Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Greater Things

Jn. 1:43-51[1]

The basic idea of last week’s sermon—that you don’t have to have a vision of Jesus standing 900 feet tall in order to have a genuine encounter with God—is one that’s really not so hard for most of us to swallow. For the last 300 years at least, “cultured” observers of religion have made faith into something abstract, something intellectual, something private. Initially I think that was a way of dealing with the embarrassment that the Scriptures that serve as the foundation for our faith contain many accounts of supernatural incidents.

As I mentioned last week, one way to deal with stories of floating axe-heads and chariots of fire is to take them at face value. But the other way is the one we’re more likely to take—to assume that those kinds of things don’t happen. Unfortunately, that can undercut the basis for Christian faith, so all that we really have left is our own “personal” convictions. Since they aren’t really open to observation, we take our “faith” and retreat with it into unassailable privacy.

But John’s Gospel will have no such thing! John’s Gospel, a supposedly more “spiritual” account of Jesus’ life, is actually incredibly concrete about faith! Whereas the other Gospels say that the Baptizer was practicing his ministry on the other side of the Jordan, John’s Gospel says that it was specifically “at Aenon near Salim” (John 3:23). And this supposedly “spiritual” Gospel is one that insists that Jesus’ claims are supported by a host of witnesses: by John the Baptist, by the Scriptures, and by God in the working of incredible miracles.

So where do we go with that? Do we suspend our judgment and simply go along with the claim that everything in Scripture is factually true? Or do we insist that such things don’t happen and retreat to the privacy of our personal convictions? Notice, in our Gospel lesson for today, that Nathaniel responds with skepticism to Phillip’s initial invitation to “come and see” him “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (John 1:45). Jesus does not chide him for lack of insight, he tells Nathaniel “you will see greater things!”

The strange sounding description of these “greater things” might elude us at first because it is based on another hard-to-swallow story from the Bible. Jesus alludes to the story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel, where he saw angels “ascending and descending” and experienced God’s presence at Bethel. And Genesis tells us that Jacob did the only proper thing to do at that time—he marked the place as the “house of God” and the “gateway to heaven.”

Of course, Jesus wasn’t trying to say to Nathaniel that he was going to lead him on some fantastic, Indiana Jones-style adventure to recover the original place where Jacob had his dream. No, he was trying to help Nathaniel—and the others—understand that the place where God’s presence was revealed uniquely on earth was not a place at all, but a person: Jesus himself.[2] Jesus himself was part of the “greater things.” In effect, throughout John’s Gospel Jesus promises to demonstrate that he is who he says he is by the “fulfillment of the most extraordinary of expectations in the most tangible of terms.”[3]

I’m not at all sure that we have any “extraordinary expectations” any more. I’m not sure we have the capacity to walk up to Jesus of Nazareth and say to him, in effect, “show me that God has entered this world definitively to carry out the work of redemption and renewal.” The truth of that claim is demonstrated time and time again in Scriptures by “greater things” of all kinds. But for our part, in our rush to jettison supernatural superstition, we have turned our “faith” into something utterly incapable of demonstrating “greater things.”

What we need is eyes to see the “greater things” all around us. This week we commemorate the deaths of the “Five Martyrs of Ecuador,” who made contact with a savage tribe known to kill strangers on sight, and were massacred. But the “greater thing” is that a few years later two of their family members had actually taken up permanent residence among them. In 1995 the son of one of the martyrs returned with his wife and children to live among the tribe and help them develop their church. Greater things, indeed.

We don’t have to go around the world to find “greater things.” This week we also remember Martin Luther King, Jr, a brilliant and flawed man who led African Americans to patiently show a nation its blatant hatred for people of color and altered the course of our nation. Greater things.

We can also look to our own community for the “greater things” that are being done among us, because they are all around us every day. What we need are eyes to see the greater things, and hearts that are ready to respond to the call to go out and be instruments of the “greater things” God is still doing through Jesus the Christ.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/18/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Peter J. Gomes, “John 1:45-51,” Interpretation, 1989, 285; cf. also p. 286, where he says that Jesus’ statement to Nathaniel points to “the saga of the new creation that is about to unfold” and adds, ““Such cosmic transitions are always attended by angels who minister between realms.”

[3] Gomes, 286.

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