This Gospel passage begins with Jesus showing such gentleness thoughtfulness and kindness to his beloved friends, which is a theme that fits so beautifully with our national observance today of Mother’s Day. The context here is their last night together before the crucifixion. At supper Jesus has washed their feet, and then mystically given them his very self in bread and wine. He has predicted denial by Peter, chief among them, and Judas has already slipped away from them to betray their whereabouts to the authorities. So he knows their heads and hearts are reeling as they begin to take in what he has seen coming for a while. And he reaches out to them with compassion and tender care – “Do not let your hearts be troubled”- or another translation of the Greek is, “Do not let your hearts be anguished.”
But he does not cradle them with those words of comfort for long. He is aware of the urgency of time and he moves on to give them the provisions they will need to understand and survive the events that are bearing down upon them. He is going, but he will be back. If they feel lost and off track they should remember he himself is their way, their truth, their, and their life, and he will guide them into the presence of God.
“No one comes to the Father except through me” He tells them. This is a statement that has troubled many of us. But it is important to remember context here. Jesus is talking to his closest friends about how they will reach the Father. To use this as a proof text to claim that no other religion besides Christianity is valid is a gross misuse of this statement. In his beautiful commentary on this passage, Jean Vanier, theologian and founder of the L’Arche communities writes:
“In all cultures, and at all times, people heard in some way the voice of God…Maybe some could not name God, but they sought the light of truth and the origin of all things. The word of God was the light for many people. When the word became flesh, Jesus brought to fulfillment all these different paths to God. He does not destroy them: the Word is in each of these paths.”
(Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, p.256)
Seen in this way, this statement by Jesus that he is the way, the truth and the life is an inclusive affirmation rather than an exclusive line in the sand.
And then Jesus moves on to remind his disciples that they already know the Father because they know Jesus. He is telling them that there won’t be some new reality they will be experiencing in the Father’s full presence at the end of their earthly journey. Rather it will just be more so there – more so of what they have experienced in relationship with Jesus, here in this world. Way back in chapter 1 of John we were told that the word and the Father have always been one and the word came into the world to reveal the Father’s compassion and forgiveness. Indeed that has been the underlying theme of this whole Gospel and now Jesus reasserts this theme again in his last moments with his friends.
Building on this theme he takes the next step telling them that when they have faith in what he has revealed of God, they will continue the works that he has done and do even greater works. Now this reference to “greater works” is not a reference to their works being more spectacular. Rather it is a reference to the fact that freed from his earthly life, Jesus, alive again through his disciples, will be able to be present in many times and places. Again I quote Jean Vanier who writes:
“His disciples will continue his mission and his works… to give life, eternal life and to reveal the face and heart of God to people. It is to be the presence of God in the world anywhere there is an absence of God.”
This week I also read a meditation in the book Jesus Calling, which I think also has something to say about this idea of Jesus disciples “greater works. The meditation writer hears the voice of Jesus saying:
“Learn to relate to others through My Love rather than yours. Your human love is ever so limited, full of flaws and manipulation. My loving Presence, which always enfolds you, is available to bless others as well as you. Instead of trying harder to help people through your own paltry supplies, become aware of my unlimited supply which is accessible to you continually. Let my Love envelop your outreach to other people
Many or My precious children have fallen prey to burnout. A better description of their condition might be ‘drainout’ Countless interactions with needy people have drained them, without their conscious awareness. You are among these weary ones, who are like wounded soldiers needing R&R. Take time to rest in the Love-Light of My Presence. I will gradually restore to you the energy you have lost. ”
(Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p.139)
This resonates so beautifully with what Jesus is promising to his followers that last night, when he speaks about their greater works, which are only possible through the ongoing loving relationship with him in God known as prayer. And Jesus drives that point home then in the climax of this Gospel passage where he makes this commitment to his followers:
“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.
As a pastor, I have experienced how this statement from Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to comprehend. At first hearing it can seem so over the top – like a divine blank check. And, most of us have had the experience of praying to Jesus specifically and ardently for something and not having our prayers answered directly in the way we anticipated. So what are we to make of this?
The phrase “in my name” which Jesus repeats twice in this statement, is of absolute importance when seeking to understand this commitment Jesus is making to his followers. To ask something in Jesus’ name does not just mean directing it to him. Rather asking something in his name is to ask something that is in accordance with the heart of his cause which, as he says in this statement, is to glorify the Father. So let’s hear that statement of commitment from him again:
“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.”
So this is a qualified commitment. We are not just to pray for anything we want, but rather our prayers must be in line with Jesus cause – to glorify the Father. When we pray in that way he says, he will be working in concert with us.
The problem for me with this is that I am not always sure what is or is not in accordance with Jesus cause of glorifying the Father. I can think of a good many times when I have prayed ardently for something to come to pass, believing that it is in line with Jesus cause, convinced that what I am asking is the right thing for the good of many, and it has not been granted. Then later, with hindsight, I recognize that what I had so longed for and prayed for would not have been the best thing.
So, this tells me I have to accept that often I don’t and probably can’t know what the right thing to pray for is. So, that takes some pressure off – I don’t have to figure out what should happen, that is God’s job. When I have surrendered to that, what I glimpse though this passage is the amazing truth that nothing that can further God’s most gracious purposes is too big for Christ to do for us. That is why I spend more of my prayer time these days praying for the,”knowledge of God’s will for me, and the power to carry that out” as step eleven of the 12 steps so wisely puts it. It is not that I don’t ever pray for specific things to come to pass – I do. But I do so not confident in my perception, but rather confident that if what I am praying for is in line with God’s most loving purposes, they will come to pass in God’s good time and ways.
And in those times when the things I pray for don’t come to pass in the ways I want or expect, I have the example of Jesus himself, in the garden, praying that the cup of suffering might pass him by if it be the Father’s will. There he prays for one kind of salvation, only to have something even more wondrous worked out through him. That example leads me more and more I trust that the energy of my prayers is never wasted. The love and trust that is the life blood of prayer connects me more deeply to God every time I pray. And that connection is what allows me to go on through whatever lies ahead, tethered securely to God, come what may.
And today our lesson from the book of Acts gives us a fast forward ability, to move from the anguished and frightened circle around the table with Jesus, to see a second generation disciple as a bold and living example of what Jesus is promising here. It is not an easy story – it is the story of a man, filled with faith and the Holy Spirit who is killed for just those reasons – for giving voice to his Spirit-filled vision of God. But as he dies he is not abandoned. The Father and the Son are close at hand, and he is blessed with a vision of that larger reality and with the ability to extend the works and cause of Jesus with his dying breath. Closely echoing Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, do not hold this sin against them.”
Stephen’s is an extreme example of the life of faith to which we are each called. May the greater works of Christ our Lord continue to abound among and through us. In Christ’s name. Amen+