Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 14, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Ps. 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Pet. 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
How well can you really know another person? An unexpected event in the life of a friend or an acquaintance—something they say or do, something you couldn’t imagine them saying or doing before they said or did it—causes us to doubt if we ever knew the person to begin with. Maybe it is an offensive comment, or an act of betrayal, or something even more serious. They’ve broken the law. They’ve hurt someone. They’ve hurt themselves. In sorting through the shock or disappointment, we find ourselves saying, “I thought I knew him.” “I guess I did not know her at all.”
It is at such moments that we begin to wonder if the depths of the human heart are too vast to really know, that perhaps the distance separating our outward appearance from the inward state of our soul is too much to measure. Maybe there are limits to how much we can know each other. Can I really feel your pain? Can you really capture all the emotional complexities and contradictory impulses that I may be experiencing at this moment, let alone all those feelings that I might experience over the course of an entire lifetime? Who among us feels they have mastered these things within themselves? How could we say we “know” them in others?
Yet despite this, each of us still holds fast to the conviction that in our various relationships, there are certain things that others should know about us. Indeed, we expect it, to the point of presumption. If we have spent any significant time with another person, if we have traveled more than a few miles on the same road together, we expect them to know our likes and dislikes, our pleasures and pet peeves: that I like chocolate, and you like vanilla; that I need two cups of coffee in the morning and you don’t like to talk during sunsets. These aren’t insignificant things. If two people have been together long and one person doesn’t know these things about the other, the objection is not, “Oh, you’ve missed a few these things about me” but “you must not know me.” We feel in such instances that something central to who we are has been missed, leading us to wonder if the other person really knows us at all. In such moments we find ourselves coming back to that feeling of being opaque to one another, not because it is impossible to know another person, but because, more simply, we let each other down. We fail to read the signs. We don’t pay attention.
Is it so different with God? In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking with his disciples, having just finished washing their feet and sharing a final meal together. He has informed them that he will be leaving soon and some will betray him. The disciples are understandably distressed, so he seeks to comfort them. “Do not be troubled,” he says. “If I go to 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” (14:1-4). Thomas, ever the skeptic, wonders what place he could be talking about, and moreover, what the way to this place could be. Jesus famously responds, “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” (14:6).
Jesus’ response gets us into the heart of his complex relationship to the Father, one of the major themes of John’s Gospel. It is not the first time Jesus mentions this relationship. Throughout his ministry, he has repeatedly reminded his followers that whatever he does, whether it is healing, teaching, or miracles, he does in the power of the One who sent him. Indeed, just before washing their feet, Jesus emphasizes the point, saying, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me” (12:44). If his disciples have been paying attention, they will have understood that in both his words and actions, Jesus really cannot be grasped as an autonomous individual. From the beginning, his ministry has had a reflective quality, always pointing beyond himself. He has never been just Jesus. He has always been Jesus in relation to the Father. To isolate Jesus would not simply entail losing a part of his identity, but to lose Jesus himself. For Jesus’ entire point is that his identity is, in its very essence, a relationship. There is no Jesus without the Father, and just as importantly, no Father without Jesus. To know Jesus is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know Jesus.
If this kind of Trinitarian theology makes your head spin (we haven’t even mentioned the Spirit), then you are not alone. The disciple Philip is similarly perplexed. He attempts a resolution in the form of a request: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). That it is Philip who asks this question is significant. Philip has been with Jesus since the very beginning, the third disciple called after Andrew and Peter. It was Philip who initially said to Nathaniel, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (1:45). From very early on, Philip appears to get it. He knows Jesus is not just another religious reformer, but the long promised Messiah. Yet as we follow Philip, we’re not entirely sure what to make of him. At the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus tests him, asking where they will buy enough bread for the people to eat, to which Philip responds, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (6:7). An accurate observation, but not exactly a vote of confidence. We can presume that Philip would have been present at most of Jesus’ other miracles, as well as his various sermons and discourses. We also know he is present in Chapter 12, when Jesus addresses some visiting Greeks, saying, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (12:26).
So Philip would have been familiar with this business of Jesus being related to the Father. Yet it is this same Philip, the one who had spent all of this time with Jesus, who asks, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). It’s one of those questions that expose the truth of the whole relationship, and Jesus responds with one of the most poignant sentences in all of Scripture: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (14:9). We have arrived at the decisive moment, when all that one thought could go unspoken now must be said aloud. It’s the moment when one person has realized that it may be possible that the one thing that is most important to who they are, the most central and defining feature of their identity, is the one thing that the other person has missed. What was the relationship about if this has not been understood? Does the person realize that in asking for one thing more, they are denying what the other person has offered the entire time? Jesus responds as any of us would respond, “How could you say that?” It’s a phrase that registers our shock and surprise when all that we assumed can be assumed no longer. “How could you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (14:9-10). In effect, Jesus is saying, “Don’t you know that the thing you are asking for is standing right here? Haven’t you seen how the Father is already present in everything I have done? How could you have been following me all this time, witnessing all I have said and done, and not seen that? Have we missed each other?”
It’s one of the most human moments in the Gospels, yet it is a moment where the disciples are coming to grips with the real divinity of their Lord. They have walked this entire time with their rabbi thinking he is a good teacher, thinking he is a good person, thinking he offers a different way in the world. Disciples such as Philip even believe he is the Messiah. They obviously think highly of him. After all, they’ve given up their lives for him. But despite everything he has said and done, they still don’t believe he gives them everything there is to know or experience about God. They continue to believe there must be something else that Jesus doesn’t quite capture. There must be something else about God that Jesus doesn’t quite show us. Show us something more. Show us the Father. Show us the God who hides up in the heavens. Show us the God who can answer our questions about how things came to be and how things will end. Show us the God who can answer our questions about why we suffer. Show us the God who can take responsibility for all that is wrong with the world. Show us the God who can make things better.
It’s not just the disciples who make these demands. We make them too. In making them, we, like Philip, make plain what we really believe about Jesus: that he does not teach us enough about God. That he does not reveal enough of God. That he is not God enough. If we hear disappointment in Jesus’ voice when Philip makes the demand for the Father, it’s because Jesus occupies a position not unlike the spouse, friend, or parent who has been asked to show more, at precisely the moment when they believe they have already given all that they are. In such moments, the demand for more is not really a sign that more actually needs to be given, but that what has been given has yet to be acknowledged.
The strange mystery of Jesus is that he is not Jesus alone, but a being in relation with the Father and the Spirit, that his identity is relational. When he discloses his self, he discloses this relation. To ask for the Father is not only to miss what Jesus has done in the Father, it is to miss who Jesus is. To know Jesus is to know Jesus in relationship with the Father. When Jesus gives himself to his disciples, he gives them this identity. He gives them this relationship.
This may explain why, in his response to Philip, Jesus puts the emphasis on the time they have spent together: “Have I been with you all this time”? Philip should know Jesus by now because of the time they have spent together, because of the relationship they have shared. And anyone who has spent any time with Jesus will know he is always directing attention away from himself, to the source and end of his mission, to the One who sent him, as well as all those he has gathered around himself. To know Jesus is to know those with whom he exists in relationship. To know Jesus is to enter into those same relationships.
What is this but an invitation to rediscover our identity as images of God? For if God is a relation, and we are created in the image of God, our very deepest self must be relational. The depths that we feel insides ourselves, the innumerable contradictions, impulses, and desires, are a sign that we are at bottom not self-contained, but a reflection of a deeper mystery, an image of a relationship. Our inability to know ourselves reminds us that we are not just ourselves, and our inability to fully know one another confirms the same truth. But our intuition that we can disclose not just a part of our self, but the whole of our selves to one another, and this can become known, and made the basis of an ongoing relationship, is a confirmation of the deeper truth that we are created in the image of a self-disclosing God, a God who wishes to be known. We can know this God in our willingness to disclose ourselves to one another, and our willingness to accept those disclosures, which train us in accepting the disclosure of a God who has already disclosed everything there is to know about him, which is His very self. Amen.