Greater Works

As I’m sure I’ve said before, one of my primary goals early in a preaching week is to try to figure out what question/concern/issue I think the average person in the pew will want me to address.  Some weeks the answer to this question is outside of my control: Sandy Hook, the Haiti earthquake, the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  Some weeks I never can figure it out because the lesson is so full of oddities or I’m so immersed in churchyness that I can’t see the forest for the trees.  This week, however, the answer seems clearly divided between one of two distinct possibilities.  One possibility is that Jane Schmoe is going to hear Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” and want some serious explanation (or they read yesterday’s post and think I’m a heretic).  The other likely point of controversy is Jesus’ response to Philip where he says, “Very 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Greater works than [mine].

Ask anything.

I will do it.

This is a bit of a sticky wicket.  All of us know of someone who has died.  It is safe to assume that someone has prayed for the vast majority of those people, and often those prayers were done “in Jesus’ name.”  The truth of the matter is those people died anyway.  Equally true is that the overwhelming majority of Christians have not turned water into 12 year old scotch or raised a dozen people from the dead or healed hundreds from various diseases or fed 10,000 with 2.5 loaves of bread and 1 fish.  Hearing Jesus make such bold claims, right at the end of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, will most likely raise some questions in the minds of those who are actually paying attention.  I know it does for me.

So, what are we to do with this?

I wrote that question at 2:46pm.   It is now 3:00 and I still don’t know.  I’ve Googled “Greater Works” and found thousands of churches and parachurch ministries utilizing this phrase of Jesus to mean any number of things.  I’ve read a devotional by the famous Oswald Chambers which didn’t really satisfy me.

I keep coming back to the thought that what I think Jesus means by “works” is different than what Jesus really meant, and it hinges on this line, “the Father who dwells in me does his works.”  The work of the Father is the work of creation.  The work of the Father through Jesus is the work of redemption.  The same work that God continues to do through the Church as the Body of Christ.  As disciples we are called to work to bring about the restoration of unity between humanity and God and people with each other (BCP, 855, The Mission of the Church).  The greater works we do are works of sharing the Good News, caring for the stranger, loving the unlovable, and encouraging the downtrodden.  Sometimes that means miracles on par with the Seven Signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel will happen, but more often, it is the miracle of light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair, or joy in the sadness that is the fruit of our work.

God Equips the Called – a sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read it below.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this week thinking about the year 2008.  Friday marked the sixth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, which occurred on a nasty January weekend in 2008.  As I reflected on the six years that have passed, I was reminded, more than a few times, of just how much I’ve learned doing this thing called “full-time, ordained ministry” day in and day out.  I remembered, in particular, another weekend in 2008, this time in November, when I flew off to everybody’s favorite vacation destination, Oklahoma City, for a conference called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent.”  It really was a great conference, filled with alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the greatest minds in the Emerging Church, and good fellowship with a some of people with whom I’m still in touch.  Yet, for all the good that the weekend had to offer, I still remember vividly the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

There I was, twenty-eight years old, not even a year-old priest, still trying to figure out life in Lower Alabama, mixing it up with some of the most imaginative minds in the Church.  It all came to a head sitting in one of the lower level meeting rooms at some Oklahoma City hotel at three o’clock Friday afternoon.  Jonny Baker, the head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England had set up a labyrinth experience like I had never seen before.  There were maybe a dozen prayer stations spread throughout the room complete with running water, working televisions, sand displays, and lighting effects.  As I took in what was happening around me, a little voice crept into my ear and told me, “You’ll never be this imaginative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time.”  As I plodded through the labyrinth, feeling depressed about how I’d never come up with something that engaging, I came to a station where we were invited to, and I’m not kidding, write down our fears on a piece of paper, fold it into an origami boat, and float it down the flowing river that Jonny had built in the middle of the room.  This really happened, I swear.  I knew my fear, it was that I was inadequate, not just to develop some alt.worship opportunity at Saint Paul’s, but for the whole shebang.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write down my fear, when, just a few letters in, the pen dried up.  I looked down in exasperation, and noticed that this wasn’t just any old bic pen, it was a promotional pen that somebody had given away somewhere.  But it didn’t say, “Saint Swithin’s by the Sea” or “Church Pension Group” on it, instead it read, “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.”  I tucked that dead pen in my pocket, and never looked back.

I think that “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called” should be the lens through which we read this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Instead, I think it is most often read through the lens of guilt and inadequacy.  Here’s how the story goes when we read it that way.  Jesus, fresh from his baptism in the River Jordan, complete with doves and voices from heaven, followed by 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, moves to Capernaum by the Sea.  The next day, Jesus was walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when he runs in to two fishermen, Andrew and Simon Peter, who presumably, he’s never met before.  He says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they drop what they’re doing, leave behind steady jobs and family, to follow Jesus wherever he’s headed.  Just a few feet down the beach, their chief competitors, the Zebedee brothers, are mending their nets when Jesus calls out to them.  Not knowing him from Adam, James and John hand their nets to their father and walk off into the sunset with Jesus.  The sermon writes itself, “Would you be willing to give up everything to follow Jesus?  I bet not, and you wanna know why?  Because you are selfish sinners, that’s why.”  Maybe the sermon wouldn’t be that extreme, but you get the idea, like the example of Jesus’ baptism, the calling of Jesus’ first disciples seems so over the top, so impossible a model for us to follow, that it seems useless to even read the story.

Unless.  Unless, we’ve missed some vital details along the way.  Let me tell you the story one more time, this time including some of the details we can reasonably assume based on the Gospel accounts.  After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, he spent some time with his cousin, listening to him preach.  One day, two of John’s disciples, Andrew and presumably John, the son of Zebedee, followed Jesus back to the place where he was staying and spent the day with him.  Convinced that they had found the one they were looking for, the Messiah, both ran off to find their brothers to tell them the Good News.  Andrew returned with his brother, Simon, who Jesus called Cephas, which is translated as Peter.  Eventually, Jesus headed out into the wilderness for the forty day fast that would steel him for the journey ahead, and after he returned, he found out that John had been arrested by Herod.  Realizing this didn’t bode well for him, he decided to set up camp in a small fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, called Capernaum.  Having reconnected with Andrew, Simon, John, and James, the five spent time together as Jesus continued to teach them, to share his story and his vision for the Kingdom of God.  Ultimately, Jesus realized that the time was right for him to begin his ministry of formal preaching and teaching, and he went down to the shoreline, where he knew his friends would be working and called to them saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  They drop what they are doing to join their friend in the ministry that they will share, proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom to the people of Israel. Did you hear the difference?

in the first version, Jesus calls the already equipped, while in the second, he equips the called.  Jesus spent time with his disciples, equipping them for the difficult journey ahead, helping them to understand God’s plan for salvation, preparing them for their work as evangelists, a task to which every disciple is called and for which none of us feels very well equipped.  Of course, evangelism is what this week is all about.  From the Collect to the prophecy of Isaiah to Paul’s appeal to the Church in Corinth and the call stories of Andrew, Peter, James and John: this week’s theme is evangelism.  Now, before you get all hyperventalaty, after all most of us would rather have a root canal then engage in evangelism, remember – God equips the called.

Over the next few weeks, as we slog through the rambling beginning to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, evangelism will come up again and again.  He’ll remind them how he shared the Gospel with them.  He’ll comfort them, and us, that you don’t have to be an expert in rhetoric, homiletics, or theology to tell people about Jesus.  He’ll assure them, and us, in the knowledge that while we might do the talking, God is doing all the work.  He’ll share with them, and us, that the key to evangelism is simply knowing the saving power of Jesus in your own life.  He’ll reassure them, and us, that all we have to do is plant the seed, God will do the watering.

Evangelism is a scary word for those of us who think we aren’t equipped, but if we are paying attention to God’s work in our lives, then we quickly realize that everything God does is equipping us to share the Good News.  Simply put, evangelism is done when one person who knows the power of God in their life is willing to tell someone else about it.  It takes the form of relationships.  It looks a lot like conversations over coffee or lunch because that’s exactly what it is.  Evangelism is as simple as sharing the hope that is in you: the hope that comes through life in the Kingdom of God.  It isn’t elaborate, it doesn’t need to be painful, but it does need to be genuine and cloaked in prayer.  The Spirit will do the work; all you have to do is tell the story.  God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.  He did it for the hot headed Zebedee brothers, for that blow-hard, Peter, and for his brother Andrew.  He’s done it for me, and he’ll do it for you.  Follow Jesus, and he will make you fishers of people.  Amen.