“The Courage To Ask”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 14, 2017: Easter Five
Acts 7:54-8:3 & John 14:1-14
If you could ask God one question, what would it be? As for me, I would ask a question about God instead of a question of God. I have always wondered what God looks like. From most cinematic depictions, God is a white man, sometimes with a beard and sometimes not, who dresses in togas, sits on a gold or bronze throne, and has a booming voice like my third grade teachers, Mr. Thomas.
The trouble with this is that the Bible is pretty quiet when it comes to descriptions of God’s physical attributes. The Bible is much more fond of abstract descriptions of God: rock, fortress, pillar of fire, cloud of smoke—nothing about hair color, eye color, gender, tone of voice, preference in clothing. All of the physical depictions of God in movies and TV shows and in artwork are really just educated guesses, so I still wonder what God looks like. One day, as our faith promises, I’ll find out. Until then, I’ll just have to keep wondering.
Questions, and the way they make us wonder and imagine, are an essential ingredient of life. When we ask questions of ourselves, we enter into a journey of finding out who and what we are. When we ask questions of others, they serve as invitations to dialogue and they provide opportunities for further learning. When we ask questions say, of the Bible, we open ourselves to the element of surprise: about what God is saying, about what God is doing, about our place in the narrative of salvation. Questions are a part of who we are, literally—humans have the largest cerebral cortex of all mammals, relative to our size, which is the area of the brain responsible for reasoning, thought, questioning. Without questions, where would we be in medicine and physics, biology and philosophy, politics and ethics?
Unfortunately, the church has not always been a welcoming place for questions or those that ask them. The most famous example of this is probably the persecution and judgment of Galileo by the church in the early 1600’s. Galileo ran up against the powers of the church when he suggested that the Earth revolved around the Sun. This contradicted the widely held belief that the Earth was the center of the universe. The church took hold of the belief that the Earth was at the center of all things because it was a way to assert both the dominance of God and the dominance of human beings. If it turned out that the Earth was just another planet revolving around a much bigger, much more powerful body—like the sun—then the church would have to admit that there was much more to the universe than they thought. The church never likes to admit that it is wrong, and it especially does not like to be proven wrong. In 1633 a panel of religious experts condemned Galileo, excommunicated him from the church, and banned his research from publication. The church did not put Galileo to death for asking questions, but the church did hold him under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
Maybe questions were banned, or at least frowned upon, after the incident with Galileo. Maybe questions were banned from the church when the church started facing challenges on matters of science and biology. Maybe the church has always been allergic to questions. It is hard to say. What I want you to hear today, though, is this: in this place, in this tradition we call Presbyterianism, in this faith we call Christianity, questions are welcome and encouraged. And when we have the courage to ask, we are in good company.
Questions form the heart of the Gospel of John. At the very beginning, Andrew the disciple asks Jesus where he is staying. Nicodemus, a religious leader, asks Jesus how a grown man can climb back into his mother’s womb to be born again. The Samaritan woman wants to know where she can get this living water Jesus is talking about. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” and Jesus himself asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Each question that Jesus answers, and each question he asks, gives him a chance to teach more deeply the truth he has come to reveal.
Of all the questions in John’s gospel, however, the questions asked by Philip and Thomas in today’s reading may just be the hardest to answer. Certainly they are among the most embarrassing and took the most courage to ask.
At this point in the story it is Thursday evening, the night before Christ’s trial and execution. In the day’s leading up the meal in the upper room, Jesus has tried to help the disciples understand what lies ahead. He has told them over and over he will handed over to sinners and put to death; he has told them over and over that he will soon leave them and this world. During his last meal with friends, Jesus gives a lengthy speech about his imminent departure, starting with the words we read today. A few moments earlier Jesus told his friends that one of them would soon betray him and poor Peter was still reeling from how Jesus said he would deny him three times. It is into this context that Jesus speaks today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
And the disciples must have been blown away. “What? Do not let our hearts be troubled? Are you serious? Are you kidding us? You’ve just told us that you’re going to die.” No doubt most of us can understand what they were going through in that moment. Each of us has had those moments, too. They are those moments when our hearts are not only deeply troubled, but downright disturbed, and even anguished. Their friend, their master, their teacher has just announced his death and he has no plans to fight back. Their friend, their master, their teacher has just told them that he is going to endure a horrible death. Their friend, their master, their teacher, their Lord has just said that in a few short hours the road ends. Yet, Jesus asks his disciples to not only believe in him, but to also 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, Jesus implies that the disciples should know what he talking about; he actually says that they know the way to follow. To which Thomas—brave, realistic Thomas—asks a question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answers Thomas by saying that he is the way, and asks again that they trust in him. At this point Philip can stand it no longer. Philips comes forward and asks the one question no faithful Jewish person should ever ask. Actually, it’s a statement, a request, a plea, maybe even a demand, but underneath it is 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?”
There must have been a collective gasp throughout the room when Philip asks this hard question. In ancient Israel, 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. God put him face-forward into the cleft of rock and passed by and all Moses could see was the glory of the Lord shimmering around him. Moses was finally allowed to turn and look only after God has passed by, so that Moses ultimately only saw the trail of the Lord’s glory. More literally, 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 see and live. And yet Philip has the courage to ask to see God anyway. “If you want us to trust you, Jesus, just show us the Father.” That is what Philip asks for. It is an audacious, even inappropriate question, but let’s be honest with ourselves: we have asked for something similar. Each of us has been there, at our wits end, desperate for some hope that things will get better, for some reason to believe that this tragedy or this pain is not all there is. Maybe it was when you were told that the disease will ultimately take your life; maybe it was when a loved one died unexpectedly. Maybe it was when you lost your job or your finances hit rock-bottom or when someone you loved dearly left you for someone else. Maybe it was after your dreams of a being a parent were shattered or when the Twin Towers fells or when the flood waters rose. Maybe it was nothing tragic, just a loss of faith and direction.
Each of us has had moments like Philip. Each of us has had those moment where all we wanted was some reassurance, some glimmer of hope, some sign that everything we have heard and learned about God is true. In those moments we have joined the company of Thomas and Philip is saying to Jesus, “Just show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
Christ’s response, to Thomas and Philip and you and me, surprisingly is not what we might expect when asking tough questions. Instead of frustration, Christ responds in love, to Thomas and Philip and you and me. Jesus answers with a question of his own: “Have I been with you all this time and yet you don’t know me?” The answer follows quickly after: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father!”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, this takes us right back to the very beginning of the Gospel of John where John sings this hymn about the Word. John sings that the Word was in it from the beginning. The Word was with God from the beginning, that Word is God, and that Word became flesh and bone and breathed the air we breath so that we might have life. After singing all this, John closes his hymn to the Word by saying, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In other words, God holds Jesus so tightly in God’s bosom that if we ever want to see God, we must simply look at Jesus.
There are two truths of the life of faith here. 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 is this: Jesus, the Son, the Word made flesh…if you have ever seen him, seen his love change a life, seen his hands and feet change the world, seen his table set with enough food for everyone, you have seen God. If you have ever had an encounter with Jesus Christ, you know what God looks like and, most importantly, you know what God is up to and who God is for.
Keep in mind that in the story John tells, it is the eve of the crucifixion. Jesus is about to be betrayed, abandoned, handed over, tried, insulted, beaten, and the crucified, nailed to a cross and hung there to die. Why? To appease the righteous anger of God? To set for us some kind of example of what real faith looks like? To take the punishment we deserved? 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 is willing to God to communicate that love. Jesus goes to the cross so that we might see our God, and in seeing, believe and have life.
So my friends, bring your questions, even the hardest you can imagine. Bring your questions to Jesus, to the God who is made known to us in Jesus. You will never be turned away: you will never be judged or condemned; you will never be thought of as weak or silly or faithless. God can handle them. Philip and Thomas had the courage to ask, and Jesus showed them that God desires our questions, God yearns for our questions, God looks with love on our questions. When we ask, when we turn to Jesus in our most perplexed moments, God’s heart is revealed to us and it is full of mercy and love for each one of us. When you are just about to your wits end, when your heart is troubled and your blood pressure is off the charts, turn to Jesus Christ. When you can't think of a way through; when the night closes in on you without any sign of light; when the pain is too much to bear, when you can find no peace, when you are grasping for hope, for light, for peace, for anything, turn to Jesus Christ. He will show you the Father, and you will be satisfied.
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will he opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Ask, search, knock. Do not be afraid to ask questions, people of God, or of the questions themselves. Ask, search, knock. You will receive. You will find. The door will be opened. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous if our eyes. Amen.
Portions of David Lose's sermon "The Hardest Question" are quoted here.