May 17, 2020
William G. Carter
Jesus says, "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? 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; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
When a teacher in the church sits down with a child, there are many ways to shape the child’s faith. Sometimes faith is shaped by teaching a song: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”
Other times, faith takes root with a story: “Once upon a time, there was no world. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.” Or “once upon a time, there was an old man named Abraham, and God said, ‘Go! And the man got up and went, waiting for God to show him the way.”
But a favorite way to call out a child’s faith is not only with song or story, but with a pack of crayons and a piece of paper. “Heather, can you draw a picture and show me what God is like?” Heather will scrunch up her lips, think for a minute, and draw a bright yellow sun surrounded by V-shaped birds. Tony takes blue and green crayons and draws a circle, the whole world. Underneath there are two hands, one pink and the other brown. Isn’t that interesting?
One of my favorite drawings from a child took twenty minutes for the artist to complete. She was given the same assignment, gave it considerable thought. She left the crayons on the table and handed over a blank sheet of paper. What is this? “Well, you wanted a picture of God and nobody can see him anyway.” She got a blue ribbon that day.
Now, I remind us that this is a Christian exercise. No Jew would ever try to picture the Holy One on a piece of construction paper. God is too great to be captured by human hands, too far beyond the imagination to be portrayed in art. The Ten Commandments stated this clearly: no “graven images,” that is, don’t even try to carve God out of wood or stone. That could become an idol, something less than the Holy God, and therefore a replacement or a distraction.
That, by the way, is why the forebears of the Presbyterians did not have a lot of art in their churches. That explains why the stained glass is nondescript and why there are no statues. Our spiritual ancestors were nervous about the Second Commandment: no idols, no distractions, no attempt to reduce an Eternal God to something much smaller.
And yet, the question has always been with us: what is God really like?
Through the centuries, many people have tried to describe God from the perspective of their human experience. Some of the famous people in our country’s history – Franklin, Jefferson, Thomas Edison – described God as a watchmaker, creating a mechanism so brilliant and detailed. After that, God seemed detached and uninvolved.
Others said, “No, no, God is right here, in my heart. I can feel God inside me.” So they perceive God with their emotions, and they insist on highly charged pep rallies which they call “worship celebrations.” And they are so gung-ho about their feelings, they will charge into a sanctuary during a pandemic, forget about wearing a mask! They want to worship with their hearts and leave their brains somewhere else.
Still others, the artists and the composers and the poets, might name God as the Muse, the Source of Inspiration. God is Creator who creates something in me. That is how they explain what bubbles up in the imagination: it came from somewhere else. And yet, the artists, composers, and poets have their dry spells. The Muse is capricious, highly selective, and rarely on schedule.
What is God like? That is the human question. It is Philip’s question at the Last Supper. “Show us God,” he says to Jesus. “Show us God and we will be satisfied.” It is an essential request. I believe it is the question behind all other questions.
J. B. Phillips, the Anglican scholar, listed all sorts of popular answers to the question. God is the Resident Policeman, the Parental Hangover, the Grand Old Man, the Heavenly Bosom, the Managing Director, the Perennial Grievance, or the Projected Image. All are inadequate, he decided. So he titled his book, Your God is Too Small. Fair enough; but what is God like?
For me and some of my clergy friends, we laughed out loud at a comic strip in the old series, “The Far Side.” You can find it easily if you search on the computer. The caption reads, “God at His Computer.” On the screen, there is a hapless fellow with a piano dangling over his head. The Almighty is poised to push a button on the keyboard labeled “Smite.”
We laughed a sad, sarcastic laugh, because that is how some folks perceive what God is really like. Watching, waiting, conspiring to pounce, ready to do us in.
Sure, some people have had more than their share of bad breaks, but is this really the way God is? “Show us God,” says Philip. The real God. “Then we will be satisfied.”
My little friend with the blank sheet of paper got some of it right. Nobody has ever seen God. Nobody. That is a verse right out of the Gospel of John. No one has ever seen God.
But they have seen a remarkable planet, this earth that is our home. Did you get outside on Thursday or Friday? The weather was magnificent. Everything is green, a-splash with color. A big fat yellowjacket was working my front yard. The squirrels were playing tag. At the bird feeder, I saw cardinals, grackles, yellow finches, and a well-behaved blue jay, each one magnificent and noble, intricately constructed.
A lot of folks I know look out on a world like this and call it a “creation.” That is, Somebody made it. And this where the Gospel of John begins. The Gospel writer reaches all the way back to the making of the world. All things were created, he says in chapter one. God’s fingerprints are all over every single thing. As someone once said, “There is no desert so barren, no landscape so bleak that you cannot look at the bottom corner and see the autograph, G.O.D.”
So why isn’t this enough? Why can’t Philip see the beauty, diversity, and creativity of all things, and extract from that an understanding of God?
I don’t know. We live in a beautiful world, but the creation is still wild. Not only are the black bears and the foxes coming around while we are quarantined inside, there is another kind of wildness. Last week, my friend phoned from Tennessee and said, “Turn on the news.” A tornado swirled down his street and yanked up dozens of hickory trees. Is that what God is like?
When Philip raises the question, there is another tornado headed at him and his friends. It is their last night with Jesus. Judas has left the table, and Jesus has told them he is facing a certain death. Maybe Philip wants a last-minute answer before Jesus is taken away, a final “lightning round” in case he doesn’t have the chance to ask it again.
We are, after all, in the middle of a long conversation between Jesus and the remaining disciples. In the Gospel of John, there are four chapters of Jesus saying farewell to his friends, followed by a farewell prayer in chapter 17. The red-letter words of Christ are swirling over the heads of these confused and anxious disciples. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” but they are troubled. “A little while and you won’t see me,” says Jesus. “If the world hates you, remember it hated me first.” “I am going away,” he says. These are difficult words, very difficult words.
Philip’s request bubbles up in the shadows. “Show us the Father. Show God to us.” He wants to know, because the eleven disciples want to know, because all of us want to know. Philip is speaking for us. We have questions about life, and death, and whatever else is coming. And if we could only know the mind of God, experience the heart of God, learn the will of God – that would answer all our questions and satisfy our souls. We could get through anything if only we knew what God is like.
And Jesus says, “Philip, where have you been? Didn’t you see when the blind man got his sight? Didn’t you dance when the lame person stood up and walked? Weren’t you there on the day the centurion’s son was healed? Remember when our old friend Lazarus stepped out of his own tomb?” Well, yes, Lord, sure. I believe in miracles. Miracles happen. But I want more. What is God like?
“But Philip, you have been with me all this time, and you still don’t know. Don’t you remember how the hungry crowd came toward us, and you told me six months’ wages could not feed them, and I said ‘give them what we have,’ and all were fed – and had leftovers? Don’t you remember the very day we met, back in Bethsaida, and you told Nathanael, ‘We found the One that Moses and the prophets were writing about?” Oh, Lord, I remember, I remember all of that. But show us God. Reveal what God is like.
So Jesus got on his knees, took a towel, poured water in a basin, and washed their feet. And he said, “Now do you understand?” No, Lord, we want to see God. Show us God.
So Jesus went out, picked up his own cross, and carried it to Golgotha. And he turned to Philip, to the others, and to us, and said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” What is his answer? Whoever sees Jesus healing, feeding, loving, serving, and dying has seen the character of God.
“No one has ever seen God,” says the evangelist. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (1:18)
What is the point of all this? Is this an abstract theology lesson? A quick answer to dismiss all other questions? Oh no, not at all. The character of God has been revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth, so that we might live in the light and life of such a God: healing, feeding, loving, serving, and dying. As Jesus says, “Very truly, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.”
“Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” This is more than Philip’s question. It is the world’s hunger. The time of speculation is over. Now is the moment of commitment. Let’s show the world what God is like, for Jesus has revealed God’s grace and truth to us.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
Note: Thanks to the late Fred B. Craddock who preached a sermon on this text that has never left me alone. His thoughts from 32 years ago have shaped my thoughts, and I am grateful beyond words for his words, even though these are my words.