(Another) sermon for Lent
The inexplicable promise
(sermon preached at Harcourt Parish, April 28, 2002)
Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (John 14:1-14, Gospel lectionary reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A)
Thomas and Philip just want something to hold on to, I think. They want a doctrine, or a vision, or something. "How can we know the way? Show us the Father." And this is what Jesus answers them: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."
Do you think this helped? Do you think that Thomas and Philip and the others were comforted by our Lord's words? Do you think they felt that their questions had been answered? Or do you think that they found the answers strange and disturbing and inexplicable?
I myself favor the "strange, disturbing and inexplicable" view. And I think that Jesus knew his followers wouldn't "get it" right away. But he was preparing them for the time ahead. He knew that his words would be planted in them; and later, by the grace of God, those words would begin to unlock themselves in the disciples' understanding, and they would begin to see and to know.
When God speaks to us today, he does not always intend for us to understand today. And I find that reassuring. For it happens often enough that I read something in Scripture that I just don't get at all. I find it strange, disturbing and inexplicable. God knows this, and he is not surprised. My job for now may only be to take it in. Real understanding will come on God's schedule.
If you want an example of a passage of Scripture that I find a bit strange, disturbing and inexplicable, you have no further to look than the last verses of today's Gospel lesson. There we find the promise, made and repeated to the disciples, that whatever they ask in the Lord's name he will do. And of course, this passage is not just addressed to the disciples who were there. Whatever we ask, he will do. It's a promise made in plain language, and repeated one way or another in every gospel. "Ask, and you will receive." If you have faith, you can say to a mountain, "Go jump in a lake," and it will do it. (I paraphrase, but only slightly.)
I must confess that I find this bald promise of prayer granted difficult to accept. I find myself looking for the fine print, the clause that says, "Some restrictions may apply" or "Void where prohibited." Various logical objections occur to my mind. What if I pray for rain and you pray for sunshine – which of us does God renege on? What if I ask for something evil – will God do it anyway?
More serious objections, I think, are based on fear. What if I ask, and God doesn't do it? For I have to admit that as a possibility. It sounds cruel to say it, but it is the truth: hospitals and nursing homes are full of Christian folk, all praying, along with their family and friends, to get well. And some of them won't.
As I examine myself about this, I find that this wild and inexplicable promise from today's Gospel has affected my own prayers in a rather perverse way. It has made me more timid about what I ask of God, and how I ask it. Rather than pray for God to heal my mother's eye infection, I will pray instead for God to grant her strength and patience in this difficult time. Or else, I will pray, "Dear God, please heal my mother's eye, but of course your will be done." (As if to say, "So just in case you want her to go blind instead, that's okay too.") You see what is happening? I am taking it upon myself to leave God a loophole, so that he will be able to grant the prayer on a technicality without actually healing my mother's eye infection. The things that I pray for are not bad in themselves – strength and patience are great gifts, and it is always right to submit oneself to God's will. But it's pretty clear that there is something in this business of asking God for things that I have not understood, and I need to go back and straighten it out.
When I was in college, I knew this guy whom I will call Peter. (This is a pseudonym.) He wasn't exactly a friend, though I spent a good deal of time talking with him. He studied chemistry and philosophy, and he loved nothing better than to get me involved in some endless discussion or argument. Some of my actual friends didn't like Peter very much. He did have a nasty tendency to turn into The Guy You Couldn't Get Rid Of.
Eventually I went off to grad school in Texas; and when Peter graduated he went out to California. He had a lab job out there and I think he was working on his masters degree. Every few months I would get a long-distance phone call from him, and we would talk for an hour or so about science or philosophy or something. Not terribly memorable conversations -- at least not until the last one.
Peter told me that he had become interested in, and then active in, the practice of Wicca – that's witchcraft. He was learning to do magic rituals, cast spells, the whole bit. I was shocked and horrified. So we talked a long time. And after a while, he finally said, "Well, you know, this isn't really all that different from Christianity. Magic, for example, is basically the same thing as prayer."
"How do you figure?" said I.
"Well, in each case, you're trying to use your mind to make a change in the world around you. In magic, you're working the spell, and in prayer, you're cajoling a deity. What's the real difference?"
The conversation went on for a while longer and eventually ended; and in the years since then I've never again had a conversation with him. So I can't tell you how his story has turned out. But I can tell you that I have spent a good piece of the last seventeen or eighteen years pondering what I should have answered him.
I think it boils down to this. God can never be used just as a means to an end. He won't permit it. And anyway, I don't even think that it is possible.
In our dealings with each other, we treat each other as "means to an end" all the time. We talk and maneuver to get what we want. We are so good at it; and much of the time, admittedly, it's about small stuff and it seems pretty harmless. But whenever we deal with someone in this way, we no longer see that person entirely as a person. Other people become for us mere instruments to be used.
God may be more than a person, but he is surely not less. If we were to try this sort of approach with God – if we turn to prayer and begin to try to maneuver God into doing what we want – then in our mind God has become a mere thing. And when that happens, I think we will find that we have been praying to a figment of our imagination. You have to meet the real God as a person, or not at all.
And yet -- if, when I meet God in prayer, I never bring to him my real needs and desires; if I never ask anything of him, or I always hedge my requests with plenty of escape clauses; am I really doing much better? To treat prayer as a magic spell hides God from us; but to play it safe in prayer hides myself from God.
I can tell that this is going to be one of those things that can only be understood fully by jumping in and swimming in it. I will understand much more about how God answers prayer when I am readier to ask him things. This is not trying to use God as a means to an end. Our Lord commands us to pray, and to pray boldly, and make our requests, so that there will be no barrier between us.
For that is the real point of prayer, and the real aim of the Christian life: to be in him as he is in us. That is what Thomas and Philip heard, but did not at first understand. If we want to know the way, our Lord does not offer us a set of directions. He offers us himself. And if we want to know what God is like, he does not offer us a vision. He offers us himself. Strangely, disturbingly, inexplicably, he offers us himself. Nothing less.