“Is Jesus Worth Following?”
Rev. Dr. David E. Gray
Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2014
John 14: 5-10; John 10: 11-18
Listen to the sermon here.
There is a story of a pastor who often disagreed with the church music director. This does not apply here, by the way. I am thrilled with the staff working relationship with Matthew. However, in this particular church the pastor and the music director often disagreed. It got so bad that the tension started spilling over into the worship service. The pastor preached one Sunday on the importance of being willing to change. The worship leader then stood up and played the hymn, “I Shall Not Be Moved.” The next week the pastor preached about the importance of generous giving. Following the sermon, the music director got up and led “Jesus Paid it All.” The pastor preached about the importance of not spreading rumors. And then the music director started playing the hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story.” The pastor got so frustrated that he decided to leave the church and on his last Sunday he said to the congregation, “Jesus brought me here and Jesus is now taking me away.” At which point the music director led, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Why is Jesus so important? There are a lot of important people throughout history. What makes Jesus different? My old college professor Jaroslav Pelican used to say, “There are no cathedrals built in honor of Socrates.” “No one sings of the amazing grace of Plato.” Jesus doesn’t just model righteous living to us. He shows us God. And that makes all the difference. Let us pray. Spirit of the living God…
There is little historical debate about whether Jesus lived. Some of the early documents from the first and second centuries make that clear. Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote around 100 A.D. and described Jesus’ death being crucified on a cross, for example. Across the world and faiths there is a lot of support for the idea that Jesus was at least a great moral teacher. So if you are looking for someone to emulate, but don’t believe in God, Jesus is still very much worth considering.
Yet Jesus is worth organizing our lives around to follow because he reveals God in a unique way. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, “I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Jesus: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say.’”[i] Lewis makes the case that Jesus said too many radical things about being God to be a good moral teacher. Those claims are too radical for simply a good guy and teacher to make. Either they are false and Jesus is crazy for claiming to be God or they are true and we must take them seriously.
One of those statements comes from John 14, near the end of Jesus’ life, where Jesus answers Thomas and Philips’ desire to see God by saying that he, Jesus, shows them God. That God is in him and whoever has seen him has seen God. Statements such as this were at the center of great debates in the early church.
The Emperor Constantine had called his bishops together in Nicaea in 325 A.D. to answer the question of the relationship of Jesus to God which was pulling the early church apart. The issue was whether Jesus was a human first, a creation of God, whose deeds in life allowed him to gain the status of divinity or divine from the beginning.[ii] Was Jesus so good that he became divine by his work and actions? Or was Jesus part of the godhead, the son of God, who became human. Everyone there agreed Jesus was divine, the only question was how he got that way.
Does it matter if Jesus was always divine or was a man who became divine?[iii] It matters because if Jesus was just a human who earned his way to divine status than our focus should be on trying to do the same thing. If so, we shouldn’t be here worshiping this morning, we should be putting our trust in our own efforts. If it was possible for Jesus to gain divinity by his great works, than why can’t you or I do that? If we work hard enough can’t we get to make our way to God?
One of the challenges of our time is our being too self-consumed. Is that not a challenge of our age of inequality, our time of pressure as children return to school, as we get going with work, as we strive to make our homes or grandkids perfect?
During the Reformation, John Calvin argued that it’s not possible for us to be so perfect. Calvin concluded that Jesus was always divine and so our focus should be on living in awe, reflecting and giving thanks. Trusting the salvation God gives us that is revealed in Christ.
For the Romans and Greeks, there were many Gods. Emperors were often lifted up and considered to be Gods. So lifting Jesus up as a God would be consistent for some at Nicaea. Jews in Jesus’ time were less likely to lift someone up, however. They had one God and their commandments forbade any more. There had to be something very unique and special about that person for them to call him divine. One who performed true miracles and whose life, death and resurrection was a miracle. We know the opinions of many in Jesus’ time where transformed by his miracles.
Phillip said to Jesus, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” He was implying, we want to see God for ourselves. We don’t want to see you. We want to see the father. Phillip was implying that until they saw God for themselves, they we not going to rest.
Exodus tells us that God said to Moses, “My face shall not be seen.” So to ask Jesus to show them the father meant the disciples were asking to do something even Moses had not fully done.
It should perhaps not surprise us though that the disciples of someone who talked about his divinity should want to see God.
Don’t we want to see God too? Is not that one of the great longings of our hearts? Yet if we are like Philip and seek the divine without Jesus we will be disappointed.
The Council of Nicaea wisely looked at the historical record, scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit and concluded that Jesus was God who became human to be our way; to give us God. It affirmed that the Holy Spirit is the giver of life and stays with us, giving us Jesus, so we can know God. In the following section of John 14, Jesus affirms the role of the Spirit to the disciples. Indeed the Nicene Creed, the first in our Book of Confessions, states that Jesus is of the same substance of the Father and that the Holy Spirit stays with us to help us understand God.
Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one gets to the Father except through me.” German theologian Rudolf Schnackenburg called John 14, “The high point of Johnnine theology.”[iv]
The great Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote, “The Jewish people talked a lot about the path or way in which people must walk and the ways of God. God said to Moses as recorded in Deuteronomy 5, ‘You shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you.” The Psalmist writes “Teach me your way O Lord. Isaiah says “This is the way, walk in it.” Isaiah said further that in the new creation there will be a highway called the Way of Holiness and those who walk in God’s ways will travel on it.” So the culture was familiar with the idea when Jesus said “I am the way.”[v]
What does that mean that Jesus is the way? Barclay explains Jesus’ statement using the analogy of a traveler who, like Thomas, is asking for directions. “Suppose you are the traveler and when you ask for directions the person answers, “Take the first right, then the second left, the cross the square go past the church, take the third right and then the road you want you can take the fourth left to get.”[vi]
Barclay notes the chances are you will be lost before you get there. I think it’s not unlike the challenge people faced in following the complex laws of the Torah. Following them was helpful but very difficult to do so exactly.
To me this all would be like Jesus saying, “Here is the difficult path I took, now you take it. On your own, under different circumstances. Good luck.”
Then Barclay asks “Suppose the person you ask, instead of giving all these specific directions say, “Come I’ll take you there. “ In that case, the person to us is the way, and we cannot miss it.”[vii]
If the person invites us to follow him, as Jesus says to his disciples and to us, the way becomes all the more clear. If we let the person into our lives and let them direct our ways, the path becomes easier still.
If Jesus was a man who achieved his way to God, and is now gone, I don’t know about you, but I think that is out of my league. However, as the wisdom of our tradition and scripture holds, if Jesus is God who comes down to us and through the Holy Spirit stays, then he goes with us and we have a way to God.
One of the hallmarks of Bradley Hills is our belief that life and faith are journeys. Wherever you are on your journeys you are welcome, you are embraced here.
This is also a place where we engage faith around the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Who comes to us, healing, loving, and caring deeply about us like a shepherd cares for their sheep.
As Barclay would say, “Jesus doesn’t just give us advice or directions, he takes us by the hand if we let him and leads us, strengthens us, guides us personally every day. He does not tell us about the way, he is the way.”[viii]
Philip says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” We can try and find satisfaction in numerous ways. There are many rewarding, life-giving and sacred experiences throughout our world. But for the contentment that Philip and Thomas and we long for, Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.
When our focus is on him, not on earning our way to God, our heart can be at rest. Because there is no salvation in trying to hike, work, study or organize our way to God. That will just stress us out. However, there can be in accepting with gratitude what God has done.
Salvation comes from realizing that what God has revealed is enough for us to pattern our life after. It is enough to be our hope. It is the truth to trust, the life to live, and the way to go.
A friend in the national security world shared a story with me recently about a Navy Seal who was performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building in some difficult part of the world. His team flew in by helicopter, made their way to the compound and stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room was dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, asking the hostages to go out the front door. But the hostages wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor. They were not open to someone just telling them to go through the door.
The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everybody out. The one of the SEALs had an idea. He put down his gun, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around one of the hostages. None of the prison guards would have done this. The Navy SEAL showed the prisoners that he was one of them. He stayed there for a little while until the hostage he had embraced started to look up at him, finally meeting his eyes. “Will you follow me?” the SEAL asked? The prisoner nodded. He helped the hostage up to his feet. Then a second prisoner rose, then a third, until all of them stood and followed the SEAL out to freedom.
In 1926, Dr. James Francis wrote a famous poem called One Solitary Life about Christ, and concluded it with, “All the armies that have ever marched. All the navies that have ever sailed. All the parliaments that have ever sat. All the kings that ever reigned put together, have not affected the life of humankind on earth as powerfully as did this one solitary life.”[ix]
Jesus ministered for three short years. Yet those years changed the world. And he is still changing lives. More than a model, Jesus is the way to understand God. That is certainly worth exploring, studying and, I dare say, following. Amen.
[i] C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity. London: Collins. 1952, pp. 54-56.
[ii] Craig Barnes, lecture National Presbyterian Church, 1999.
[iv] New Interpreters Bible p. 743.
[v] William Barclay. The Gospel of John. The New Daily Study Bible. Vol. II. Louisville. John Knox Press. 1975. p. 183.
[vi] Barclay p. 183.
[viii] Barclay p. 184.
[ix] James Francis. The Real Jesus and Other Sermons. Philadelphia: Judson Press. 1926, pp. 123-124.