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Worship and Sermons
May 17, 2017

 

“Greater Works than Jesus?” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / Easter 5 - Acts 7:55-60  •  Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16  •  1 Peter 2:2-10  •  John 14:1-14

THEME:  Jesus inspires and empowers our acts of discipleship. 

 

          Do you believe you have the power to change the world? 

          You might be thinking to yourself, “Who – me?  What a ridiculous question!”  But I’m going to ask you again in about 12 minutes – and let’s see what you think then.

          This is, in fact, the very thing that Jesus is asking his disciples to do in our gospel text.

          First, a little context is in order.  The disciples are feeling decidedly disoriented, deserted.  They’re sitting at the dinner table with Jesus celebrating the Passover.  During the course of the meal, Jesus has dropped one bombshell after another.

          First, he told them he’s leaving them – he’s going away.  Then, he’s told them they cannot come where he’s going, at least for now.  What does that mean, they wonder?  Where is he going?

          Then he predicts Peter’s betrayal – and that’s simply unthinkable for them.  After all, Peter is their leader.  If Peter himself will deny Jesus, what will become of them?  How can any of them remain firm when Jesus is gone?

          This is a crisis of leadership.  Who will lead them? 


          But that’s not what’s happening at all.  They don’t need to find new leadership.  In fact, Jesus is trying to help them understand that he’ll always be with them. 

          Yes, he’s going to prepare the way for them in heaven.  He’ll be their advocate with God, preparing the place where they’ll eventually go.

          But that doesn’t mean he isn’t available to them in the meantime.  He’ll be with them in the teaching he’s given them.  He’ll be with them in their love for one another, and in their community of faith. 

          And because he’s with them, God is with them, too.  That’s what Jesus means when he says “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

          The point is that in Jesus, God is so fully present that knowing him is to know God.  They’re not identical, but they’re so united and intertwined that seeing one is as good as seeing the other.   

          As Frederick Bruner, one of my favorite contemporary theologians, puts it, Jesus is saying “I am the Way there; I am the Truth that will lead you on the Way there; and I am the Life that will give you the power to follow the Truth on the Way there.”  In other words, in their ongoing journey of discipleship, Jesus is not only the path to God, but also the guide and the inspiration to follow it.

          The proof is what he’s done – or more accurately, what God has done, through him.  God wants to work through the disciples the same way.

          Jesus promises them if they ask for anything in his name, he will empower them to do it. 

But does he really mean anything?

          Apparently so, because in the very next breath he promises they’ll do even greater things than he has done. Talk about a bombshell. 

          At this point, we have to stop and say, “Wait a minute.  How can the disciples do greater things than Jesus?”

          So far in John’s gospel, Jesus has turned water into wine, converted Samaritans, healed life-long illnesses, restored a blind man’s sight, multiplied loaves, walked on water and raised a dead man back to life.  The disciples are no doubt thinking to themselves, how can we possible do greater works than these?!

          That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with this week.  It seems to me that what Jesus has in mind here is not so much the kind of works the disciples will perform, but the scope of their works – the extent of their ministry. 

          His own ministry was confined to an 80-mile stretch between The Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem. His disciples, however, will carry that ministry from Jerusalem to the limits of the Mediterranean world - within one generation.  Peter’s Pentecost sermon alone will convince 3,000 people to trust in Christ. 

          Within 500 years, Christian disciples will spread the faith into Europe and Asia.  Now, after two millennia, followers of Jesus have reached people on every continent, to the ends of the earth.

          The number of lives Jesus directly impacted was maybe two hundred people.  His disciples (and their followers) would eventually impact the lives of two billion people – and counting.

          What Jesus is doing here is challenging his disciples to trust him.  That challenge didn’t end with the first group of disciples.  It’s new to each and every generation of believers. 

          That means he’s challenging you and me, too.  God wants to work through us just as he did through the first disciples.

          But, like them, we have the nagging sense that whatever we do can’t compare to what they did.  So, how then are you and I to be faithful disciples?

          The answer lies in gaining a better understanding of how lives are transformed and how cultures are changed.  As often happens, Hollywood helps us picture these things.

          One of my all time favorite movies is called “Pay It Forward”.  It’s the story of a junior high social studies teacher who gives his class an unusual assignment.  He asks them to think of an idea to change the world for the better, and then put it into action.

          All sorts of hair-brained ideas are proposed, but one stands out.  A young man named Trevor proposes a plan for repaying favors by "paying them forward".   The idea is to find three people you can help by doing something for them that they can’t do for themselves.  Then, each of those three helps three others, and so on and so on until the effect is multiplied. 

          When words gets out that this plan is being implemented, it creates an unprecedented wave of human kindness.  It transforms Trevor’s life, the lives of his mother and his teacher, and an ever-widening circle of complete strangers.

          This movie gives us the perfect illustration of a real-life principle that business leaders and management consultants are just now discovering.  When you want to change employee behavior and organizational culture, you don’t do it by attacking the corporate culture broadside.

          You transform culture by initiating new processes and new structures.  You push decision-making down to the lowest levels where there’s direct person-to-person contact with customers.  The culture evolves as individuals become empowered and engaged in the new process.

          Do you remember the public relations fiasco at United Airlines when one of their passengers was dragged off of an overbooked flight a month or two ago?  I got a letter from United Airlines week before last.  They’re doing exactly what I’ve described, empowering their ground-level employees to do what’s right for passengers.  That’s how they’re transforming their culture.

          That’s also what young Trevor did in the movie.  And it’s exactly what Jesus is doing with his disciples.  

          He’s assuring them that, even if he’s not physically with them, his presence is real.  And that means that God’s with them too, empowering and guiding them to perform acts of discipleship wherever they are, person-to-person – one individual to another.

          Friends, that’s what Jesus is calling you and me to do, as well. 

          The way to transform the world we live in, to make it look more like God’s Kingdom, is not with a frontal assault on the culture.  The way to do it is through little acts of individual kindness, performed day-to-day.  

          Maybe it starts with our spouse, or our parents or children.  All it takes is a word of encouragement and loving support, a word of forgiveness – a word of praise.

          Then it carries over into wherever we spend our days.  What might happen, for example, if we approached someone with whom we work or volunteer and who’s having a hard time, and offered them help?   Or simply showed interest by really listening to them? 

          What if they did the same to three other people, and those three did the same?  It wouldn’t be very long before larger changes happened in the name of Jesus Christ.

          It’s been said that the best definition of kindness is ‘love in action.’  And these daily acts of kindness are precisely that:  little acts of love.

          They communicate in powerful ways that go beyond words.  Mark Twain said, “kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”  These little kindnesses communicate through the universal medium of love.  They reach from one heart to another, no translation required.

          Love is contagious. Few things travel faster than love.  It spreads like a pandemic; it knows no boundaries of geography, race or religion.  

          That’s the wisdom Jesus brings. It’s why he wants his disciples to trust in him.  If they do, they’ll perform these works of love, which will spread like wildfire.  That’s the only way the world will change.

          We began with a question.  But, in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the right one. 

          So now let me ask you a better question, “Do you believe Jesus can change the world through you?”

          Even if it seemed far-fetched when you first considered this a few moments ago, I hope it doesn’t seem that way now. 

          We can all do those little acts of kindness that whisper, one heart to another, “I love you and God does, too.  Pass it on.”

 

          May it be so.

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:26 AM
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