The Hardest Question

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

If you could only ask God one question, what would it be? Perhaps more importantly, if the people in your congregation could only ask God one question, what would it be? If you’re curious, this might be a good weekend to ask and find out!

Questions, of course, are an essential ingredient of everyday conversation. They serve as invitations to dialogue and opportunities for further learning. Little wonder, then, that questions sit at the center of John’s Gospel. At the outset of the story, Andrew asks Jesus where he’s staying. Shortly thereafter, Nicodemus inquires how a grown man can climb back into his mother’s womb, and the Samaritan women wants to know where she can get this living water Jesus is talking about. And on it goes, as Peter, Pilate and all kinds of others all ask Jesus questions that give him, in turn, a chance to teach more deeply the truth he has come to reveal.

Of all the questions in John’s Gospel, however, the ones asked in this Sunday’s gospel reading may just be the hardest to answer. Certainly they are among the most embarrassing.

Maybe I should explain.

At this point in the story, it’s Thursday evening, the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. In John’s account, Jesus not only knows that he will soon leave this world but also tries to prepare his disciples for the events about to transpire. In fact, after the last supper he shares with his friends, Jesus spends the next four chapters of John’s Gospel talking about his imminent departure, and these verses come right at the beginning of that long and dramatic scene. A few moments earlier Jesus told them that one of them would soon betray him, and now he’s just told Peter that he will deny him three times. It’s in this context that Jesus says, as we just heard, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

“What?” The disciples must have asked. “Do not let our hearts be troubled? Are you kidding us? You’ve just told us you’re going to die.” No doubt most of us can intuitively understand what they’re going through, because each of us has had those moments, too, when our hearts were not only deeply troubled, but downright disturbed, even anguished. Yet Jesus asks his disciples not just to believe in him but to trust him, to commit their futures to him.

Then, before you know it, he moves on, talking about going away, preparing places, and coming back. As if to add insult to injury, he implies that they should know what’s he talking about; he actually says that they know the way to follow. To which Thomas — brave, realistic Thomas — asks another of those questions, “But, Jesus, actually, we don’t even know where you’re going, how then can we know the way.” And when Jesus says he is the way, and asks again that they trust him, Philip can stand it no longer and asks the one question no faithful Jew should ever ask. Actually, it’s a statement, a request, a plea, maybe even a demand, but underneath it all is a question: “Show us the Father,” Philip says, “and we will be satisfied.” Or, to put it more directly, “What does God look like?”

John doesn’t record this, but I suspect there’s a bit of a collective gasp on the part of the other disciples when Philip asks this hard question. In ancient Israel, you see, it was simply understood that no one can see God and live. Moses, the model of heroic faith in the Old Testament, once made a similar request, and God put him face-forward in the cleft of a mountain and passed by and all Moses could see was the glory of the Lord shimmering around him. He was finally allowed to turn around and look only after God has passed by, so that Moses ultimately saw only the trail of the Lord’s glory or, more literally in the Hebrew, Moses could only see God’s backside.

God is too much, you see, for us to bear — too holy, too powerful, too infinite, too full of potential and life and the future for any mere mortal to behold and live. And yet Philip asks to see God anyway. “If you want us to trust you, Jesus, just show us the Father.” That is, “What does God look like?”

It’s an audacious, even inappropriate question, but again I suspect we can understand where it came from. Because each of has been there, too: at our wits end, desperate for some hope that things will get better, for some reason to believe that this tragedy is not all there is. Maybe it was when the doctor told you that the cancer had returned. Or when a loved one died unexpectedly. Or when the stewardship appeal went sour. Or when you discovered your beloved has left. Or after one more miscarriage, or when the Twin Towers fell, or the flood waters rose, or…or….

Each of us, you see, has also had moments where we wanted some reassurance, some glimmer of hope, that all that we had heard and learned about God is not just some false story but true. “Just show us the Father,” we plea, “and we will be satisfied.”

To which Jesus responds, not in frustration but in love, both to Philip and to us, “Have I been with you all this time and yet still you don’t know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the father!”

Which takes us back to the very beginning of John’s gospel actually, when John, after singing his hymn about the Word that was from the beginning, the Word that is with God and is God, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us that we might have life…. After all this, John closes his hymn to the Word by saying, “No one has seen God. But the only begotten Son, who rests in the very bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”

And there it is — the two truths of the life of faith. First, no one has seen God. And that’s hard, sometimes crushingly hard, to believe, to trust, to keep faith in and with a God no one can see. And yet the second truth: Jesus, the Son, the Word made flesh, if you’ve seen him you have seen God and so know what God looks like and, more importantly, what God is up to and who God is for.

Keep in mind that in the story John tells we are on the eve of the crucifixion. Jesus is about to be betrayed, abandoned, handed over, tried, insulted, beaten, and then crucified, nailed to a cross and hung there to die. Why? To appease the righteous anger of a just God? To set for us some kind of example of what real faith looks like? To take the just punishment we deserve? No. Jesus goes to the cross for one reason and one reason only: to show us God, to show us God’s grace and mercy, to show just how much God loves us and how far God will go to communicate that love to us that we might believe and, believing, have life in his name.

So tell your people to bring their questions, even their hardest, to the God Jesus makes known. For this God can handle them; indeed, this God wants them. And then go on to tell them that when they are next their wits end, when their hearts are troubled and blood pressure is racing with anxiety — remind them to look to Jesus, the one who preached God’s mercy and taught God’s love, the one who healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, made the lame to walk, and then conquered death so that even the grave can no longer claim us. Because what you see in Jesus…, this is what God looks like, this is who and what God is: love, perfect love, for you, for them, for all of us and the whole world.

Blessings on your ministry, Working Preach. What you do matters, and I am so grateful to God for your fidelity in sharing this good news with us.

Yours in Christ,