Sermon preached at Christ Church, Tacoma
May 22, 2011
I have a hunch that I’m not the first preacher to share a bit of embarrassed delight at the seemingly inexhaustible foolishness of the disciples. You might call it holy schadenfreude – a perverse pleasure in their misfortunate inability to ever understand what Jesus means.
Over and over again, despite their years of life together, despite overhearing the teachings and parables, despite seeing the healings and transformed lives, despite the dinners with tax collectors and loving moments with prostitutes, despite prophetic proclamations and near-misses with persecuting Pharisees, and despite all the long explanations of all these things which John’s Gospel gives us – despite all this – over, and over and over again, the disciples just don’t understand.
The humanness, the imperfection, the struggle that are so much a part of my own life of faith are here, on display, in these twelve. I smile, laugh a bit at the absurdity of it all – that Jesus chose them, chooses me, to bear witness to God’s good news for this world.
In today’s gospel, Philip is the one who brings Jesus to his wit’s end.
Remember the story, a moment in the midst of a long speech which Jesus gives in John’s version of the Last Supper: Jesus says: Trust in God and trust in me. I’m going prepare a place for you in God’s house, a house with many rooms.
I’ll come again, to bring you with me, so that we can be together. Don’t worry –you know the way to where I’m going.
But Phillip, perhaps trying to establish himself as the intellectual of the bunch, or perhaps expressing the confusion, desperation, and fear that haunted all of the twelve; Philip jumps in with the obvious question:
“Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way!”
Jesus tries again: “Philip, I’m the way. If you know me, you know the Father. You do know him, and have seen him.”
Philip, perhaps suffering from selective hearing, missed the whole last part, because he says to Jesus: “Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied!”
Frustrated, Jesus can’t take it anymore. The night before he will be killed, the last chance he has with his friends, these twelve in whom he’d invested everything, still now don’t understand – we’ve been together all this time, Phillip, and still you do not know me? If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father; the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.
Believe, and the power in me and in the father that does these works of God will work in you, too, to do more than I could ever do, because I’m going to the Father.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus moves on to a new subject at this point – if you love me, you will keep my commandments – maybe he wanted something simpler for them to understand, something more concrete, less mystical, more action-oriented.
But if we skip over this passage too quickly, we miss an important lesson about who God is – in the world, in Christ, in us.
We, like Philip can easily come to believe that God is only “out there” somewhere, far away, a discrete entity unto him/her/itself – contained, inaccessible, and largely absent. Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way.
It’s a sensible question, on its surface, but it assumes all the wrong things.
In the little congregational church in Pennsylvania where I grew up, we said out loud, from memory, the same one Bible verse every week at Sunday School. From the King James, John 14:3 “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”
Growing up, I was a lot like Phillip. I really wanted to know where Jesus was going, and how to get there. I wondered to myself, and perhaps too often to my very patient Sunday school teachers, just what this house of many rooms looked like, what was the place that Jesus was preparing, who would be there, who would be in each room, did we get to choose, or did God assign seats like a heavenly homeroom teacher. Do we go to this house as soon as we die, what age will the people be there, will I recognize my grandma, or will she be young again.
My questions were endless – all about the details. Where are we going, and how do we get there? Sorry, Jesus, I’m with Philip, I might have said, it’s not as clear as you think.
And while I didn’t know the first thing about the rapture then, let alone the nuances of premillennial dispensationalism, I did know, from the words we said and the songs we sang together, that that place that Jesus was preparing, that place, out there, somewhere other than this place where I lived now; that place, heaven, perhaps, was the most important place of all.
Everything was oriented there, not just the one Bible memory verse, that there ye may be also, but the hymns, too. We sang all the Welsh favorites, hymns in four parts, in minor keys, all with depressing words about how hard life is; we sang the gospel hymns about glory land.
Guide me O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land;
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly, / While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past; / Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.
This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
It is a deep shame and, I think, a lack of compassionate imagination that makes ridicule our favored societal response to the recent predictions about the end of the world. Not simply disagreement, not even dis-interest, but an incredible surge in a kind of mocking voyeurism – an un-holy schadenfreude, delighting at the misfortune of those cast as fools. One news program put the rapture prophecies on its Riducu-list; another story spoofed a KeSha song with the title “Tick Tock on the Doomsday clock;” one blog featured the sins people planned to commit before they died; another cataloged fake expressions of love to one’s mom and to Justin Beiber. And a whole website documented the disappointment via twitter, time zone, by time zone.
But the reality is more complex, filled with suffering, alienation.
More than simply being duped by a radio preacher with an expensive and effective PR campaign, more than just getting the date wrong, we’ve seen people sell it all, risk it all, abandon their families, endanger their future – and for what?
One former believer in the rapture prophecy said, with barely any life left in his voice, “I was hoping for it, because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth.”
Jesus lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly; This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
Lord, where are you going? How can we know the way?
The songs of my childhood, the anguished hope to be raptured the desperation of Philip’s question to Jesus – all are sensible reactions to a world that seems to be unraveling – in personal pain, in global conflict, in the loss of a beloved one, in the death of a savior – but they assume all the wrong thing.
The hope to meet Jesus, to discover God “out there” in “that place” with many rooms in the sky, separate from this barren land and orienting our life of faith only toward a heavenly Canaan misses the point of Jesus. Not because of the hope for another, better world, but because of the assumption that that world is not here – but only out there, way beyond the blue.
The Christian story is not about Jesus coming down, just so he can go back up, and someday bring us there. The life of Christ on earth is not just an incidental, necessary pit stop to redeem our sins, so we can get on to the real business of heaven.
The Easter story is about this world being re-impregnated with divine life. It’s about the image of God that was indelibly etched into every living creature at the foundation of the universe, being restored to its intended glory.
The fruits of redemption are still growing, for sure, sometimes it feels like we barely see the first buds, but when Jesus rises from the dead, he doesn’t carry his whole divinity with him, so that communion with God requires supernatural travel to a destination far, far away.
Rather, Jesus had been planting the seeds of eternity among us all along, the divinity that overflowed in him has entered into us, empowered us by God’s own breath.
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” 1st peter tells us.
Who, us? Really? Royal priests? Chosen by God to carry the spark of holiness and eternal life, in our selves, now? Yes – like Mary, we have all become God-bearers, entrusted with the first fruits of a new creation. We, in all our foolishness, uncertainty, struggle, pain, just like those never-understanding disciples. We, chosen by God. Though we feel like the stones that the builders rejected, God chooses to make those stones the corner of the foundation of a new spiritual house.
A house set in the midst of God’s people.
The tragedy of the rapture, the misunderstanding in Phillip’s question lie not in the radical commitment, the irrational devotion that would give everything in the hope of following Jesus into a better world. The tragedy, the misunderstanding lie, I think, in an act of misplaced devotion, in our human tendency for inadequate imagination, where we just can’t believe how far Jesus has gone to be with us.
There must be some other place, some other world, some other house instead of this spiritual house. This can’t be it? Lord, where are you going? What is the way? Show us the Father? Philip asks.
And Jesus says, over and over again. You have seen the Father, you do know the way. I am the way. The eternal holy one, dwelling fully in human flesh – that’s it. You’ve seen it! That’s who I am, that’s who you are becoming.
In loving the unlove-ables, in welcoming the untouch-ables, in challenging the powers of this world, in believing that a new creation is coming to life in us and around us, precisely in the midst of our broken bodies and spirits, in the midst of t the hatred, anger, exploitation of the world that we hate so much. That is God’s good news – we don’t have to look so far away.
I am the way, Jesus says. He doesn’t say believing in me is the way, or worshipping me is the way, or reading about me is the way, or waiting for me to come get you is the way. I am the way.
The way those disciples had been walking all along, a way that leads into the broken places of this world and births eternal life there. A way that loves, even in the face of hatred; a way that hopes, even in the face of death.
Lord, show us the way.