200510 – Facepalm Jesus

Yr A ~ Easter 5 ~ John 14:1-14

Today’s scripture reading is one of those that’s chock full of great lines that have moved far beyond churches and are part of the public consciousness.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Unfortunately, some of these have been so twisted and misused that they’ve acquired unimaginable amounts of baggage – almost to the point of being spoiled.
In fact, I bet that if Jesus was here today and heard what we’ve done with these teachings of his that he’d do the most massive facepalm that has ever been.
If you’re unfamiliar with that phrase, a facepalm is when you cradle your face in your hand as a sign of supreme exasperation and disappointment because someone utterly doesn’t ‘get it’.
It kind of goes: eye roll, head shake, facepalm.

Happily, one of my favourite things is to take such facepalm-able passages and try my best to have us reconsider and reimagine them – and maybe even to redeem them and resurrect them into something wonderful and new. So let’s get to it!

Some of them don’t need much saving.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.

The many dwelling places line causes some angst when some Christians argue it as a being exclusive and others interpret the ‘many places’ idea as being universal.
Ideas clash, Christians argue, Jesus facepalms.

And if you really want to hear Christians clash just listen to debates about John 14:6 – possibly the most incendiary verse in the bible:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

For me, the tragic exclusivist interpretation of John 14:6 is a perfect example of what would make Jesus do a massive facepalm.

The squeamishness we feel about it is well founded.
It’s been used as a clobber-verse for a long, long time. We get so distracted by the problematic second part that we miss the importance of the first part.

It’s a teaching about what Jesus called “the way”, and how this ‘way’ that Jesus is on about isn’t found in a book, or on a map, or in a set of instructions, or even beliefs. It’s a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving.

There’s a story about a missionary who lost his way in a wilderness. He could find no landmarks and the trail vanished. Eventually, stumbling on a small dwelling, he asked the person living there if they could lead him out. Rising to their feet, the local walked directly into the bush. The missionary followed on their heels. For more than an hour they hacked their way through a dense wall of vines and grasses. The missionary became worried: “Are you sure this is the way? I don’t see any path.” The local chuckled and said over their shoulder, “In this place there is no path. I am the path.”

Jesus is the path.
Jesus is the Way, and the truth, and the life.
So, what was Jesus’ Way, why was it so different, and why is it so good?
In a word, hesed – a Hebrew word meaning “loving-kindness”.
Jesus oozed hesed!
He modelled radical inclusivity – he accepted the unacceptable, loved the unlovely, healed the sick, touched the unclean, valued uniqueness, welcomed everyone – even women and children – and this wild, diverse group of individuals became community because of Jesus – because of his hesed – his radically all-inclusive loving-kindness! His was an open, loving, accepting community of equals. Regardless of what the world had labelled a person – Jesus just saw, and loved, the person. It was all about Grace and Compassion. It was all about God.

John 14:6 is a decisive faith claim that Jesus’ Way is truth and life, and no one, not one single person, can enter a deep and meaningful relationship with the Divine, with God, without embodying Jesus’ absolute passion, surrender, compassion, and obedience to this ‘way’ that embodies and incarnates God’s loving-kindness.
Jesus’ Way is THE Way – the one and only way to God.

BUT that is not in the slightest bit an exclusive statement.
(Stay with me!)

Theologian Marcus Borg tells a story about a sermon preached by a Hindu professor in a Christian seminary several decades ago. The text for the day included the ‘one way’ passage, and about it the Hindu said, “This verse is absolutely true – Jesus is the only way.”

Borg explains that what the Hindu meant by that, is that Jesus embodied the way, incarnated the way, exampled the way that leads one to ‘oneness’ with the divine.
The way that Jesus lived is the ‘way’ of Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and every major path leading people to the sacred – the way of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being that more fully resonates with sacredness and loving-kindness.
That’s THE way.
The Hindu was not saying “believe in Jesus, or else.” He was saying believe in the way that Jesus lived, and the way that Jesus is.

Now, that seems like a pretty easy to understand interpretation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reinforce our deep down instinctual reactions of ‘who’s in and who’s out’ so people seem to almost wilfully prefer to miss the point.

This is nothing new. Jesus endured it himself.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Come on folks, you know this stuff. Surely you’ve learned this lesson by now. Surely you know what I mean when I teach about the Way.”

John 14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Facepalm Jesus.

John 14:7-9 Jesus says, “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, “Ah for crying out loud people! Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Everywhere you go, God is there. Everyone you encounter, God is in there. Open your eyes people. God is all around and all within. Everywhere!”

And the people go “Huh?” [like when a dog tilts its head]
And Jesus buries his face in his palms.

I think the problem is a really basic one.
We want clear and concise explanations – but Jesus is all nuance and metaphor.
We want “click here for three steps to health, wealth, and happiness” – and Jesus is all “the only way to save your life is to lose it.”
We want “tell me what I have to say or do to get on God’s good side” – and Jesus is all, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” John 14:10

We want facts, and steps, and checklists.
Jesus offers a way.
Jesus offers vision.
Jesus offers a relationship.

And we say, “No Jesus, there has to be an easier, faster way. Just show us God!”
Facepalm Jesus.

I think if we – and I mean the royal we, as in all those who profess to follow Jesus – if we could understand this fundamental concept that all this religious stuff is really about revealing God’s presence, and how that sacred presence inspires and interconnects our relationships – then I think Jesus might just be able to lift his face out of his palm for a minute or two and smile.

A couple of verses later, and then throughout John’s gospel, Jesus is praying that we – humanity – could all be one. In relationship.

John 14:20 I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
John 17:21 As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.
John 17:23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.

Imagine how different our world might be if we actually, deeply understood that we are all in relationship, and that relationship is overflowing with sacred love!

Imagine how different our churches might be if we rejected any scripture interpretation that didn’t start with loving and inclusive relationships.

Imagine how different our response to rushing to reopen everything in this pandemic time might be if we truly privileged relationships over economics, and valued the vulnerable more than our convenience.

If God is in Jesus, and Jesus is in us, and I’m in you, and you’re in me, and we’re all in this interwoven, interconnected relational dance then how did we ever cause Jesus to become such a facepalm expert?

After all this rich teaching Jesus concludes this section by saying, John 14:14 “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it,” and I have another tragically misinterpreted verse that I need to tackle.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the really harmful and perverted approach to biblical interpretation called the ‘prosperity gospel’ which basically asserts that God wants you to prosper so if you just pray hard enough you can get anything you want. They love verses like “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Surely this can’t mean big screen TVs, new homes, and private jets for the pastor! (Although, that would be cool!)
Facepalm Jesus!

But think about what we’ve just been saying.
If we’re utterly relational, if we’re really in this deep relationship with the sacred and with one another, then asking Jesus for anything material is just offensive.

What if instead we asked Jesus for more compassion?
Or more empathy?
Or more courage to challenge injustice?

What if we sought the prospering not of ourselves but of everyone we are in relationship with – which, if God is in Jesus, and Jesus is in us, and I’m in you, and you’re in me then we’re in relationship with everyone. Indigenous persons have as part of their core wisdom the phrase “all my relations” – meaning all peoples, and all of creation, and the environment, and everything are interrelated and interconnected.
All my relations.
It’s included on our United Church crest now.
No facepalm Jesus there!

This sermon has been a little bit unfocused because I’m just trying to take on a bunch of core teachings from John 14 and find ways to have us think about them in renewed ways.
Here’s one last one.

John 14:12 Amen, amen, I tell you, the one who trusts 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.

Greater than Jesus? Really?
Be careful here.
He didn’t say we’d be greater than him; he said we’d do greater works than he did.
No, he doesn’t mean miracles. No matter what you do you aren’t going to be changing that glass of water into wine. Trust me, I’ve tried!
I don’t think he means miracles; I think he means reach.

Think of all the ways and means we have to do Jesus’ work of revealing God’s presence in and around us, and building relationships of loving-kindness with people.
Our reach and influence is potentially exponentially greater than his, but we have to sign on to do the work.
And we do.
We’ve done all kinds of great things – built hospitals and schools, created a social safety net, leverage our financial and human resources to help people in need in all kinds of ways.

And look at what I’m doing right now.
I may not be preaching to 5000 people on a mountainside, but I am part of a throng of ministers who are each in their own way preaching to hundreds of thousands, if not millions upon millions of people this morning.
Jesus never did that. But we can.
Because he’s in us, and we’re in him.

How many more greater things could we do if we more deeply embodied his teaching about how we’re in relationship with one another – how everyone is in relationship with one another – and how when God’s loving-kindness is the source of that relationship that all may be one, all may flourish, all may prosper, and all may love in response.

That is the Way of Jesus.

It’s the only way to God because it’s a way of radically inclusive loving-kindness, and only by loving can we awaken to and know the heart of God – who is love itself.
(Q) Show us the Father!
(A) Love one another.

And Facepalm Jesus is no more.