Sunday, May 1, 2016
Sermon for the Feast of St. Philip and St. James - Jn 14:1-14
St. Philip and St. James
In 1997 the shoe company Nike ran a television ad that showed Michael Jordan arriving at a basketball arena and entering into the players’ locker room. In the background Jordan spoke these words: “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” By the time Michael Jordan’s career was over, he had gone on to miss another 3,000 shots for a total of 12, 345.
Whenever Michael Jordan dies, there will be tremendous coverage of the event by the media. He will be lauded as the greatest basketball player of all time as reporters do pieces that look back at his career and consider his legacy. When this takes place, I am pretty sure that no one is going to put together a piece that shows nothing but Jordan taking shots and missing them. No one is going to put together a piece that showing Jordan missing all those game winning shots. No one is going to put together a piece that shows nothing but Jordan turnovers.
They won’t do this because that’s just not how it works. When we remember people who are famous for their accomplishments, we look back on their successes and the reason they are famous and remembered. And that’s why the Gospel assigned for the Feast of St. Philip and St. James seems like such an odd choice. After all, we are remembering today and giving thanks to God for two of Jesus Christ’s handpicked apostles. We are thinking about two of our Lord’s authorized representatives – two of the men included when Paul says in our epistle lesson that as believers we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” And yet in our Gospel lesson we hear Philip speak words that show he is rather clueless about Jesus. In our text, we hear Philip fail. It is the Feast of St. Philip and St. James. But the truth is that we really don’t know anything about James. The poor guy is often known as “James the less” in order to distinguish him from the other James, the brother of John, who was part of Jesus’ inner circle.
Philip was from Bethsaida and appears to have been one of the first disciples. Jesus told Philip, “Follow me,” and he did. We learn that Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And when Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.”
During Holy Week he was again involved in bringing people into contact with Jesus. Some people of Greek background came to Philip and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” So Philip went and told Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Philip was involved in bringing people into contact with Jesus. But in our Gospel lesson Philip shows that he himself does not yet understand what was happening in Jesus’ ministry. Like last week’s Gospel lesson, our text is found in the Farewell Discourse of John’s Gospel. Jesus says that he is going away. And then he adds, “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.”
Thomas was confused. He said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Jesus declares that no one can come to God the Father except through him. He says that to know and see Jesus is to know and see the Father. And then Philip jumped in when he said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”
Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”
Philip wants more. He wants more than Jesus. Martin Luther used Philip’s words to illustrate what he called the “theology of glory.” Luther was describing how sinful people don’t want the way God chooses to deal with us. Instead, we want things directly. We want things that are openly mighty and powerful and impressive. As we face the struggle against sin and as we face the many challenges of this fallen world such as illness and strained relationships in our family, we want God to do things differently.
What God has given us is a single man who lived 2,000 years ago. This man has declared “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This one single man says that he alone is the way to the Father. He says that he alone is truth itself. He says that he alone is life – abundant and eternal life.
It is a bold claim. For many, it is a scandalous claim. The idea that one particular man who lived at one particular time can be the key to all of life is offensive. Because if it is only Jesus, then all the other ways are wrong. The idea that one particular man who lived at one particular time so many years ago is the key for my life is offensive because it means I am not in charge.
And it is offensive because it seems so inadequate. It is one man who died so long ago. It is one man who now works … well, through what is happening right now. He works through the reading and preaching of the Word. He works through water and the triune Name in baptism. He works through the pastor who stands before you and claims to speak for God in Holy Absolution. He works through bread and wine and the words Jesus spoke on the night he was betrayed.
And yet, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. His Means of Grace are what we need as we face sin and a fallen world. Jesus Christ was just one man. But he was not just a man. As John tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He is God in the flesh – true God and true man. Jesus lived and died at one particular time long ago. But it was not just any time. It was instead the fullness of time – the precise moment in God’s ordering of history when he acted in Christ to give us forgiveness and life.
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life because he spoke the word of the Father. Jesus said, “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life because he did the work of the Father. Jesus the Son of God was sent by the Father and he declared, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” This he did as he died on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And that brings up back to St. Philip and St. James. Not only was Jesus a particular man who was unlike any man who has lived before, he also did a particular thing that had never been done before. He rose from the dead. This was not just coming to life again. It was a transformation by which he will never die again – by which he can never die again. And then, to top it off, he ascended and returned to the Father. In his ascension and exaltation he showed that he had completed the Father’s will.
St. Philip and St. James lived at that particular time and were with Jesus. And though Philip doesn’t yet get it here in our text, that changed. It was changed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. St. Philip and St. James stand as part of the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Jesus. They were with the risen Lord for forty days. They saw his ascension. In fact that was part of the criteria for being an apostle. When it came time to choose a replacement for Judas, Peter said, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
And now, as we learned last week, their witness is heard through the inspired, apostolic word. The ascended Lord sent forth the Holy Spirit. He called to their remembrance what Jesus had said and done. He bore witness to Jesus and used the apostles to bear witness. He used them to produce the inspired, apostolic word.
As we now receive that word, the Spirit works in us God’s work. Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We believe in Jesus the crucified and risen Lord for the forgiveness of our sins. We believe in Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. We believe in Jesus, and we know that in him we see the Father – his love and salvation for us.