Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (a sermon for May 18th on John 14:9)

About fifteen years ago I was down in Toronto attending a meeting of all the members of the various national Anglican committees; I think there must have been about a hundred and fifty people there. We were together for a few days, and being good Anglicans, we had services several times a day during our meeting. One of our worship leaders was the Rev. Andrew Asbil, who was the son of Walter Asbil, the Bishop of Niagara. I’ve seen sons who looked like their dads before, but this was extraordinary; Andrew was truly the spitting image of his father. Someone said, “Now I know what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’!”

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”; what an extraordinary claim! Philip comes to Jesus with a cry from the heart: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied!” (v.8). If you’re like me, your heart warms to Philip at this point. The invisibility of God is a problem to a lot of people; if only God would appear to us! We know that God is so far above us that we’d never in a million years be able to take it all in; after all, we’re talking about a being powerful enough to create the vastness of the universe and the intricacy of the human eye, a being perfectly good and holy, wise and loving, but so bright and glorious that looking at him must surely be like looking at the sun with the naked eye. But deep down in our hearts there’s a spiritual hunger, and we Christians know that only God can fill it. We spend our whole lives longing to get closer to God, to get a sense of God’s presence in our daily lives.

I can hear all this in Philip’s words: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied!” – or, as another translation has it, “show us the Father, and we ask no more”. We could die happy, we think, if we died with the vision of God before our eyes; surely everything else would melt into insignificance compared to that? This is what Philip is asking for, but then Jesus gives him this stunning reply: “Hello! Earth to Philip – don’t you recognize me? Have I really been with you all this time, and you haven’t figured out who I am? Well, let me spell it out for you – if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. The Father is in me, and I’m in him. The words I speak aren’t just mine, but they come from the Father. The healings and miracles and mighty works I do aren’t just because I’m some sort of superhero – they come from the Father too. That vision of God you were looking for? You’ve already had it. Look no further: it’s right here”.

Of course, this is never as simple as it seems. With one breath, Jesus says “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”, but a few sentences later he’s talking about doing whatever we ask in his name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son – thus apparently making a distinction between the Father and himself. Jesus assumed he had the right to forgive people’s sins, even though only God really has that right, but he also prayed to God as his own Father. So we’re dealing with a mystery here, a mystery that the Church has attempted to explore with its doctrine of the Trinity, three persons in one God. It’s truly been said that “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God”, so we probably shouldn’t attempt to be too precise in our definitions – after all, we’re screwing our eyes up to avoid being blinded by the brightness of God, so it’s not surprising if we can’t see too well! But let’s stick with these words of Jesus for a few minutes and explore what they mean for us: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”.

What is God like? What is God’s character? Is God a distant God, a God who set up the universe and left it to its own devices? Is God an uncaring God who barely notices the tiny little humans swarming around on this tiny little planet? Is God an amoral God, who really doesn’t care about our actions and has no real sense of good and bad? Is God a determinist God who sends sickness as well as health, and loves cancer cells as much as healthy human cells? Is God a stern God who stands over us with a big stick, just waiting for us to screw up so he can punish us?

I suspect we all find ourselves saying, “No, we don’t believe any of those ideas about God”. And yet, throughout human history, many people have believed them. We assume that our ideas about God – that he loves us, that he is passionate about us, that he forgives our sins if we ask him, that he wants to remove suffering and sickness from our lives, and one day will do so permanently – we assume that these ideas of God are self-evident, but in fact they’re not. We believe them, because we’re the beneficiaries of two thousand years of Christian teaching, based on the life and words of Jesus. We believe that Jesus has ‘shown us the Father’, and it’s ‘Like father, like son’. What is God like? Without even realizing that we’re doing it, we’re all saying, “He’s like Jesus”.

So, in other words, we Christians are the ones who have looked into the face of Jesus and seen God there. This is not to say that we don’t see God anywhere else – in the beauty and majesty of his creation, or in our human conscience, for instance – but we believe that we have seen God most clearly in the life and teaching of Jesus. Well then – what have we seen?

Let me tell you a story about Jesus. Jesus was travelling through Galilee and he arrived at a town called Nain; his disciples were with him, and a large crowd was following them. As he approached the gate of the town he saw a funeral procession coming the other way; the man who had died was young, he was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. The funeral procession was also quite large, of course, so these two processions met: one of them mourning death, the other one celebrating life. When Jesus saw the widow, his heart went out to her, and he said, “Do not weep”. He then did something that shocked everyone; he went to the coffin, held out his hand, and touched it, thus making himself ceremonially unclean according to Jewish law. Then he said, “Young man, I tell you, get up”. Immediately the dead man got up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. Both crowds were awe-struck, and they praised God, saying, “A mighty prophet has risen among us”, and “God has visited his people today” (see Luke 7:11-17).

What does this story tell us about God? Many things, of course, but let me suggest that the most important thing is that God intervenes in our messy world. God isn’t a distant God who created the whole universe and then left things to run their course; he’s a God who sees the suffering of people and acts decisively to do something about it. And the most important thing that he has done is to come and live as one of us in Jesus!

Jesus shared our human nature, so he knows intimately what it’s like to experience the limitations of humanity. He made himself small and vulnerable – a helpless baby completely dependent on his parents, and later on a man whose hands and feet could be nailed to a cross. He spent three years of ministry right at the centre of human life, reaching out into situations of sadness and hopelessness and bringing healing and hope. Is this a stand-offish sort of God? Not at all – this is a God who gets involved, because he cares about us. He doesn’t just announce his commandments through a megaphone from heaven; he gets as close as he possibly can.

Let me tell you another story about Jesus. Jesus had a close friend, Lazarus, with two sisters, Mary and Martha. They lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem, and Jesus liked to stay at their house when he went that way. The sisters sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick, and in very short order, he died. So Jesus and his disciples went to Bethany, and when they arrived, Martha met Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Jesus talked to her about how he is the Resurrection and the Life, and anyone who believes in him, even though they die, will live again. Then Mary came out too, weeping about her brother, and when Jesus saw her, he asked, “Where have you laid him?” So they took him, and when Jesus saw the tomb of his friend, he was so overcome with sadness that he, too began to weep, and the people standing around said, “See how much he loved him”.

Well, you know the rest of the story, how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but I want to focus for a moment on this one verse, the shortest verse in the Bible: ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:34). If Jesus shows us what God is like, what is this showing us about God? Let me suggest that this is a God who cares passionately about human beings. At the time of Jesus there were Greek philosophers who said, “If our actions can make God angry, or sad, or happy, then we are more powerful than God. That can’t be. So God must be impassable – in other words, invincible to any emotional effect we might have on him”.

But is this what we see in Jesus? Far from it! Jesus was moved to tears by the death of his good friend Lazarus. He was sometimes moved to frustration by people’s lack of faith in him, and we even see flashes of anger sometimes when he is confronted with the evil that people inflict on one another. So Jesus shows us a God who not only intervenes in his world to save us, but who cares passionately about what happens here. He’s saddened when he sees his children refusing to follow his ways and getting themselves into all sorts of trouble as a result, but when the Prodigal Son comes home, he’s so overjoyed that he throws a party and kills the 4H Club calf! This is the God we see when we look at Jesus and listen to his words.

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, says Jesus. What have we seen? We’ve seen a God who intervenes in our messy world, and a God who cares passionately about human beings.

Let me tell you another story about Jesus. Jesus was teaching in the Temple one day when the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd, and then they turned to Jesus and said, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says we should stone her to death. What do you say?”

Jesus didn’t say anything, but he bent over and started writing in the dust with his finger. They kept on demanding an answer, so eventually he stood up and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned be the first one to throw a stone”. Then he stooped down and wrote in the dust again. The accusers looked at each other, and then, quietly, they all began to slip away, beginning with the oldest. Eventually Jesus looked up at the woman and said, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord”, she said. He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more”.

Whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father, so what does this story show us about God? Let me suggest that it shows us a God who loves us unconditionally, but isn’t shy about challenging us either; a God who not only says, “I do not condemn you”, but also, “Go and sin no more”.

I need a God like that: a God who loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but loves us too much to leave us there. The gospel tells us that God is always ready to forgive us, but he also gives us a vision of what human life can be like when we live by his plan, and he gives us the Holy Spirit so that we have the power to change. That’s what God is like.

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. We’ve seen a God who intervenes in our messy world, a God who cares passionately about human beings, and a God who loves us unconditionally, but isn’t shy about challenging us either. Let me tell you one more story about Jesus.

Early in his ministry Jesus returned to the town of Capernaum on the shore of the Lake of Galilee. There was a Roman centurion nearby who had a servant who he valued highly, but the servant was so sick that he was close to death. The centurion had heard about Jesus, so he sent some respected Jewish elders to ask him to heal his servant. Remember, the Romans were the enemy, the occupying army, and they were also Gentiles, and good Jewish people were supposed to keep away from them. This man, however, seemed to have the respect of the local Jewish population, and Jesus agreed to go to him.

The crowd probably expected him to heal the servant, but from a distance; they would have been very surprised when he actually set out to go to the centurion’s house. So was the centurion: he quickly sent Jesus a message saying, “Don’t trouble yourself to come to my house, Lord; I’m not worthy of that. But I know how things work; I’m a man under authority, and I know that if I give orders to my soldiers, they’ll do what I tell them. So if you just say the word, I know my servant will be healed” Jesus was amazed to hear this; he turned to the crowd and said, “I haven’t seen this kind of faith anywhere among the people of Israel!” And when the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant healed.

What kind of God do we have here? Surely a God who ignores boundaries and searches out needy human beings wherever he finds them. The world Jesus lived in was full of boundaries: Married men weren’t supposed to talk to women in public; Jews weren’t supposed to eat with Gentiles; righteous people were supposed to avoid sinners. What did Jesus do about those boundaries? The answer’s blindingly obvious: he totally ignored them. He was quite happy to talk to women in public; he was happy to go to share a meal in the house of a tax collector, and apparently enjoyed the company of sinners so much that his enemies took to calling him the ‘friend of sinners’. And we’ve already seen how he responded when a Roman centurion asked for his help.

This is what God is like. God doesn’t look down on the world and see Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, sinners and saints, Christians and Muslims, gays and straights: God sees people, people made in God’s image, people who need the love of God and the touch of God in their lives. And if we let him, God will lead us to those people too, ignoring boundaries, sharing the love of God wherever we go.

Are you ready for this radical God that Jesus reveals to us? This is the God who isn’t shy about getting involved and intervening in the lives of people – the God who cares passionately about human beings. This is the God who loves us fully and completely, but isn’t shy about challenging us when we need it too. This is the God who ignores all the barriers we set up to divide people from each other, and simply goes wherever he’s needed and loves everyone he meets.

If there is a God, I know this is what he must be like, and so I believe Jesus when he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”. John says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). This is the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ, and this is a God worth believing in.

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