May 7, 2023
What Is God Like?
John alone gives us this summation of the extended talk Jesus had with his disciples on the night he is arrested. It is a farewell conversation. Jesus knows he is going to die, and he wants to prepare the disciples with instructions and reminders. It goes on for 4 chapters. So our scripture this morning is just brief piece of it. But there is plenty here to chew on. And John, of course, throughout his gospel, doesn’t really distinguish between what he says as sermonic reflection and what Jesus himself says. There are no quotation marks around any of this.
So, on their last evening together, John recounts Jesus telling the disciples not to be worried or stressed, and to keep believing, both in himself and God’s presence in the world. It is all part of his final conversation with them as he tries to fortify them before his death. As we know. their faith will be tested–not only by Jesus’ death but ultimately with events in the world and their own untimely deaths. Stephen, who we heard about in our first scripture, was the first martyr, but certainly not the last.
Philip – (for once you note it is not Peter speaking up) Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father. He wants one of those dramatic mystical experiences –Perhaps he feels it will be a little easier to “Keep the Faith” if he just had a little more to go on; something more dramatic he can hold on to!
Probably most of us feel that way at times, – You know –“Lord I need a little help here, -something a little more Concrete- there are so many things that don’t seem right in this world, and so many questions!” Philip apparently doesn’t remember the parable about the Mustard seed faith – Jesus says simply, –“If you have seen me you have seen the Father” —If you have heard my teaching, If you have observed my works, and my caring—healing the untouchables, and eating with those called sinners, you should know this is the way God is…and the way you need to be. If you wonder what’s happened, and why, just know that I am with God — and God is with me…. And God’s infinite and intimate embrace is there for you also.—Just keep following me and the way I have shown you. In this context Jesus’ words in this passage, which seem to have exclusivist overtones, do not actually refer to an exclusion of all other faiths, or present a hard edged condemnation of all who all who do not take him to be the messiah. Instead, his words point to the extreme nature of God’s love and grace revealed through him and the call for them to follow him in trusting God.
Jesus’ life and ministry clearly is a rejection of narrow minded exclusivism which would deny access to God for anyone not washed in orthodoxy. When Jesus tells the disciples “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places” he is speaking metaphorically. Dwelling with the Father, or being in a close loving family relationship with God, is not a narrow, exclusive club, but a spacious, roomy place to dwell. Maybe he is even suggesting: “You’ll be surprised at some of your neighbors!”
Dr. A. B. Masilamini was a Baptist theologian and evangelist in India, where he had to come to terms the exclusivity claims of some in Christianity, commented on this in one of his conferences on inter-faith dialogue:
“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.’ Your western ears hear Jesus saying that he is the only way to God, but that is not what he says. He is an eastern mind speaking to eastern minds. They hear the emphasis being on the Father (Abba). What Jesus is saying is that he is the only way to come to know God in personal relationship similar to that of a child to his daddy”. This does not weaken a sharing of the gospel, as you might think. Instead it allows a Christian to say to someone of another faith, that Jesus offers something unique, a close relationship to God.”
So, what’s God like? God is like Jesus, who will sit down with five thousand strangers. It doesn’t matter, prostitutes and Pharisees, Greeks and Jews, peasants and priests – He shared a meal with them all, with no opportunities to check the purity of the kitchen where the bread was baked, or the cleanness of the countless pairs of hands that got the food to you. God is like Jesus, who was reviled, persecuted, tortured, and executed, and yet spoke words of forgiveness to his tormentors. God is like Jesus, who taught us that the kingdom of God would be ushered in not with the political and military muscle of kings and generals, but quietly raised from mustard seeds of faith. Faith that could touch the unclean, feed the hungry, heal those bound by disease, invite the outcast, and reconcile enemies. God is like Jesus, who could humble himself and wash other people’s feet.
All the major faiths have some exclusive edges to them. What we have to do as Christians when we encounter these passages in our multicultural society and world, is simply remember that Jesus never used, or misused religion to attack others except for the pompous and phony ones of his own faith background. His focus was on bringing the grace of God into the places of this world where it was needed most.
John doesn’t tell about the Last Supper, he knows that others have told that story. Instead he tells of foot washing and an intimate conversation underlining that God is with us, even, or maybe most especially, in the dark and uncertain times. And that by knowing Jesus we know what God is like! —
Today we come to that meal the other gospels tell of, the meal that was the sacrament of God’s grace. We eat in remembrance of Jesus, acknowledging and embracing his words of forgiveness and God’s continued embrace of us. This meal expresses what God is like! –Amen.