I Peter 2:1-10
(Holy Trinity, Danville)
Next year, 2012, is a major election year in our country. The cycle has already begun; there have already been televised presidential debates! We’ll be electing, or re-electing, as the case may be, a President of the United States. There will be a hard-fought battle for control of the U.S. Congress. The politicians who are running for office will be making promises and giving assurances and embracing commitments and predictions, both positive and negative. We expect as much. Campaign promises are a vital element in the way the game of politics is played in America.
Even so, most Americans realize that campaign promises, by their very nature, are broken or modified more often than they’re kept. Most of the time, we just make allowances for the hyperbole of campaign rhetoric even as we’re still listening to it. Most of us don’t really expect politicians to keep all their promises, so we’re not all that disappointed when they don’t.
When Jesus was on the verge of taking leave of his disciples near the end of his earthly ministry, he made a rather long speech to them that is recorded in chapters thirteen through seventeen of St John’s gospel. In this speech, Jesus makes a number of promises—campaign promises? One of these promises is, “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.”
Greater works than these? Really? Just what “works” was Jesus famous for? Turning water into wine at a wedding reception. Turning a child’s snack lunch into a banquet for five thousand. Making a blind man see. Calling a man who had been dead and buried for four days back to life.
Greater works...than these? These are attention-grabbing, distinctly out-of-the ordinary works! Our own lives, on the other hand, are, if nothing else, abundantly ordinary. We’re born, we grow, we laugh and cry, we love and are loved, we work and play, we get sick—sometimes we get well, and sometimes we don’t—and then we die. The experience of our lives, including our lives of faith—our experience of Christ, and of Christian community in the Church—is moment to moment, day to day, ordinary. And now Jesus has the nerve to tell us that those who believe in him are going to do “greater works than these”!? Greater works than restoring sight to the blind and life to the dead?
Something’s wrong with this picture!
You know, maybe Jesus was just making a campaign promise. And we all know about campaign promises, so let’s not get too worked up about it.
But in those moments of silent stillness when we ponder the deep realities of human life—of our human life—we are worked up about it. We’re worked up about it because it looks like somebody screwed up, somebody let the side down, somebody dropped the ball. I mean, a promise is a promise, isn’t it? If you believe in me, you will do greater works than these. The humble and the timid among us think, “I must not be worthy, I must not really believe strongly enough. Otherwise, I would be experiencing miracles every day.” The arrogant and the courageous among us think, “God must not really be all-powerful, he must not really be God. Or maybe he’s just a liar!”
Either way, what we’ve got on our hands is a crisis of faith. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We find ourselves, in one chilling moment of private honesty, not really believing very much very strongly. It’s not that we become atheists or turn our hearts against God. We just keep Christian faith and practice on the margins of our lives. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. We kind of hope it is, because religion makes us feel kind of warm and fuzzy. But we’re not going to bet the farm on it. We’re not going to risk being looked on as a religious fanatic for the sake of someone whose promises are no more reliable than a politician’s, even if it’s a politician we like.
Thirty-nine years ago this month, Brenda and I became engaged to be married. Very shortly after that happy occasion, we hopped into her 1967 Volkswagen bug, drove down the hill from our college campus in Santa Barbara, got on the U.S. 101 freeway, and made our way to the La Cumbre plaza, a shopping mall, where we visited jewelry stores. Before we got back into the VW, we’d both made purchases. I bought Brenda an engagement ring with a small diamond, and a gold wedding band. She bought me this wedding band with inlaid gold nuggets. These rings were, and continue to be, important signs of our relationship. About 25 years ago, I “temporarily misplaced” my wedding ring for a few weeks. I entered into some serious grieving, because I really thought I’d lost it. When it unexpectedly turned up in a very odd place one day, I was ecstatic. Just looking at this ring triggers a mental and emotional response of an almost forty year relationship, all Brenda and I have been through together, flashing before my consciousness.
But, you know, as symbolically important as these rings are, they are not themselves our relationship. For one thing, that trip to La Cumbre plaza in 1972 was the last time Brenda or I have bought one another gold jewelry. Gold jewelry, I assure you, is not even a prominent feature, much less the norm, of our married life! (I’ve recently acquired a little bit of extra bling on the other hand, but that’s for another purpose!) But more importantly, as attractive and as valuable as these rings may be, the relationship Brenda and I share—the ordinarily imperfect love we bear for one another in the ordinary day-to-day-ness of our ordinary lives—that relationship is much richer, much more complex, much greater, than the ounce or two of gold that is its outward sign.
Greater works than these.
St John is quite fond of referring to the works that Jesus did as “signs.” From his first miracle at the wedding reception in Cana, to his calling Lazarus forth from the tomb on the eve of his final entry into Jerusalem, the wonderful, attention-getting, and extraordinary works that Jesus did were not valuable only in and of themselves, but were valuable as signs of something greater which was to come. And that something greater, my friends, is the life we live, moment to moment and day to day, in the shadow of Jesus’ cross and resurrection! The attention-getting works of Jesus are like wedding rings: beautiful, deserving of being honored and treasured for all that they symbolize, but not to be confused with the actual relationship itself. It is the ordinary life of Christians in the community of the church that reveals and embodies the “greater works” which Jesus spoke of.
Our ordinary worship—whether it’s “high and crazy” (like at Holy Trinity!), “low and lazy”, or “broad and hazy”; our ordinary prayer—whether its boring or exciting, and whatever language it’s in, known or unknown; our ordinary relationships—whether we love each other well or love each other poorly; our ordinary ministry—whether it’s to someone we live with or someone halfway around the world whom we’ve never met — any or all of these ordinary experiences of the Christian pilgrimage, are “greater works” than the extraordinary works of Jesus which are their outward sign. They are “greater works” because, in them, grace is received, guilt is pardoned, the image is Christ is formed—in short, salvation happens, multiplied millions of times over across the church scattered throughout the world.
God is not de-throned, nor is he a liar. And, although we are unworthy of any of God’s promises, save his promise of judgement, that’s beside the point, because worthiness isn’t the issue here. Jesus’ promise that we will do “greater works” if we believe in him is not merely the rhetoric of the campaign trail, to be dismissed the day after inauguration, but is being fulfilled in our midst before our very eyes. The fact that we are all here at this moment, doing what we’re doing, is itself evidence of fulfillment. With eyes wide open to the “greater works” being performed all around us, we can lift our song of thanksgiving back to God, rejoicing in the exalted language of St Peter’s epistle, when he tells us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, called out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once [we] were no people, but now [we] are God’s people.” What a great work!
Praise be to our Risen Lord! Amen.