The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2017
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; I Peter 2:1-10; John 14:1-14
From John’s gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, risen Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Other than, perhaps, John 3:16, I think that today’s gospel reading is probably one of the most familiar scripture texts known to Christians throughout the world. Jesus’s words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” are often heard at funerals and in times of distress because they are comforting words. In this beloved passage of scripture, Jesus assures his followers that their future, our future, is secure. He promises to come back and take us to himself, take us to a specially prepared place where we will dwell in the presence of God forever. Yes, these are comforting and encouraging words.
And yet, in the context of when they were spoken, I think comfort and encouragement was probably the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. You see, today’s gospel reading takes place before Easter. It is the Thursday evening of Holy Week, the night before Jesus’s trial, and crucifixion. And that context is incredibly important to understanding this particular passage. Remember, at this moment in John’s gospel, Jesus has just shared supper with his disciples, washed their feet, given them a new commandment to love “as I have loved you,” and foretold that he is about to die. In fact, he has said that one of them will betray him. Even more distressing, he has just told Peter that he will deny even knowing Jesus not once, but three times. And, in the midst of all this unfolding drama, Jesus has, and let’s be honest here, the gall to say, (but) “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Well, I don’t know about you but, my response would have been, “Are you kidding me, Jesus? Don’t let your hearts be troubled? You’ve just said you’re going to die and that one of us will betray you. My heart is deeply troubled because you are scaring me. In fact, your words anger me.” But Jesus just moves on and talks about going away, preparing places, and coming back again. So, be at peace, he says. And then, as if to add insult to injury, he implies that his followers should know what he is talking about and the way to follow him. And that’s when questions start to fly around the table.
This is one of those classic moments of dinnertime discomfort. One of those “uh-oh” moments when someone at the table says something profound, thought-provoking or even troubling, and in the midst of our bobbing heads trying to imply that we understand what they are saying, someone asks the question everyone else is afraid to ask: “What on earth are you talking about?” You know, for all the criticism of Thomas you have to admire his gumption here. He says the obvious, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way.” And when Jesus says that he is the way and then asks that they trust him, Philip jumps in to ask Jesus what no faithful Jew should ever ask. John describes it as a statement. I hear it as a plea, perhaps a demand, and yet it really is a question, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” In other words, “What does God look like?” And that’s when I imagine gasps rising from those present because the Old Testament is very clear: no one knows what God looks like because no one can look upon the face of God and live.
Moses, the great Patriarch and deliverer of Israel, once asked God, “What do you look like?” And in that story found in the Book of Exodus, God revealed himself but only after making Moses bury his face into the cleft of a rock. And only then when God had already passed by was Moses allowed to turn around and see what Exodus describes as the, “trail of God’s glory.” In the literal Hebrew, that phrase means that all Moses saw was God’s backside. Every Jew knows you cannot look upon the face of God and live. But, Philip says, “If you really want us to trust you then show us the Father. Show us what God looks like.”
You know, I’ve been there. Perhaps you have, too. There have been moments in my life when, because of personal tragedy, I ached in desperation for some reassurance that everything I was taught and had learned about God was true and not just some fable or wishful thinking. When a terrorist bomb goes off maiming or even killing dozens of people, when the doctor says that cancer has spread and there is no hope, when a miscarriage occurs, when a child dies or upon the death of beloved parent or sibling, or even the death of a dream and hope for the future, we want to know
that God is real, that God cares. If you really want us to believe you, Jesus, show us the Father … What does God look like? Jesus, hears Philip’s plea and responds with this astounding affirmation, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In other words, “You know that God who created the heavens and the earth? I am he. I am that face of God.”
Sadly, many Christians skip over the depths of this verse and jump ahead to Jesus’s statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” While I affirm that statement, that particular verse has often been used to discount all other religious faiths. Yet, Jesus doesn’t say that no one can know God except through him, but rather, if you want to know what God looks like, if you want to know God beyond that of a creator, beyond that of a spirit, beyond something abstract or distant, if you want to know God as a loving parent, a loving Father or loving Mother, then look to me. Jesus is the tangible presence and face of God in this world. If anyone wants to grasp what God truly looks like, Jesus is it. So, what does God look like? Jesus’s whole life showed us. Jesus revealed God to be merciful, inclusive, loving, grace-filled, forgiving and yes, also discerning and judging, but on the basis of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness, and grace.
See, this chapter is not concerned with the fate of Muslims, Jews, or any other faith tradition as if God only hears the prayers of Christians. This text is about how we have come to encounter and know God. Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And that statement presents an incredible challenge for us as Christians – as the body of Christ in this world today because the Christian faith is more than just knowing God; it is about living as God’s people. It is about seeking in every way possible to serve Christ, and to be as Christ in our communities, to show the whole world what God looks like.
Peter, in his first letter, says that God’s people have become living stones – living examples not of God’s judgment, but rather, of God’s redeeming power, forgiveness, and grace in this world. So, Peter calls the Church to live differently, to be an example to others of what God looks like. I think it unfortunate that our lesson from 1st Peter left off verse 1 because the Church Peter describes there is often the experience of the Church many encounter still today. In verse 1, Peter urges Christians to rid our own selves of all malice, all guile, all insincerity, envy and slander. Imagine what the Church would be like if every Christian focused on that instead of about who follows whom, who will be saved, or who is welcome. Peter goes on to say that being born again or born from above isn’t just about our relationship with Jesus Christ or the assurance of redemption in Christ, but rather, we who have received mercy are called to be a new race: a holy nation; God’s own people chosen to continue Christ’s reconciling mission in this world like priests offering sacrifices and interceding not for ourselves, but for the whole world, our neighbors and communities. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
I wonder what our communities would look like if it could be said of every Christian Church, whoever has seen us “has seen the Father.” Isn’t that what being the body of Christ in this world really means for us and challenges us to be?
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, understood that challenge. In today’s reading from Acts, the moment of Stephen’s martyrdom and his dramatic vision of the Christ is not the most important point of this story. It is Stephen’s response that begs us to sit up and listen; to consider what it might mean for someone to say whoever has seen us has seen the Father. Acts tells us that at the very moment when his murderers seemed to triumph over him, Stephen, just like Jesus on the cross, prayed God not to hold his murder against them. What gives Stephen’s death such profound meaning is for what and for whom he prays. Stephen lives his faith even unto death calling upon God to forgive just … like … Jesus. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Acts will go on to tell us that Stephen’s faith and witness to a forgiving, merciful and gracious God yielded an amazing result. A man named Saul watched Stephen die. Saul will become known to us as St. Paul who, from out of his own experience of God’s love and redemption, his experience of seeing the Father in this follower of Christ, will embrace and teach the depths of God’s transforming power and grace. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Let us pray. Jesus, you said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” O God, let this be true in each of us. Amen.