Fifth Sunday of Easter
TEXT: John 14:1-14
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9a)
Shortly after World War Two, the World Council of Churches began providing relief funds to help needy churches re-build what bombs and artillery had destroyed. Seeking to be accountable as well as helpful, the Council decided to check on how its money was being spent in a remote area of the Balkans. So it dispatched one of its officers—a man named John Mackay, who also happened to be the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.
Accompanying Dr. Mackay were two other clergymen, both of whom came from a fairly conservative denomination. One afternoon they paid a visit to an Orthodox priest in a remote village. The priest—who worked in rather lonely isolation most of the time—was clearly thrilled to receive the visit. Immediately upon seating the guests in his study, the priest produced a box of fine Havana cigars and offered one to each of his three guests.
Dr. Mackay took one, bit the end off, lit it, and took a few puffs, saying how fine it was.
The other two pastors looked horrified. “No thank you!” they quickly said. “We do not smoke!”
Feeling badly that he had perhaps offended the two brothers, the priest wanted to make amends. He left the room, then re-appeared with a bottle of his finest wine.
Dr. Mackay took a glassful, swirled it, sniffed it like a connoisseur, and then praised its fine quality. Soon he asked for another glass. Meanwhile, his traveling companions drew back even more visibly. “No thank you! We do not drink!” they snapped.
Later—when the three returned to their car—the two clergymen set upon Dr. Mackay: “Here you are, an officer with the World Council and the leader of Scotland’s Church—and yet you smoke and drink?”
Mackay barked at them: “No, I don’t! But somebody in there had to be a Christian!”
“Show us the Father,” Philip and the other disciples said to Jesus. “Show us the Father and it will be enough for us.”
You can’t really blame the disciples for asking that—after all, Jesus has been talking quite a bit about God being his “Father.” Even so, he seems taken aback by the question.
“What do you mean?” asks Jesus. “Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me? You’ve been seeing the Father all along. If you’ve seen me, then you have seen the Father!”
The two pious clergymen who watched John Mackay smoke and drink the rare treasures served up by their host were scandalized because—in their opinion—such actions were unworthy of a Christian. So also the disciples who had been watching Jesus all along apparently did not think he looked like the Father. But Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
But how could that be? Only a few weeks ago—when our lectionary served up the story of Lazarus (John 11:1-45)—we heard the report of Jesus bitterly weeping, mourning his dead friend. But does God weep? Can we picture the almighty, impassible God … crying?
The disciples had seen Jesus do some pretty amazing things. But more often, they’d seen him do very ordinary things. Just like them, Jesus got tired, hungry … cranky! Just like them, he had to eat, and drink, and sleep. It’s not hard to picture Jesus using a splinter to pick his teeth after a good meal, or to imagine him expressing his delight over a cup of good wine. But does that strike anyone as being like God the Father? It certainly is not the way that God has traditionally been depicted.
Consider today’s gospel lesson—from the 14th chapter of John. This is such a lovely chapter that it is easy to begin reading only at verse one, conveniently ignoring what just happened at the end of chapter 13. Do you remember it? It is the scene in the “upper room.” Judas Iscariot has just departed, having been singled out by Jesus as the betrayer in their midst. Peter—already considered by many the leading disciple—has just been told that he will deny Jesus three times.
So when—in verse one—Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” it’s because there’s plenty of trouble to go around. I imagine Jesus speaking those words with his eyes brimming with tears, and his voice thick with emotion. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he says.
Why? Because with God it is always smooth sailing? No! Things were falling apart in that upper room. Gethsemane is the next scene in this drama—and things will go rather quickly downhill after that. There is trouble enough to go around, which is precisely why Jesus tells the disciples not to let that trouble take root in their hearts.
And why not? The ultimate reason is because Jesus has prepared a place for them—a safe place, a good and comfortable place. However, Jesus does not waste words describing what that place is like. There is some many-roomed mansion somewhere, he says—and we will get to it someday. Meanwhile, the important thing is finding the way to get there. Once Jesus mentions his Father’s house, the specifics of it are ignored in favour of talking about the way to the place, which Jesus claims the disciples already know.
That was news to them, however. Jesus had, after all, provided no maps, no directions, no travel brochures. If Jesus had said that his Father’s house was in Rome or Caesarea or somewhere like that, the disciples could have drawn their own maps. But instead, he identifies himself as the way. Whatever the goal of the journey is, Jesus is the way to get there—and for now that’s got to be good enough. Apparently—as important as the final destination is—for now, the journey itself is the thing to focus upon.
To be sure, in this 14th chapter, Jesus dangles the promise of heaven before the disciples—but then, he proceeds to talk only about the journey as being important right now. All along on this journey, the very God of heaven had already been in their midst—if only their eyes had been able to see!
The problem was that this Galilean carpenter did not look like the God their parents and teachers had described to them. And their walk with Jesus had certainly not felt like heaven on earth. Dusty days of footsore travels, empty stomachs, ungrateful and threatening crowds—these were not the things one might expect to encounter in God’s company. Yet God had been with them all along, even as Jesus had all along been doing God’s work. But a lot of it was so seemingly unimportant—so ordinary—that they missed it completely.
Only much later did the disciples piece it all together and realize that theirs had been a sacred journey with Jesus and with God. As it turned out, Jesus was the Son who was his Father all over again. In and through everything they had seen in Jesus—the amazing and the mundane—Jesus had been so completely lost in his Father that everything he did was transformed. Something like that has to be our goal, I think: to live our earthly lives in ways so permeated by Christ that we won’t even think to worry about mansions in heaven.
Some years ago, I came across an article by the American neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has done some valuable research into Tourette’s Syndrome. As perhaps you know, “Tourette’s” is a bizarre neurological disorder which induces any number of physical and verbal “tics.” And almost all of this is behaviour which the casual onlooker would find distressing. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches. Others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and even raunchy obscenities.
One case Dr. Sacks reported involved a man with Tourette’s who was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive habit of adjusting and readjusting his eyeglasses. Yet that same man is a skilled surgeon!
Somehow—and for some unknown reason—when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. But when the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows. Dr. Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, of course, yet I find in the story of this surgeon a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” in a role.
There really can be a great transformation of your life when you are focused on just one thing—focused to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
Something like that, I think, is our Christian goal as we travel the “way” that just is Jesus. As we lose ourselves in Jesus and in being his disciples, we will find even our ordinary day-to-day activities are infused with deep meaning.
As John Mackay told his uptight companions, somebody has to be a Christian in life’s many and varied situations. According to the gospel, that “somebody” is every one of us as together we walk the path of discipleship.
It is a sacred journey in the company of Jesus the Christ—Jesus, who is for us the way, and the truth, and the life. Thanks be to God.