My not invisible friend
Week of Sunday May 22 - Easter 5
Gospel: John 14:1-14
4‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?3And if I go and 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. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes 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. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
When I was eight, I had a profound experience of disappointment with the world. By the time I was fifteen the whole idea of a God was beginning to make a lot of sense, and looked like it might be the way out of the disappointment. Surely there had to be something at the back of everything!
I had a growing hunger to understand God. I couldn’t see any other way to live my life. I’d get interested in sport; I played hockey, I did bushwalking and distance running, I rode hundreds of miles around Australia, but I kept coming back to the need for God. I got interested in amateur radio, I studied to be a scientist, but I kept coming back to the need for God. I could not leave it alone.
People kept saying I had to believe in God, but I couldn’t believe in something I couldn’t understand. And then people said, “No. It’s not believing six impossible things before breakfast. It’s believing by trusting God, by relating to God.” And that’s how we should read John 14. As Jesus is going away, he says, “Trust in God, trust also in me.”
In the end, I got so desperate I said, “OK, I’m not even sure if you exist God, but I’m going to trust you.”
That put me in a real pickle.
On the one hand, being in the church and trying to live life the Jesus way, was turning my life around, making sense, and getting my life together! It was great. In my first holidays after my conversion I went and bought a whole heap of theology books and read many of them, and the bible, from cover to cover.
But on the other hand, I couldn’t meet this Jesus. It sounded a lot like people were talking about an invisible friend. Of course you can’t say that in church— so I kept my mouth shut. But inside I would say, “I read the bible, I say my prayers, and it feels like I might just be talking to myself.”
And then people were talking about the Holy Spirit. This is the Helper that chapter 14 verse 16 says God will send to us. I tell you: there were days when I really wondered if people were talking about the invisible friend of their invisible friend. I just did not get it.
I was never quite sure if I was stupid to believe in God, and it was all just made up, and I was kidding myself, or whether l was missing the whole point and needed to meet God at a whole new level. It was like I was trying to live life with Jesus, and yet Jesus wasn't there.
And that's exactly what's happening in the reading in John. Jesus is preparing the disciples for the fact that he is leaving. John 14 is about life with God when Jesus is not there.
It’s really very simple, at one level. Jesus is the way to God. Jesus is the truth about God. You want life with God; Jesus is the answer. Just in case you don’t get it, Jesus says in verse 9 “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. Trust me.”
Well, if you were one of the disciples who knew Jesus, that might work. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. Jesus sounded a lot like that invisible friend. And we all know invisible friends are not real. People who have invisible friends are either little children, or they have a little something wrong with them.
The problem was that I did have an invisible friend as a kid. And the whole Jesus – God – Church thing didn’t feel like that at all. There was something there, something real, in the whole Jesus – God – Church thing . Except... I couldn’t find Jesus. If a non believer made some crack about us Christians and our invisible friend, I wouldn’t bite, but I was always scared they might be right.
How could I meet Jesus?
It turns out, that I already have an invisible friend. Her name is Janet. I have no idea what she looks like. I couldn’t tell you how old she is give or take twenty years. She lives, apparently, in the United States of America. She’s a minister. She’s one of those ministers who moves around and does interim work, like me. I have no idea where, in the USA, she actually is.
How do I know Janet? Email.
She’s on an email discussion group of lots of ministers all over the world.
But how do I know that Janet is Janet? She could be a fat little man in New York, eating Pizza, picking his pimples in front of his computer, and making it all up; just waiting to get my credit card details. Janet might not exist at all!
I believe in the Janet whom I cannot see for two reasons. First of all, I read her book. I read the stuff Janet writes, and I’ve been doing it for quite a long time. What I find is that Janet hangs together. Janet has a personality. Janet is a real person. If someone is making Janet up, they are doing a very good job. I think— because I’ve read so much of her writing— that Janet is real. I believe in her; when she writes to me I trust her.
The second reason I believe Janet is real, is because I am part of the community that Janet is in. We argue, and agree, and disagree together. In the discussions we have together, I often have a pretty good idea where Janet will end up. (She’d say the same about me!) The community makes her alive to me.
Janet’s one of those people who is able to tell it how it is. She shakes people up sometimes. Sometimes people get quite offended by her. She gets hurt, too. Sometimes she has to back down and rethink what she is saying. But there is no doubt in my mind that she is there. And because it’s not just Janet and Andrew agreeing with each other in a solo relationship... because it’s a whole community struggling and trying to stay friends and grow together, then Janet my invisible friend is all the more real, and all the more a rich person to me.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going here. When I keep reading Jesus’ book, I begin to know him. I begin to see a person behind the letters on the page. Just like I think sometimes, “I know what Janet will say about that!” I have the same thoughts about Jesus. I know him.
And when I come to church, and form relationships with the people in church, they enrich and increase my understanding of this person as well. And so, like with Janet, I get to know this person Jesus.
There is a difference of course. If I haven’t seen Janet on the list for a while, I can pop her an email and ask if she’s OK. And she might write back and say, “More or less... I’ve just had a bad cold and a couple of really busy weeks.” If Jesus sends me an email, then I can be fairly sure someone’s having a lend of me... or maybe I have got a real problem.
For us the church is critically important. It’s the place where Jesus is real, and where we get protected from the conversations we have in our head. It’s the place that reminds us that we don’t get emails from Jesus. It’s the place that says, “Do you really think Jesus would do that?” In fact, the Father’s house, which we hear about in verse 2, is not some place in the future. It’s not heaven. The father’s house is the household of God now, the place where God and the Church meet together, now. There are many dwelling places in that household; there’s one here at Cornerstone in Davoren Park.
So let’s go back to John’s gospel where Jesus is leaving the disciples, and let’s think about our losses, and our troubles. We most often hear this text read out at funerals. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
I probably heard that first at my Grandfather’s funeral, when I was a kid. I learned it meant there is a place called heaven and when we die, we will not be left alone, but that there is a place there for us. And you know what? I am not going to disagree with that. It fits entirely with the Jesus and the Father I have met in the book, and in the church. It’s a good and true picture of life and death. We are loved. We will not be deserted. Even death will not separate us in the end. But—
John never wants us to just read the surface story. The depth in John, the life in John; the secret, is below the surface. This reading is not about geographical places and literal houses in heaven. It is better.
“A house in heaven” is a description of the love of God that John is talking about. But John is saying the love of God is much, much more. The love of God is now. We are members of the house of God now. We are living in the house of God now. We don’t have to wait for heaven. We know God now. We can see God now. We can know it is true now. All we have to do is look at Jesus. If we have seen Jesus we have seen the father.
And a voice up the back says, “Oh, you mean your invisible friend Jesus again?”
Well, here’s my witness. I’ll say, “Yeah him. But he’s not invisible. He’s real. He is embodied in the church, and I also meet him in the words of the Bible.”
You see, the invisible friend thing doesn’t worry me anymore. The deep hunger for God has stopped aching in my gut. I’m no longer desperate. I’m not feeling like I’m pretending about God anymore. The invisible friend is real. It’s like when I read an email from Janet. She is real. I don’t wonder if it’s a hacker having a lend of me. She’s real.
I am at peace.
So, you want to know the Way to God? You want the Truth? Are you looking for the Life? Jesus really is the answer. Join the household of God, hang in there, and in my experience, you will meet God. You might not use the same words, or the same images, that I use— or have the same experiences. But you will meet God.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.