5.18.14 Struggling with the gospel
5 Easter A May 18, 2014
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Did you know that sometimes a preacher has a really hard time with the texts for the day? Well, this is one of those days for me. There are a few verses in the gospel that I find really off-putting.
This past Monday I was at my clergy preaching group. We meet at a Panera restaurant to have breakfast but also to share insights and challenges about the readings for the next Sunday. Our sharing in that group has helped me more than I can say / when I reflect on the coming Sunday’s sermon.
Well this past Monday I was really grouchy and gave everybody a hard time for their love of this gospel. Now, we all know that this one is used a lot for funerals, and traditionally it gives people comfort when they hear about the many dwelling places that Jesus prepares for his disciples—the many “mansions,” in the older language. We also tend to love Jesus’ reassurance that he will take us to himself. That IS a comforting thought, isn’t it? And we love that sublime answer that Jesus gives Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
So what’s my problem, then? My first problem is in the second half of verse 6. Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
My friend Elsa and I had a good discussion about this over bowls of oatmeal last Monday. She said she wasn’t troubled at all about this verse. In fact, she found great comfort in it. Here’s why.
She said that she originally started her religious life in a denomination that has very loosely defined theology—a church where all beliefs were seen as equals and where even atheism was accepted as a legitimate interpretation of the way things are.
She described her former’s church’s theology as a river that was a mile wide and an inch deep. She was glad of the assertion of Jesus that he was the way, and the truth, and the life. She was glad that he said he was the sure path to the Father. She needed to know there was a sure way to the Truth.
And I had to contrast that to the tradition that I spent some time in / about 25 years ago. That was the Evangelical wing of the Episcopal Church, where the right kind of belief in Jesus was seen as the only gateway to eternal life. When I entered into that wing of the church it seemed to me that I traded one kind of fear-based religion for another kind of fear-based religion. It wasn’t till I sampled the wider church that I realized the full breadth of belief that I could hold as an Episcopalian. Belief that didn’t have to be colored by fear.
So when I REED statements like, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” I re-experience all those painful memories of strident belief systems that left me with so much anxiety.
And so I think it’s really interesting that we two priests, Elsa and I, having started out in such different places of faith, have such opposite reactions to this half verse, “no one comes to the Father except through me.”
Now, here’s something that might help us wrestle with this gospel a little more deeply. It’s the next verse—verse 7. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Apparently the Greek word that’s translated “if” here at the beginning of the sentence should better be translated “since.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “since you know me, you know my Father. [Commentary by David Lose and commentary by Karoline Lewis on workingpreacher.org for May 18, 2014]
From now on you do know him and have seen him” -- simply by virtue of knowing Jesus we know the Father—we know God, the Way, the Truth, the Life.
I think this defuses the passage and helps neutralize the threat that verse 6 seems to present. Seen in context, Jesus is talking to the people who have known and followed him for 3 years. In fact, this passage is the beginning of his farewell address in John’s account of the Last Supper. He’s summing up his teaching to them and reminding them that he’ll always be with them, and that they have a link to the Father through him, since they know him. Later on he’ll tell them he’ll send them the Holy Spirit to walk alongside them after he returns to the Father. It’s a message given to the ones who have walked with Jesus, the ones who know him. And so it’s a message for us as well.
Jesus isn’t weighing in on the fate of those who don’t know him. Jesus isn’t saying there is only one path to the Truth.
Now, the other part of the gospel I find challenging is the very last verse, the one that says, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Should we be reading this quite literally, as a kind of magic formula, perhaps? How about we pray like this, “Dear Jesus, please turn my hair blue right now because I earnestly want it and I ask this in your name. Amen.”
Of course that’s a silly prayer, but it proceeds from a literal reading of that verse. What are we to make of that promise of Jesus?
And now the better question: Why don’t all our prayers get answered, if we are asking in good faith and in his name?
Listen to what one scholar says about this verse: “To pray ‘in the name of Jesus’ is to align one’s spiritual longing with that of one’s Lord. When one believes in Jesus, one begins to believe in God with the same depth of trust and hope, out of which mature prayer flows.” [Molly T. Marshall, Feasting on the Word for 5 Easter A, p. 470.]
I think she’s right on. The longer we walk with Jesus the more we think and behave / as he would have us do. We begin to see that we can’t see well. We begin to understand that we can’t understand the complexities of some situations. We begin to trust that even if we can’t see a way through a problem, surely God can see the way through. We may begin to give up trying to tell Jesus how he should be fixing something.
And our prayer becomes one of trust and surrender, instead of one for the outcome that we think is the best one.
And that’s what mature prayer is. Surrender and trust.
And that is certainly in line with the mind of Christ. So asking for anything in Jesus’ name means aligning oneself with him so completely that we begin to come close to having the mind of Christ. And that’s when our prayer is answered, because Jesus is praying through us.
So in case any of you were having a little trouble with these parts of today’s gospel, I hope this helps. Perhaps the best way to end our sermon is to quote Jesus’ words in the first part of our reading: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
Trust, wait, believe. He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.