus’ Name. No matter how many times we pray in Jesus’ Name and experience spectacular results, the times we tend to remember best are the ones when the results did not go quite the way we wished. That’s precisely when we begin to complain and to doubt whether God is holding up His end of this bargain.
But once again, as usual in understanding difficult Scriptures, it’s “context to the rescue.” Is God failing to keep His promise made by His Son when He fails to get us the advantageous parking space that enables us to get to an appointment on time when we’ve failed to leave a cushion for unexpected traffic? Or is Jesus letting us down when we pray for the healing of a loved one and it doesn’t happen? Is prayer supposed to be the Christian’s magic stone that produces our desired results whenever we rub it in the difficult circumstances of life? Is that what Jesus is promising in John 14?
Absolutely not! What is the context here? It’s doing the work of God in the same way that Jesus Himself did it: selflessly, tirelessly, faithfully, sacrificially and always with a view to the same result: the greater glory of God alone! What did Jesus say about His healing of the man born blind? He was asked, “Who sinned that the man was born blind in the first place?” And Jesus responded that it was neither the man nor His parents, but it was so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” And there again we have the word “works” rather than the word “signs:” the “sign,” that is, the miracle itself, was of less consequence than the “work” of pointing others to God for His greater glory. What about bringing Lazarus up from the dead, perhaps the most impressive of the seven “signs” in John’s Gospel? It’s exactly the same scenario. In turn both Martha and Mary tell Jesus that if He had come earlier as expected, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus asks Martha whether she believes; then, moments later, He asks Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
Once again, it’s not about us: it’s about God and His greater glory. So whether it’s the greater works we’re doing in Jesus’ Name as we proclaim our faith in Him, or the prayers we’re offering in His Name as we do that work of witnessing, the fulfillment of the promises is the same: God will be glorified. And, if we’re engaged in His work and, while we are doing it, are faithful in prayer, we’ll see the results that amaze us and that assure us that God’s glory is surrounding us, just as it was when Jesus, the Light of the world, gave sight to the blind man and when Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, raised Lazarus from the grave.
And could we ask for more than that?
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen