Upper Room Questions
This morning I want to return to the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends shortly before his execution. I don't feel like I've quite finished with that farewell discourse from John's gospel that we've touched on in the last couple of weeks. In particular I want to look at the conversation between Jesus and the disciples, especially the questions they ask him.
The context for these questions is a time of great confusion and probably something close to despair for the disciples. They have been given a glimpse of something, and now, the way Jesus is talking, it's clear that that something is going to be taken away, but they don't understand how or where or why, nor do they have any confidence in what might come afterwards. This is kind of similar to the experience of faith crisis or transition that many of us are familiar with, so I'm interested in seeing how the conversation of Jesus and his followers resonates with the kinds of questions that we feel compelled to ask in our own faith journeys.
Read John 13: 33 - 14:10
So Jesus drops his bombshell – little children, I am with you only a little longer – when I'm gone, love one another. I suspect the disciples don't even hear the bit about loving each other, all they hear is 'I'm going away.' And immediately they're full of anxiety, no matter how reassuring Jesus tries to be.
First up, Peter says to him “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus, in classical Jesus style doesn't actually answer that question. Instead, he responds to the unspoken question underneath the question, saying: “Where I am going you cannot follow me now.” Jesus understands that when Peter says “Lord where are you going” what Peter means is “please take me with you – let me be where you are.” Remember Peter is the one who stepped off the boat onto the water – the one who recognised Jesus as the Messiah – where Jesus goes, he goes. And now Jesus is saying that he has a path to walk that is more difficult even than walking on water, and that Peter isn't ready to walk it...though he will be, later. Peter is really uncomfortable with the fact that his uber-discipleship is being called into question...that the intensity of his faith is somehow in doubt. Hence Peter's second question: “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” And Jesus counters with the devastating news that Peter will deny him that night.
What is happening here is that Jesus knows he has a journey to make that isn't just into his own death, but also into the depths of his own identity and will, into the darkness of surrender, into pain and the abyss of forsakenness, into hell. Peter, faced with the same journey, will step off really quickly, into self-protection, denial and dishonesty. The fear is too much.
How hard it must have been for Peter to hear that answer from Jesus. I wonder how many of us, who were once so full of conviction and intensity have felt disillusionment and shame when we realised that some hurdles were too much for our faith...that we too have to spend time in the desert. How hard we find it to wait, to acknowledge our own unreadiness, to be forced into a hiatus when what we really want is to get on and get moving. Joy Cowley writes about this dynamic in her poem Kenosis, in Aotearoa Psalms:
Jesus, I need your sense of timing.
I am so keen to grow
that I want all seasons at once,
to flower, bear fruit, die to self,
before self is fully grown.
I know that only the mature plant
can come into fruiting
and yet here I am,
reaching out for tomorrow,
ignoring the small plant
which needs nurturing,
which constantly cries out:
“What about me?”
I must draw life into myself
and mature to the fullness
God has planned for me.
When my time is come,
my ego will split wide open
like the ripened seedpod
it should be
and empty itself
In the case of Peter, he had to see his friend and master die, to know the grief of ending and loss, and then to be caught up into the wonder of reunion with Jesus before he had the courage he needed for the task that was his to pursue. He had to learn for himself the language and rhythm of Spirit - to recognise Jesus as a non-physical presence after walking for several years with him as a flesh and blood man. That's why Jesus focuses on reassuring the disciples that he will return to them, that he is coming to them, and that because they have recognised him in the flesh, they will still be able to recognise him when he comes to them in a different form.
We are more fortunate than these upper room disciples – we don't have to undergo the loss and then rediscovery of Jesus through the cataclysm of his physical death. We don't have to wait for the promised Spirit...we are post-Pentecost people. But having said that, maybe the pattern of these first disciples isn't so different from the journey into depth that we all have to take as we grow as Christians. We too have maturing to do - first the building of a healthy self, through belonging and conviction – the strong branch. And then the losses that soften and prune us, causing us to blossom, and then the experiences and wisdom that 'split us open' to bear fruit. Like the first disciples, we also have to learn the language of Spirit – the skills we need to listen to our lives, to trace the movements of our hearts, to read the currents of the moment and discern the presence of Christ. Where do you find yourself within this pattern, or this process? What is Jesus saying to you about your readiness to bear fruit?
Jesus then tells the disciples that they know the way to where he is going. And now Thomas asks a question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus answers: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I'm not going to spend time on why and how this statement has become a catch-phrase for an exclusivist view of who gets into heaven, or why I disagree with that as a reading of the text. Today I simply notice that Thomas' question needs to be reframed, to become a different category of question.
Thomas is thinking in terms of place – Jesus has said he's going away, and Thomas assumes that means he's travelling to another physical location. No wonder he's confused when Jesus says that they know they way to where he's going. It's as though Jesus has said “I'm getting on a plane, I won't tell you my destination, but come and meet me there I'll be looking out for you when I arrive.” Of course Thomas says “how can we know the way if we don't know where you're going?” But Jesus is being metaphorical and when he says 'where I am going' he really means a new kind of 'state', or 'process' that he's entering into. Jesus is 'going to the Father.' That's not a place, any more than heaven is a place. It's a state of union, it's 'beyondness' – a way of being that transcends mortality and physicality, it's transformation and relationship. It's entering into the life of Spirit. Jesus is returning to how he was before he took on mortal flesh...as he says later in John's gospel: “the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” We don't really have words or images for it, which is why this is all so difficult to describe. But, Jesus says, “I am entering that realm of being, and at the right time, you can do so too, simply by keeping on in relationship with me. I am the way. When I return to you, I will help you to keep on seeing me even though I'm not physically present in the way I used to be. And as you learn to see me you will step onto the path of union with the Father also.”
Richard Rohr says this as a basic Christian axiom: All statements and beliefs about Jesus are also statements about the journey of the soul. (The Naked Now p147) That is, whatever can be said of Jesus, including the path he took from ministry to failure, death, resurrection and return to God, can also be said of us, as we join our lives to his. It seems obvious to us now, but I think it's the point of this interaction between Jesus and Thomas - when we say we are on a journey, it's a metaphor...we're not travelling anywhere physical, but we are stepping into a transforming process on a 'path' that's already been cut – by Jesus. As Rohr also says: 'Jesus is not just the unique son of God, but the public beginning of the great parade of all who are partners with him.'
How often are we asking questions of God that assume categories that have nothing to do with the life of the Spirit? Like when Nico asks Chris “how many minutes is it til 'later'”, or when Emerson says to me “when you were little, was I the mummy?” there can sometimes be a basic misunderstanding that makes the question impossible to answer on the terms in which it's been asked. As humans we are so locked into our senses, and into dualistic either/or thinking. And we've inherited an unhelpful 'up/down' landscape to say 'where' God is (that is, God's 'up there' and we're 'down here') These things make it exceedingly difficult to experience God coming to us in subtle ways and in the midst of the ordinary stuff of life. I think that often our prayers consist of misguided questions like Thomas's, either because our model of God, or our model of what life should be, needs realigning. And so we get tied up in knots trying to think our way through to understanding God, using starting questions that in many cases make it impossible for us to come to an answer that's big enough. This is particularly the case I think when we get into the territory of God's 'intervention' in the world. Maybe in our prayer lives, and also in our seeking for God we need to look at our assumptions or our questions and see whether they're dictating categories that God simply doesn't fit into.
So Jesus goes on to say – if you've seen me, you've seen the father. And then Philip speaks – it's not really a question, but it is a request. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Those of you who were here a fortnight ago will know that of these questions, this is the one that most closely resonates with me at the moment. Please, just show me. Let me see you, taste and touch you, feel you and know you. So I am keenly interested in Jesus' answer here. Jesus says to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me as seen the Father.”
What Philip wanted had been right under his nose the whole time, and yet he still didn't know how to recognise it. But Philip wants something different, something more – a manifestation of God, a supernatural happening, perhaps...something other than this friend that he can see and touch.
When we cry out 'where are you God', are we expecting to have a mystical experience that's separate from all other experiences, that's not mediated through the things that are already all around us? I suspect that probably that's what I have been conditioned to hope for. And yet this expectation is at odds with the heart of the Christian gospel – which is that God comes to us in the physical reality of which we are a part. And our job is to learn to recognise the Divine in and through those things that God has made...whether stick, rock, ocean, or human being, whether it's in the act of prayer, or the act of doing the dishes. This is the mystery of incarnation.
The resurrection appearances of Jesus point to this reality. I'm thinking particularly of the Emmaus Road, and of the time on the beach where Jesus tells the disciples to put their net on the other side of the boat. In the breaking of bread, and in the catching and cooking of fish, the disciples suddenly recognise Jesus, when before he was just some guy walking along. In the everyday tasks that they had done together with Jesus before his death, he becomes apparent to them again, only this time it's different, because they have to see with their spirits rather than their eyes.
When we share the bread and wine of holy communion, we remember Jesus' death, yes, but more than that we remember his incarnation...that is, that God is present to us as a human, and in physical form. The particular sacrament, in which Jesus meets us in bread and wine, points to the sacrament of all creation – reminding us that God is not separate from what God has made, but is able to meet us in and through it. We just have to turn up...that is, be present ourselves. Not easily done when in any given moment a large portion of our attention is devoted to thinking about, and usually carrying anxiety about, the past or the future.
On Friday when I was writing this sermon I was feeling very stressed by a number of circumstances that were putting the squeeze on my time to get work done. But then into my email inbox popped this question from Laura – a reference to something that came up at our recent Gardeners meeting: “What will God create through you today?” I realised that I was allowing an anxious self to do several uncreative things – I was defining my 'work' as 'hours spent at a desk', for a start. And I was creating a vortex of stress around my person. All I could see was what wasn't happening, not what was. I realised as I sat down to the 'intrusion' that was feeding Maddie, that I could ignore her winsome charms and go on fuming and resenting, and then carry that spirit into the rest of the encounters of that afternoon. That would be to go on 'creating' distress, for myself and others too.
Or I could let her 'in', I could smile and cuddle and rest, and let that momentary connection 're-set' the day, so that God had more of a chance to create warmth, friendship, trust and insight through me as I went about the rest of the afternoon's tasks. I probably wasn't completely successful, but I choose to see that series of events as a prompt from God via Laura's email, and then grace from God via Maddie to make an inner shift. Was this 'seeing the Father'? Perhaps yes.
So, my learning at the moment is how to receive God in the gift of the everyday encounter – to recognise and name all of my reality as 'spiritual', so that I can affirm Jesus' words 'From now on you do know him and have seen him,' even in the absence of what might be termed mystical or unusual experiences. A lot has to do with giving myself and the world permission to carry God and bear witness to God, rather than making any kind of distinction between an experience of God and an experience of life.
So, I guess in these three questions or confusions experienced by Peter, Thomas and Philip, we see three ways that our assumptions get in the road of really hearing what Jesus is saying to us. Maybe we want to impose our sense of immediacy or urgency onto God's gentler time frame. Maybe we have some flawed categories that are causing us to ask unhelpful questions. Maybe we seek God in experiences that are abstracted from daily reality, rather than embedded within it.
We're going to take a moment now to go into our own upper room, the place within us where we wonder about where we're at in our faith journey, and what's going to happen next. I invite you to close your eyes, and see yourself in a room with Jesus – perhaps some other people are in that room with you, perhaps you're alone with him. What is the question that you are living with right now? What do you want to know, to understand, or to be reassured about? What do you need to hear from Jesus? If it helps you, write your question down. It's possible that Jesus has an answer for your question, in which case, listen for that now. It's also possible that Jesus might want to question your question, or show you a different way of asking it. Be open to that. It's also possible that your invitation now is to carry that question into your life over the coming weeks or longer, and to seek the answer in the people and events that come your way. In which case receive from Jesus now simply the grace to remember and to discern God as you live with the question. And now step out of the upper room, into this time and place.
If you're looking for some practical tools to recognise God in the midst of life, you might like to consider keeping a journal, and/or trying the Ignatian practice of 'Examen' for a while. I'm happy to give you some pointers about what's involved in that.