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Sunday, May 10, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Show Us the Father
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16
My children hate it whenever Greg and I tell them it is time for a family meeting. I understand their rather visceral reaction. Apparently, as they both have pointed out, the only time Greg and I ever use the phrase “family meeting” is when we are going to tell them we are moving. We had a family meeting in Irving, Texas, to let them know we were moving to Black Mountain, North Carolina. And we had a serious family meeting in Black Mountain, North Carolina, to let them know we were moving here to Chicago. Therefore, the phrase “family meeting” tends to make them nervous and cause their stomachs to churn as they try to imagine just what we are about to say that will inevitably upend their world and change their lives again.
In this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus is having a long and rather drawn-out family meeting of his own, gathered in the upper room with his disciples. Immediately before our text for today, we are told that Jesus kicked off the family meeting by washing all of their dusty feet, including the feet of the one he knew would deny him, Peter, as well as the feet of the one he knew would betray him, Judas.
Yet even before the disciples’ feet were dry, before the water was emptied from the basin, maybe even before he unwrapped the now-damp towel from around his waist, Jesus changed gears. He moved from washing their feet to speaking to them about hard things—betrayal, suffering, death. Hard things that would undoubtedly have made his disciples extremely nervous, causing their stomachs to churn, upending their lives. Jesus does not say these hard things quickly so the disciples don’t have to dwell on them. No, he takes his time, using as much detail as he thought the disciples could hear to explain what was going on. But given Thomas’s and Philip’s response in the part of the family meeting we read today, the disciples found all of Jesus’ words very hard to follow and quite difficult to comprehend.
Lutheran Bishop Craig Satterlee describes the scene this way: “The longer Jesus talks, the more the disciples feel evil and death hovering over the evening, waiting to pounce. The longer Jesus talks, the harder and harder it becomes to follow, let alone trust, all that Jesus is saying. Philip reaches his breaking point and, in light of the lofty claims that Jesus is making, asks a simple request—‘Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’” (Craig Satterlee, commentary on John 10–21, Feasting on the Gospels).
Now before we move on, I need to admit that until this week I have never really thought much about Philip’s role in the family meeting. But I should have, because in the Gospel of John, Philip is one of the major characters. He shows up in the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and is the third person to become a disciple. He is the first one to invite another person, Nathanael, to come and follow as well. Clearly Philip has some holy imagination for who Jesus is and for what is possible when one takes seriously Jesus’ claims about God and the realm of God.
But Philip also has a rather practical side to him as well. When Jesus asked Philip how they could get enough bread to feed the five thousand people who had flocked to hear Jesus preach, Philip responded there was no way they would ever be able to do such a thing. He makes that declaration right before Jesus does exactly that. I mention this particular exchange because it illustrates the fact that despite Philip’s initial willingness to tap into holy imagination, at various other moments in his discipleship Philip demonstrates a lack of insight or vision. I can relate to that.
But in this part of the family meeting, following the foot-washing, what Philip demonstrates the most is a lack of patience. After all, he had listened carefully to Jesus as Jesus told the hard truth about what was going to happen to him. And Philip had also heard the promises of what Jesus declared would come to pass because of all that was going to happen to him. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” But despite hearing these words of challenge and promise, Philip seems to grow increasingly weary, if not fed-up, with all of Jesus’ preacher words and really just wants one thing: to see and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present with them and active in the world. “Show us the face of God, Jesus, that’s all we want,” he pleads.
Again, Craig Satterlee: “We can relate [to Philip’s request]. Confronted by the powers of violence and death, we [also] need more than words that are hard to follow and harder still to trust, even if those words come from Jesus. Finding it difficult not to let our hearts be troubled, we ask ‘Where is God? What is God like? What, if anything, is God doing?’” (Satterlee, Feasting on the Gospels). Those three questions are our way of articulating what Philip demanded of Jesus during their long, stressful family meeting.
Frankly, those questions, our version of “Show us the Father,” feel rather poignant to me today. In the grip of COVID-19 here in Chicago, I wrestle with those questions on a regular basis as the bodies continue to pile up; the testing continues to run short; the grief continues to deepen; and partisan polarization and anger continue to ramp up and make even a global pandemic into a divisive, political “issue.” Where is God? What is God like? What, if anything, is God doing? “Show us the Father, Jesus, and we will be satisfied.” I know those questions are on many of your lips too. You tell me in emails and phone calls.
I also wrestle with these questions in light of the horrific killing that just made the news of another young African American man. His name was Ahmaud Arbery, and he was shot back in February by a white father and son as he was out for a jog not too far from his home in south Georgia. As this story hit the news this week, I have listened to my black and brown friends and church members express their anger, their lamentation, their absolute exhaustion from never feeling like they or their children will ever be able to safely and fully live.
I have heard their anger, their lamentation, their absolute exhaustion over the truth that in our country they are still not treated as valuable in the same way I or my white children are. And I lament with them. I find myself growing angry along with them. The depravity of our culture of white supremacy continues to put the lives of black and brown people at risk often for simply living their lives in public, doing things that I would never think twice about doing—jogging, shopping, driving, walking home, cooking out, checking out a house under construction, etc.
In light of that, I have been wondering if any of my friends, if any of you, find Philip’s demand of Jesus on their, on your, lips: “Show us the Father, Jesus, that is all we want. Where is God in any of this? What, if anything, is God doing?” Yet in this case, other questions must also be asked, questions like “What, if anything, are those of us who are white doing? Where are we in any of this? Why do we still allow this to happen, either by our action or inaction, our outright assent or our complicity in silence, knowing it is not of God?”
Yes, we might understand Philip’s impatience with Jesus on that night, some of us more than others. During these seasons of life when “death and evil rage unexpectedly and uncontrollably,” some of us might be growing increasingly weary of feeling like we only hear more preacher words, even from Jesus. We, like Philip, want to know what God is doing in the middle of all the chaos and where God is. Show us the Father, Jesus, and we will be satisfied.
But Philip was not the only one who expressed impatience during that part of the family meeting. Jesus responded to Philip’s question in kind. “Have I been right here with you, Philip, all this time and you still make that request? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Unlike when Jesus responded to Thomas’s question with the plural “you,” Jesus’ frustration gets personal with Philip as he addresses him specifically.
“How can you ask me to show you the Father’s face when you, Philip, see God’s face all the time? You, Philip, are looking at it in flesh and blood right now. These preacher words that you are tired of hearing, Philip, these very words come from the one I call Father. Are you still not able to trust this is true? But if that is how you feel, like you can’t trust my words, then at least trust what you have seen me do.”
The Gospel writer John does not record any verbal response from Philip. We simply listen as Jesus moves on with the family meeting to cover other things. But even if Philip did not respond out loud, surely he responded internally. Jesus’ challenge back must have prompted him to indeed remember all he had seen Jesus do. For Philip had seen so much. He watched as Jesus healed the sick; ate with those called sinners; fed people who were hungry; raised Lazarus from the dead; resisted responding to violence with violence; welcomed into his community anyone and everyone drawn to follow; and that very night, even though Philip did not yet fully understand why, he watched as Jesus embodied the posture of a servant and washed their feet.
Philip had witnessed all of Jesus’ works and knew how miraculous, how of God, everything Jesus did truly was. And as he sat there while Jesus continued to teach, with those experiences running through his mind, Philip must have also contemplated what a frustrated Jesus had just said directly to him: You have seen me and have seen what I do. That means you have seen the Father, Jesus had stated. Where is God? What is God like? What, if anything, is God doing? Surely Philip realized he had seen the answers to those questions with his own two eyes. But until Jesus challenged him back, he had lost that holy imagination to recognize what he had seen, whom he had seen. Yet given the rest of the story, we also know that even after he had a moment of clarity during that family meeting, he lost it again in the days ahead.
That should not come as a surprise to us. Nurturing one’s connection with holy imagination, with the ability to recognize all the ways in which God is at work, all the ways in which we get to see the face of God, is a lifelong journey, a lifelong task. One day you can look around and see God’s fingerprints everywhere, hear God’s laughter in the joy of another, feel God’s presence in struggle and in celebration. But then on another day you are simply tired of all the preacher words, even Jesus’, and cannot see the holy in anything, cannot hear the holy in anything, and feel more divine absence than presence. That must have been how Philip felt right after Jesus washed his feet only to then tell them he was leaving.
Now I realize we don’t get to claim what Philip could claim. We have not seen the historical Jesus with our own two eyes and personally watched him do works full of miracles and holiness, justice and compassion. And yet we, like Philip, do know the stories. We have read them. We have heard them. And through the power of the Spirit, they dwell in us just as they did in those first disciples, giving us holy imagination. What Jesus said to Philip, therefore, Jesus also says to us. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. And if you find you cannot trust my words, then trust what I do, Jesus says.
Show us the Father and we will be satisfied, Philip demands. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father, Jesus responds. Where is God in the middle of a pandemic? Trusting what we have seen Jesus do, I would say God is in the hands and minds of the healers—the medical teams, the scientists, the hospital chaplains, all determined to do whatever they can to make people well and, if that is not possible, to care for them into their death. Where is God in the middle of a pandemic? Trusting what we have seen Jesus do, I would say God is in the tears of all who grieve loss of life and loss of livelihoods, the loss of community and loss of routine. Where is God in the middle of a pandemic? Trusting what we have seen Jesus do, I would say God is in the determination of the teachers, the compassion of the helpers, the dedication of the essential workers, just to name a few other ways in which holy imagination reveals the presence of God. You probably have examples of your own that you would add.
Show us the Father and we will be satisfied, Philip demands. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father, Jesus responds. Where is God in the middle of the pain in south Georgia? Trusting what we have seen Jesus do, I would say God is present in the weeping and the broken hearts of Mr. Arbery’s family and friends as they wait and watch to see what will happen following the arrests. Where is God in the middle of the pain in south Georgia? Trusting what we have seen Jesus do, I would say God is present in the actions of the protesters, in the voices of those calling out for justice, in the minds of all who are doing whatever they can to live in ways that are anti-racist, not settling for “it is just the way things are.” Where is God in the middle of the pain in South Georgia? Trusting what we have seen Jesus do, I would say God is even present with the ones who have been accused and with their families, as well. That is who God is. That is the way Jesus lived, working to redeem people and redeem situations. He washed the feet of the ones who would betray him, deny him, and leave him for dead.
As my colleague Nanette Sawyer has said, in this time of COVID-19 we need healing in many ways and in many places. In this time of racism still actively pervasive, we need healing in many ways and in many places. We need to hear the words of Jesus that there is a better way and there will be a better day. For we, like Philip, know the stories of all that Jesus said and all that Jesus did. And we, like Philip, have also been given the gift of holy imagination to dwell in and among us. Jesus promises us, just as Jesus promised Philip, that if we will ground ourselves in the trust that Jesus really is who he said—the face of God, the heart of God, the personality of God—then we will be able to work for that healing, for that different and better day, for the time of transformation and redemption—work for it where we live our own lives, not choosing to settle for anything less.
Just like Philip, we won’t do that work perfectly. We will forget, just like Philip did, that we have already seen the face of God and that we know that God is active in the world. There will be days on which that is clear and days on which that seems murky. Yet, we, like Philip, will also be able to keep trying again to connect with the gift of holy imagination and the courage it brings, and that gift will help us keep stepping into our own future—one foot at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time,
Show us the Father and we will be satisfied, Philip yearned. And Jesus did. And Jesus still does. Amen.