Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Greater Things

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14.12)

What’s Next?

We’ve experienced more rapid change in our lifetime than any preceding generation. In the last 20 years or so, technological advances similar to those that once spanned decades have spun out with such rapidity a medium goes obsolete before we get the hang of it. Track these sequences: network TV, cable, VCR’s, DVD, TiVo, video on demand, streaming video; mailman, FedEx, fax, email, instant messaging, video chat; vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, MTV, CD’s, mp3’s, youtube. And on and on it goes. We no longer ask, “What’s new?” We want to know “What’s next?”

Not long ago, however, “What’s next?” wasn’t such an enticing question. It augured trepidation about a future brimming with unpredictability. Our comfort with change presumes it makes things better, easier, and quicker. (Allegedly.) But from ancient times until the 20th-century, change often harbingered setbacks. For centuries, human progress had this frustrating habit of lurching forward, then falling behind. So it is that Jesus, seeing His death, resurrection, and ascension are imminent, takes on the formidable task of explaining what’s next to His followers. This must be treated delicately, since He’s informing them they’ll soon have to carry on without His physical presence. What’s more, the unprecedented nature of this transition makes it difficult to explain what’s next in cogent terms. As He begins laying out the details in John 14, He tells them, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (v1) They take a deep breath, perhaps let go a sigh of relief—they know things are about to change radically—and then, once Jesus delves into the plan, they panic.

Many Rooms, One Route

We forget Christianity originates as a religious cult and hews to the same dynamics we associate with modern ones. Its Leader defies tradition with His unorthodox interpretation of Scripture. He speaks in parables and mysteries that often allude to “His Father,” Whom He claims sent Him to reunite humanity with God. He performs supernatural feats the religious establishment dismisses as charlatanism. His followers leave their families and jobs to devote their lives to Him. The public knows of Him and His disciples, yet given the volatility of the times, it categorizes this group with dozens of others built along similar lines. Therein lies the problem for Jesus, because He alone knows the work He’s doing will forever change the world—provided His disciples continue in His absence.

The risk goes beyond Jesus’s message petering out after He’s gone. It also includes the very real possibility the disciples will attempt to follow Him in death. Cult suicides are no less common in ancient times than today: for every Jonestown there is a Masada (72 CE), for every Heaven’s Gate there are the Donatists (300 CE), who jump off cliffs to hasten the afterlife. So Jesus makes sure to emphasize the disciples must remain after He’s gone. While they’re busy spreading His message, He explains, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” (v2) He promises to bring them to their new home. But Thomas—“the Twin,” the disciple most vulnerable to separation anxiety—is concerned about losing his way. Christ calms his fears by confirming there’s only one route: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (v6)

Big Change

Thomas takes Jesus’s quizzical answer at face value, which I find richly ironic since he’s been tagged “the Doubter.” Here, it’s another disciple, Philip, who demands reassurance. In verse 8, he says, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” This takes Jesus aback. Surely by now Philip should know if he’s seen Jesus he’s also seen the Father. And even if he couldn’t put the two together through observation, wasn’t he listening when Jesus explicitly declared, “I and the Father are one”? (John 10.30) Jesus answers Philip’s doubts with, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14.11-12) This is the pivotal moment in Christ’s post-ascension directive. Not only does He warn His followers a big change is about to occur; He teaches them how to handle it. He says, “Don’t lose your faith. Believe in Me even though I’m visibly gone. Do what I’ve been doing. Once I’m reunited with the Father, you’ll do even greater things.”

We’re surrounded by Philips. They’ve seen Christ’s power in our lives, yet not made the connection. Many have even heard Jesus is The Christ, yet not fully understood what that means. They respond to our witness with the same response Philip has: “Show us and that will be enough.” Were it not for Christ’s promise, we’d have no answer. Because of it, however, we know exactly how to handle the big change many around us don’t recognize. We do what Jesus did. We love without restraint. We welcome strangers and outcasts. We heal sickness with our touch and soothe troubled spirits with our words. We do this not because we’re anything special, but because Jesus stands with the Father, empowering us to do greater things. Greater things? Absolutely. After He promises us this in John 14, He reinforces it: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15.7-8) The big change is seen in our faith in Christ’s word. When skeptics and unlearned people say, “Show us and that will be enough,” we show ourselves to be Christ’s disciples. This is more than change for the better. It’s change for the greater.

The big change precipitated by Christ’s ascension enables us to effect greater change.


claire said...

Ah, what a lovely post, Tim. I like it very much.

We do what Jesus did. We love without restraint. We welcome strangers and outcasts. We heal sickness with our touch and soothe troubled spirits with our words.

Thank you.

Tim said...

Claire, I've often been troubled by this text--this "greater things" business, and when I went back to John 14 to reread "the plan" (as it were) I was struck by the fact I'd been misreading it. I've always read it in terms of exploits, not actions. Because Jesus shows us how it's done, indeed that it can be done, we can do it too!

I love how the Scripture often simplifies itself before one's eyes...