This lesson contains some of the most familiar, some of the most comforting and some of the most astounding verses in scripture. But it also contains some of the most troubling, at least for many twenty-first century western Christians. When Jesus says, "No one comes to the Father, except by me," we almost always hesitate. I suspect we hear some preacher out of our past railing against anyone who does not "believe in Jesus" the way he believes in Jesus, warning that unless they conform, they are going to hell. And so, let us begin by dealing with what otherwise would keep us from hearing all of this as good news.
Jesus is preparing his closest followers for his imminent departure. They are more than a little confused. He says he is going to his Father's home to prepare a place for them, whereupon he will come and take them to himself so that where he is, they may also be. I have read these words at virtually every funeral or memorial service I have ever led, for they are words of astounding comfort and hope. Life as God has designed it for us is not confined to this world or to this brief "three-score and ten"-albeit today, increasingly more like four-score and ten or more. The risen Lord has returned to his Father's dwelling place to make room for each of us. And when the time comes for us to make that transition, we can expect none other than the risen Lord there to receive us unto himself that where he is we may also be, always! This is the first remarkable promise in today's lesson.
While the disciples are still trying to take all of this in, Jesus tells them they know the way to the place where he is going. Thomas voices the question everyone is silently asking: "Lord, we don't know where you are going, how can we know the way?" Jesus responds, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." The words are as astounding as they may be troubling. They are astounding because Jesus has just used the ineffable name of God for himself. You don't hear it because you think his "I am" simply a first-person present tense verb of being. It is that, to be sure, but more importantly still, it is the ineffable name of the Lord. This is one of an entire series of "I am" sayings that appears in John's gospel, wherein Jesus uses God's name as his own and adds to it a life-giving metaphor: "I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd; I am the door to the sheepfold, I am the resurrection and the life; I am the true vine; and most revealing of all, before Abraham was, I am. I am the way, the truth, and the life."
Unfortunately, the shock heard at those words today is different. Almost as a reflex we hear ourselves asking, "What about those who are not Christian?" The question is asked, not so much out of disbelief as of genuine concern. It can be answered from one of several perspectives. First, though, we as Christians belong to Jesus Christ, having been joined eternally to him in the waters of baptism, Jesus does not belong to us. We are his, he is not ours! That is something all too often forgotten by many a well intended evangelist. We are the Lord's, to be sure; his promises are for us. And we are to share this good news with all who will receive it. But we don't control it nor have the authority to place limitations on it. Where did we get the notion that Jesus' statement that he is the way, truth and life pertains exclusively to Christians? This brings us to a second perspective.
Earlier in this gospel Jesus has said, "I have other sheep not of this fold." Jesus has the freedom to call whomever he chooses, however he chooses, whenever he chooses, even if they may not know it. This answers that nagging question about the person of another faith tradition who is leading a holy life, who is clearly in contact with the living God but does not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
This brings us to the third perspective on that vexing question. The apostle Paul reminds us that "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them." God has acted in Jesus Christ on the world's behalf. What God did in Jesus Christ, God did for the world. What makes us arrogant enough to believe that the outcome depends upon our choice? Even when John speaks of the inherent judgment in Christ's coming-that some love darkness rather than light- he there concludes: "Those who do what is true come to the light so that it may be clearly seen that their works have been done in God." There is a unity between the light of the world who is the way, the truth and life, and the Father who sent him.
Jesus says precisely this following his well-known, "No one comes to the Father except through me." He continues, "If you know me, you will know my Father also." Philip, as confused as most of us, tries to better understand saying, "Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus simply asks, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me?" Jesus is the human face of God. He is all of God that we humans have the capacity to comprehend. He has come among us as one of us, for all of us. As he tells us, "To know the Son is to know the Father." There is a unity to this truth.
The unity is such that even the words that he speaks are not his but the Father's. He is God's own self-expression; we call him God's Word. He tells his followers that if they are not able to accept this on the strength of what he says, then they should do so on the strength of the works they have seen him do. Those who do what is true come to him.
This leads to an even more astounding promise. "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." What do you make of that promise? Are not these the most startling and troublesome words yet? Jesus says that those who believe in him have the power to do his work, and even more, because he is returning to the source of all power.
In our new members' preparation classes at Madison Avenue, when we discuss the two natures of Jesus-fully human and fully divine-I like to ask, "How did Jesus do the miraculous things he did, out of his divine nature or his human nature?" Inevitably people respond with a hesitant question, "Out of his divine nature?" As tempting as that is to believe, it flies in the face of one of the earliest confessions of the church. Paul quotes the confession in his letter to the Philippians, as an illustration of Jesus' humility, urging the same on the Philippians. He reminds them that though the Christ "was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant." He became human, just like the rest of us. The pre-existent, eternally begotten Son of the Father, divested himself of all his divine power to take on human flesh at the incarnation. How then did he do those miraculous things? He did them through the power of the Father.
As Jesus prepares to return to the Father, he tells us that you and I have access to the same power, when asked in his name. He promises to do whatever we ask in his name. Now hear me clearly. This is not a promise for chocolate cake at the drop of a hat, straight A's without some very hard work, instant parking places, or a stock-market portfolio that is always ahead of the Dow Jones Index. It is a promise Jesus gives to his body, the church, for the church. This is the meaning of asking in his name. To the extent that what we ask of the risen Lord is in accord with his will and purpose for the church in the world. That he will do in and through us.
Think about it. Indeed, we have seen even greater works than he did, whether that has been the world-wide spread of the gospel with his word of love, forgiveness and reconciliation in the search for peace, his work to heal and make whole as the church has established hospitals and schools all across the globe, or his value for human life, even the least of these a norm woven into the ethics of much of western culture. Whatever we ask in his name he promises to do. There is no power shortage here for any of us, so long as it is Christ's work we are taking up.
What does that mean for us as his body as we face the complex questions of immigration justice in this country? What does that mean for us as his body as we face the challenge of global ecology? We are not only commissioned to be the custodians and stewards of creation, we have the Creator's power to do so, if we will. What does that mean about confronting the challenges of decline in the church in the west? Every study that has ever been done on evangelism and church growth says the same thing: it happens when the members of the congregation begin to take up their responsibility for inviting people-family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances-to worship with them. When you and I begin to speak openly and unapologetically about the faith that sustains us, the power of God engages our words to do God's work, and people respond. We do not need to prove the truth of the Gospel or of Jesus' claims. We simply need to confess them, bear witness to them, say "come and see," trusting the power of God to do the rest.
Are you facing a power shortage in your congregation? What are you failing to ask of him in his name?
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
Let us pray: Send, O Lord, your Spirit upon us all to give us the power of your Father that we might be faithful witnesses to you and all you are doing in this world. This we ask in your holy name. Amen.