“I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.”
I want to begin today with a different perspective on the events that occurred in the Upper Room, the perspective of a non-Jew observing Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room, though he is unaware that he is observing the Messiah.
Our protagonist’s name was Patricius, a young Roman, in his late teens and we join him in Jerusalem the evening before Christ was crucified. He was with his father, Septimius Patricius Cornelius of the Aventine – an extraordinarily successful merchant. He and his son moved from Rome to Caesarea Philippi to be close to some of their investments and for the boy’s practical education. They owned the largest vineyard in Galilee, a fleet of fishing boats and several herds of sheep. The boy was happy that they only had one more year and they would return to the Aventine in Rome and to his mother and grandparents and all his cousins who were growing up and marrying proper Roman girls.
Passover was big business for his father and he insisted on being in Jerusalem so that his son could observe the whole operation. As the sun was setting that day Patricius walked out to their patio. From that vantage point he could see the street in front of their villa all the way up to the Antonia Fortress. This was the street known as Straight. It was much wider than most streets and usually very busy with lots of commerce. But that evening everything had come to a standstill; all was silent and nearly abandoned. Jews from all over the world were behind closed doors with their families celebrating Passover.
Right next to his villa stood another and Patricius saw people gathering in the top floor of the building. The big open windows allowed him to see the room and most of the people. It was odd. They seemed to be all Jews and they were keeping Passover or something like Passover. From Patricius’ perspective, the host appeared angry, apparently about not having servants to perform courtesies like washing the guest’s feet because he, the host, began to wash everyone’s feet himself. Patricius smiled when he saw how that upset everyone. “Jews are very peculiar people,” he thought. The host took his place at the head of the table and passed around a cup of wine. He served the choice cut of the lamb – obviously to his favorite. But then, his favorite abruptly left. It was dark, but because of the full moon, Patricius watched him as he first walked and then ran off toward the Temple. He turned his attention back to the room. The host said his father had called him home, Patricius assumed, for some urgent family business. Powerful fathers were not to be crossed! The host promised when he arrived at his father’s villa he would send a subordinate back here to run things.
Patricius grew bored and went back into the villa and he soon fell asleep. Very early in the morning, before sunrise, he woke drenched in sweat and he went back to the patio to cool off. The room next door was pitch black, but he could see that all the people had just left and were walking together toward the olive grove. He went back inside and as he fell asleep he said to himself: “A crowd that size would have consumed at least two of my father’s lambs and a case of salted fish.”
That’s a different perspective. Now let’s enter the Upper Room ourselves, through the eyes of another young man, John the Beloved Disciple.
“I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.”
This is our third week in John 16 and the whole time we have been aware of the anxiety, the sadness, and the fear that was swirling around that room that night. The disciples frankly had experienced very little peace since they had entered Jerusalem. But here at the end of John 16 we are at the very breaking point in many ways. This Farewell Discourse marks the end of a time, the end of a season with Jesus and the beginning of a new era. The anxious questioning is coming to an end. Observe how incongruent their behavior is when couched in the context of Jesus’ final words. I say final words because immediately after he declares that his conquest of the world is over and done with, we enter the holiest chapter in the whole Bible, Chapter 17 and Jesus’ long prayer to his Father for his church and his very specific consecration of himself for the high altar of Calvary and then with chapter 18 we are told, “After Jesus spoke these words he crossed the Kidron valley where there was a garden…” So these words from John 16 today are literally the last words of instruction and comfort Jesus gave to his disciples. He will not instruct them again till after his resurrection.
The upshot of Jesus’ last bit of instruction and encouragement is a paradigm shift: the disciples will now address the Father directly albeit in the Name of Jesus:
“Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.”
The disciples have not ceased questioning Jesus and especially so about the future. Jesus now tells them that they share a common destiny of complete, unstained joy. They have nothing to fear because Jesus’ conquest of the malevolent forces in the world that might tarnish their lives with bitterness and fear is a done deal. And from now you the disciples are to approach the throne of the Father, in the Name of the Son. Why? Because the Father loves you, that’s why. Not only does Jesus love you, but his Father loves you as well. The Father loves the Disciples of Christ because they love and trust Jesus. And soon, very soon they will no longer be asking questions, they will no longer be full of anxiety because they will understand everything and they will rest in the Father’s love.
There you have it! Two very different perspectives. Which one is true? One perspective is that of a Christian whose life was committed to Christ and the other perspective is that of a man who was in a sense neutral concerning the person of Christ. And since he didn’t know whom he was observing we might even call it a blind study.
I am sure you realize that I have a motive behind these two narratives and this is it: I want to say something about the way we talk about the truth and reality of Christianity. Today most people believe that matters of faith are private while matters of reason are public. Most people believe that reason trumps faith because they believe reason is reasonable while faith is unreasonable. If faith was not unreasonable, they reason, it would not be faith it would be reason. How we think about things, how we make good decisions, how we know, how we understand anything has been ceded to the methods of the physical sciences on the grounds that they are truly objective and truly neutral. Therefore the only good evidence for anything is evidence that is equivalent to the evidences of physical science. And that means that only claims that can be publically and repeatedly tested and verified through peer review, through neutral observation is reasonable and therefore true.
Now since many theologians have taken hook, line, and sinker the myth that physical science’s method is the key to the Universe, they have put up an “Out of Order” sign on History. History can never give us truth. The New Testament is not a historic account anyway; it is a testimony of faith written by those who had already made a decision of faith.
This started out with one of the most influential theologians of the last century, Karl Barth, stating that he believed that the Resurrection of Christ actually took place in history, but it cannot be proven. “There is no proof and there… ought not to be any proof for the fact (that the resurrection of Christ) took place.” Christianity requires a “decision of faith” forsaking historical proof, in order to be a real, authentic Christianity. Faith cannot be grounded in history because history is unreliable. Therefore faith is something very much like a leap into the darkness in hope that God will catch you. From this perspective, the Christian faith rejects reason.
What happened next was that the event itself became less important than the disciples’ experience. And then the narrative, the story (later on even people who said they believed in the historic resurrection came to refer to it as the myth or the saga) of the event came to be the sole focus of faith. Now, today if a theologian says he or she has “faith in the resurrection” that does not necessarily mean that they believe Jesus was actually raised from the dead in the past. What really counts today is the “meaning” that the narrative has for the faith community. The historic event is irrelevant to Christian faith, from this perspective. What is important is faith, not the content of faith, but having faith. The stories and the pictures that guide our faith community are enough. You can have the “Jesus of history,” who is impossible to know, or you can receive the “Christ of faith” who lives in our hearts and our communities.
Now in all seriousness I submit to you that based on such thinking you cannot reasonably know that Thomas Jefferson ever set foot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Furthermore, and this is way more important, you cannot be reasonably sure that your wife loves you. Of course you can sit around with your friends and tell stories about Thomas Jefferson or stories about how you and wife first met if it makes you feel better. Or you might even dig up some old love letters or birthday cards and photographs; or recall the promises you both made when you were joined in Holy Matrimony – but if you do that you are ignoring the “Out of Order” sign that bars us from meddling in history. Good! The past matters very much to us personally and it matters to the Church. We cannot trade our faith in the space/time Resurrection of Christ for someone’s contemporary interpretation of the meaning of something that may or may not have occurred. The fact of the Resurrection, not just it’s meaning, is the foundation of the Church.
I have another proposition: it is unreasonable to ever seek neutrality when it comes to deciding what is real and what is false. The purpose of reason should always to be aligning itself with the nature of reality. You can hang out on the patio with young Patricius and fake yourself into thinking that is an objective, neutral place to discover the truth. There is another option. We have to distance ourselves from the prejudices of our day in our reading of the texts. You may reject the radical break between faith and historic evidence. Jesus said, “I am the Door, no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” The other option is to walk through the door that is already ajar in John 16 and listen to what Jesus has to say.