Thursday, May 18, 2017

"GREATER WORKS THAN THESE."

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A. John 14:1-12.
AIM: To deepen the hearers’ faith.
      A four-year-old boy was in the kitchen with his mother. “I need a can of mushroom soup, Johnny,” she said to him. “Could you go down into the cellar and get it for me?”
      “It’s dark down there, Mom,” he replied. “I’m scared to go down.”
      His mother tried several times, without success, to persuade him that he had nothing to be scared of. When all else failed, she played her trump card. “It’s all right, Johnny. Jesus will be down there with you.”
      At that Johnny opened the cellar door and called out: “Jesus, if you’re down there, would you bring me up a can of mushroom soup?”
      Four-year-old Johnny’s fear was not unlike the fear of Jesus’ friends in our gospel reading. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. Then he said he would be leaving them. The news plunged them into grief and fear. At the beginning of our gospel reading Jesus responds to this fear by saying: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” 
      The “trouble” they were experiencing went deep. The gospel writer uses the same word to describe Jesus’ emotions at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus as he joins in the grief of Lazarus’ sisters and other friends. The word is used once again to describe Jesus’ emotions when he realizes that one of his inner circle, Judas Iscariot, is going to betray him. The “trouble” Jesus felt on those occasions, and which his disciples feel now, was gut-wrenching, and stomach-turning. It is the feeling we experience at the news that someone we dearly love has unexpectedly died. Nothing, we realize, will ever be the same again.
      Notice how Jesus counters this fear. “You have faith in God,” he tells his
disciples. “Have faith also in me.” Faith in God Jesus could take for granted. These friends of his were believing Jews. He challenges them to extend this same faith to him. You must trust, he was telling them, that the same God whom we worship in synagogue and temple is truly present and active in me. 
      That is a tremendous claim, when you think about it. The disciples whom Jesus was addressing didn’t yet know him as we know him — as the divine Son of God. To them he was a man like themselves. Realization that he was more came only after the resurrection.
      Jesus’ challenge to his friends to trust him as they trusted God involves the central teaching of our Christian faith: the incarnation. Incarnation means “embodiment.” Children are the embodiment, or incarnation, of their parents’ love, which brings them into being. This building is the incarnation of an idea in the mind of the architect who designed it, and of the sacrifices of those whose gifts made its construction possible. And Jesus is the incarnation of God. That explains how Jesus can say in today’s gospel reading: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The introduction to the Eucharistic Prayer for Christmas says the same: “In him [Jesus] we see our God made visible, and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see.”       
      The incarnation begins with Jesus. But it has important implications for us as well. By taking on our human nature Jesus has broken through the boundary between our world and the world of God. The same God who took human form in Jesus is also embodied, though of course in a different degree, in each person who, in baptism, becomes a member of Christ’s body, the Church. Hence we can even say that each one of us is, in a certain measure, the embodiment of God. He dwells in us through the presence and power of his Holy Spirit.
      This truth, that each of us is the temple or dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, helps us understand Jesus’ words at the conclusion of our gospel reading: “Truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I go to the Father.”

      What are the works that Jesus did?  First on just about any list would be his miracles: the healings he performed, the stilling of the storm on the lake, the raising of the widow’s son at Naim and of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Jesus also fed the hungry: the vast crowd in the wilderness, his twelve apostles at the Last Supper. After his resurrection Jesus prepared a lakeside breakfast for Peter, James, and John, tired and hungry from a night of fruitless fishing with the net coming back empty time after time until a man on shore, still unrecognized, calls out, “Cast the net on the right side” — and they feel the net heavy with fish, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” calls out excitedly: “It is the Lord.” Jesus’ works also include his beautiful stories — the  parables — and all his teaching about the love of God, his heavenly Father: the love that will never let us go.   

      How can Jesus say that we, his followers, will do even greater works than those? Well, consider. During his life on earth Jesus’ works were confined to just a few years, and to one very small part of the world. But these works did not end with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return to his Father in heaven. He wanted them to continue, and they have continued, through his Church. Starting as a sect of Judaism, the Church which Jesus founded spread throughout the whole world and has continued through twenty centuries of history. 

      We the Church’s members are charged to continue Jesus’ works. He has now no hands to bless people than ours; no eyes to look upon people in love than ours; no tongue to speak words of love, encouragement, or warning but ours; no arms to support people and their burdens than ours. The Church’s works are greater than those of her Lord because they are more extended in time and space than they could ever be during the few years that Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine. And the Church’s works are great — amazing in fact — because they have never ceased despite all the failures and betrayals. They began when, at Jesus’ arrest, “they all forsook him and fled” (Mk 14:50); and when, only hours later, their leader, Peter, three times denied that he even knew the Lord. Should we be surprised when we hear of similar betrayals today?

I began with a story.  Let me close with another. 

When the Lord Jesus returned to heaven at the ascension the angels wanted to know everything he had done on earth.  So Jesus told them how he had gone about doing good, healing the sick, and teaching people about the freely given love of God.

AThat=s wonderful, Lord,@ the angels said.  ABut now that you=re no longer in earth, won=t people soon forget about what you have done and said?@

AOh no,@ Jesus explained.  AI founded a Church.  I chose twelve men to be its first bishops.  I spent three years teaching them: how to pray, how to heal people, how to free them from their burdens, how to teach others about God=s freely given love. They are going to carry on my work.@

AThat=s all well and good, Lord,@ the angels replied.  ABut we know how fickle and unreliable these human beings are. How do you know that they will keep on doing all those things you trained them to do? How do you know that they will remain faithful?@

At that the Lord fell silent. He looked down and seemed to be thinking.  Then he looked up and, with that beautiful, radiant smile of his, said very simply:

AI trust them.@