I love a good story, don’t you? I guess everybody does. That’s why I am captivated by the gospels. The story of Jesus is such a good story. It is slightly different in each of the gospels, and each one has its own special charm. People so often read those stories and never think of them as such, as a story. Whether or not you believe what is written there or not, it is still a great story.
I seldom meet people who look at what is written in the gospels as a story. People are usually too busy taking everything written there as sacred text and as such, seem afraid to enjoy it, as if enjoying something sacred were some type of sin. Most people I know have never actually read the story. They’ve heard bits and pieces of it in church, one paragraph at a time. And when they hear it in church, they almost never get it in sequence. They hear one little bit and then another, first from one book and then another. And they are encouraged to stop and ponder every bit of it to death before proceeding on to the next bit. Could you imagine reading a novel that way, one paragraph at a time? You’d never get through it, and what is worse, you’d never understand it. The story would be too disjointed.
The characters in the story of Jesus have, thanks to two thousand years of tradition and churchiness, been all turned into charicatures, I’m afraid. There is the evil, evil Judas, the betrayer. There is Peter, the rock, the staunch defender of the faith. And there is good old doubting Thomas. And then the truth is, most people don’t know any of the others. They may know there’s a couple of Johns and then there’s that tax collector guy. But most folks don’t really know the story. And yet, they’ve decided it isn’t true. That always strikes me as strange. Can you imagine a court of law in which the accused never gets to tell his story, yet the jury can find them guilty? Oh yeah, that's Guantanamo, isn’t it? Well, besides in the Trump administration, can you imagine such a travesty of justice?
For the longest time, The Roman Catholic Church, of which I am a member, discouraged people from reading The Bible. Indeed, that has always been one of the chief complaints about the Roman Church by the Protestant churches. The Catholic leadership has always claimed that the reason she discouraged people from reading the Bible is that, without guidance, there is the danger of misinterpretation. In other words, you might read the Bible and think it says something it doesn’t and then go out and do something stupid.
There’s a certain sense to that. It is said that a man with one watch knows what time it is, a man with two is never certain. Once upon a time there was one Christian church and everybody seemed to know what God expected and how to follow the teachings of Christ. Then came the Martin Luther and the reformation and that Bible reading, and now there are more Christian churches than you can shake a stick at if that’s your idea of a good time. Thanks to that reformation, the Bible has been used to justify the most horrible actions, and that is a shame.
Of course, the Reformation happened for a reason. The Roman church had become so corrupt and debased, that there was no reason for anybody to listen to the message. The church in the 16th century was anything but loving, at least not in the sense that Jesus had intended. It should be remembered that Jesus wanted his followers to take the good news of the gospel to all the world. And, it seems to me, that would mean allowing people to read the gospels. Still, the written works of the early church fathers have been misinterpreted time and time again, sometimes to justify doing things Jesus would never have approved of. The portion I plan to share this week is one such selection.
As I say, the story of Jesus should first be taken as just that, a story. And when we read that story, we need to put flesh and blood on those characters. Truthfully, one of the things I love about the gospel story is how thoroughly human all the characters, including Jesus, are. You never find that in the other holy books of the world. The Tao Te Ching, the Sutras, the Gitas, the Koran, are all beautiful. They bring peace, understanding, faith, and enlightenment. But they don’t tell a story, not in the way the gospels do. That is one of the chief differences of Christianity. In Taoism, there is no central human. And Siddartha, the Buddha, is not significant in the philosophy of Buddhism. Mohammed is important only as a prophet of Allah. But the story of Jesus is central to faith of Christianity. His life is as important as his message. His life WAS his message.
After three years of walking all around Palestine, Jesus returned to Jerusalem for what he knew would be the last time. He knew he was pushing the temple leaders over the line and that they would have to stop him soon. How much he knew may be argued, but any leader with the qualities Jesus possessed would surely have to know that the leadership could not tolerate much more of his preaching. He endangered the established structure of the temple. So, perhaps having a premonition of his impending arrest, perhaps even arranging for it himself, he had one last dinner with his friends, the Passover Seder, which we all call the Last Supper. You know, the painting by Davinci? Of course that painting is pretty far from the historical reality.
Jesus and his friends all got together in an upper room in Jerusalem. His friends were an interesting lot. There were some fishermen, a tax collector, and a former revolutionary—all common people, not terribly well educated or terribly familiar with the scriptures. Most people think of them as following Jesus around everywhere he went for three years, but that isn’t really so. These guys had jobs and families. They would follow Jesus and listen to his teachings, and then they would go back home and work for a while. Then they would join up again for a bit. They had, no doubt, celebrated the Passover with Jesus before. To them, this was just one more Passover Seder. But Jesus did something different during this dinner.
After they had eaten and performed the necessary rituals of the seder, Jesus got up, took off his outer robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and then proceeded to wash the feet of his students, drying them with the towel. Can you imagine being there? I’m sure those guys thought Jesus was nuts. Moreover, something incomprehensible to us would be their reaction to such an action. You see, the washing of feet in first century Judea was such a lowly task that not even a slave could be required to perform it. You washed your own feet. It was considered horrible insulting to ask anyone to wash them for you. And yet, here was this guy they all looked up to, this teacher they loved and admired, washing their feet, something even a slave could refuse to do. He then told them that as they considered him their master, so they should be willing to serve one another in like manner.
He then spoke to them about many things. He tried to explain to them the significance of the foot washing. And he told them that some things were about to happen that would rock their world. He even told them that one of them would soon betray him to the authorities. Of course, they were hurt. They all insisted they would never betray him. Peter swore he would rather die than betray Jesus. That’s when Jesus told Peter that he would betray him three times before the night was over.
And then Jesus says, “Do not stir up trouble in your heart; put trust in god and put trust in me. In the dwelling of my father there are many dwelling places. Were it not so, would I tell you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, will I not come back and take you along and take you to myself so that where I am, you are also? Where I go, you know the way.”
It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Look, I know you’re going to fuck up. It’s okay. Don’t worry about. Just keep trying. You know what to do.” And then Thomas, wonderful Thomas, good old doubting Thomas, the honest one, the real one, was the one to bring the spiritual Jesus back down to earth, no doubt, when all the other students were telling one another about how fucking profound Jesus’ words were.
Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going or how to be able to find the way.”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except by way of me. If you know me, you know the father, and perceive and understand.
Phillip said, “Lord, show us the father and that will be enough for us.”
And then said Jesus, “So long am I with you, Phillip, and you do not see me and understand, that you say show us the father. Do you not have faith that I am in the father and the father is in me? The words I speak to you, I do not speak on my own, the father in me is doing his works. If you don’t believe I am in the father, then believe in the works themselves. In truth, I tell you, whoever has faith in me will do the works I do, and greater than these, because I go to the father.”
It must have driven Jesus crazy, that even after three years of teaching, and after all the things these guys had seen, they still didn’t get it. As a teacher, I can appreciate that. I have to confess that there have been occasions when I’ve worked with a student to help them understand some (what seems to me) simple concept, and they just don’t get it, no matter how I break it down. And after a while I want to ask, “Does it hurt to be that stupid? Is there pain?” Of course I don’t say that, but I want to. And I suspect there were times when Jesus must have felt that way. I can just hear the frustration in his voice. You’ve been with me all these years and you still say show me the father, Phillip. Are you blind? Does it hurt to be that stupid? You just don’t get it, do you?
Now this particular verse, which is often translated as “In my father’s house, there are many mansions,” was used for centuries to justify the slavery issue in America and segregation, that whole concept of “separate but equal”. If God puts us all into different mansions, then it’s okay for us to segregate people, too. That must be what God wants us to do. But of course, it’s taken out of context. And I’m sure that the truth is that pro-racist ideologues searched the Bible for something that would support their claims of white supremacy. It’s easy to use the Bible for that kind of horseshit.
There is the story about the man who always sought the answers to his problems by looking in the Bible. He would close his eyes, open the bible at random, plop his finger down on a page without looking with the hope that God would guide his finger to the very Bible verse that would tell him what to do. One time, beset by a problem, he followed his usual ritual and his finger came down on the verse “Judas went straight away and hanged himself.” Well, he knew this had to be a mistake, so he did it again. This time his finger landed on this verse: “Go thou and do likewise.” He told himself that this must again be some error, so he performed the ritual again. This time it landed on, “What thou doest, doest quickly.”
So what is the message of this particular passage? It is what it says it is. It is Jesus talking to his friends about what is going to happen and telling them not to worry. The message for us is the same as it has been for the entire book, have faith. Don’t worry. It’s all going to be okay. And I would point out that while Jesus does say here that he is the way, he also says, look if you don’t believe in me, then believe in the works. In other words, he tells us all to believe in him and in God. But, if you don’t believe, that’s okay. Then believe in his works. He says that if we believe, we will do greater works than those Jesus performed. Some fundamentalists take that to mean that true believers will be able to perform miracles of some kind. But Jesus’ work wasn’t to perform signs and wonders. His works were more important than that. So what were his works?
Jesus’ work was to teach, and serve, to comfort and to heal. He told his followers to wash each other’s feet. Jesus taught us that we become one with the divine when we love one another. He taught us not to judge one another and to share. He tells us to love one another. Those are the works of Christ. And if you believe, that’s what you’ll do. So the message is really simple. Believe. If you cannot bring yourself to believe in Christ, then believe in love. But believe.