Deeds Greater than Those of the Master?
Occasionally, life can get very tough indeed. One of the hardest lessons for those of us enjoying lives of comfort and privilege in a local setting where the majority enjoy lives of security – is the shock of discovering we are not as safe as we thought.
Very clearly the current pandemic is no respecter of recent history, of position or wealth. Even before the current coronavirus snuck in, time after time current events have served a curve ball. My parents encountered the 1930s depression and a World War. Their parents lived through the first World War and the Spanish Flu. Sudden changes in the international scene can make travel hazardous and as a worst case scenario armed conflict is always a real possibility. Jobs can be lost overnight and families ruined financially. Earthquakes – Christchurch, Japan, China – where next? …floods…hurricanes …tornados…tsunamis and eruptions. We may not feel under immediate threat at present but you would need to have stopped reading newspapers or listening to the TV news to think no one is at risk.
So what then of Jesus’ words at the beginning of John Chapter 14. “Let not your heart be troubled” Is that truly for real? The Gospel of John reports this as only one of some very significant claims made by Jesus. In today’s gospel reading for example, there is that passage which must be one of the most frequently used of all the passages in the New Testament for Christian funerals.
What was it again?: “ 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
Then there is that greatly misused passage which some would have us believe is to be used to show that only those with a particular view of Jesus are right, and the rest wrong.
Yet perhaps we are wrong to think only of this in terms of an exclusive entry to heaven.
” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also.
But notice too that the real test of whether or not to place our faith in such claims, at least according to John’s version of Jesus’ own words, is grounded in something more tangible:
11Believe 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.
And there it is – a claim and a puzzle. Did the works of Jesus stop once Jesus was out of the scene? Which is a fair question because even in the self claimed Christian nations there are some pretty bleak periods of history where greed and violence seem to drown out those echoing the voice of Jesus with his call for peace and forgiveness and love for neighbour.
But did you also notice something that helps us check our realities for something a bit closer to home.
12Very 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.
So when we encounter one of those more dreadful periods of history, what then should we do.
If we are merely cynical we might of course throw up our hands in horror and ask in a cross or despairing voice “where is Jesus today?”
There is on the other hand a rather more constructive approach. Certainly there are a host of examples I could use as illustration but let me illustrate with just one man’s response to trouble. I wonder if there are any flag experts amongst us today. Where is this flag from? (hold up a white flag with a Red Cross in the middle – a cardboard replica would do). No not a country – …an organization … the Red Cross.
Let’s go back in history. One day back in 1859 in Northern Italy at a place called Solferino a vicious battle was fought for 16 hours between the French and Austro Hungarian Armies. Casualties were high on both sides and at the end of the day the armies had withdrawn to regroup as best they could. A 31 year old Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, passing through on a business trip, unintentionally happened upon the aftermath of the slaughter and suffering. Because it was the first battlefield he had encountered he was understandably horrified. He said later it wasn’t so much the dead bodies everywhere, it was that there was no one to care for the wounded and the dying. He wrote: “With faces that were black with flies that swarmed around their wounds, men gazed about them, wild eyed and helpless”
And where was Jesus that day? Well as it happened, straight away Dunant set about mobilizing and organizing the people of the town nearby. Churches were used as hospitals. Young children fetched water, while women washed and dressed the wounds, and the dead were given respectful burials.
Henry Dunant was surprised at how easily ordinary people could be organized to help and were so willing to make a difference. As a consequence he wrote a book about his experiences in which he suggested nations should organize such groups of volunteers to prepare in advance to help reduce the suffering in times of war.
With the assistance of some prominent citizens in Switzerland he set up an international organization to do just that, and so that they might be readily recognized as neutral volunteers they wore the insignia of what we now know as the Red Cross which was of course the Swiss flag with the colours reversed.
The Red Cross has had a huge influence ever since and even the Muslim countries have taken up the idea, although of course their organization had to avoid using the Cross which had been used as the symbol of their enemies in the crusades – so instead they called their version of the same organization, the Red Crescent. There is a lesser known Israeli equivalent. These organizations provide proactive assistance in times of disaster, assist those beyond the borders of the organizations, and their healing and humanitarian record is impressive indeed.
It is significant that when in 1864 the twelve nations who set up the idea of the Geneva Convention to limit the behaviour of nations at war, that each of the twelve also set up branches of the Red Cross.
I am not sure how great a deed needs to be before it is what Jesus might have had in mind when he talked of deeds greater than his own. What I do know is that in 1901 the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was one of two people to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and four times during its history the organization itself has also received that same prize.
When you think what Jesus stood for with his own healing ministry, with his encouragement that his followers should help those in need, and his insistence that enemies should be treated as forgiven neighbours, surely Henry Dunant was enacting the Spirit of Jesus’ message.
Remember again Jesus’ words: 12Very 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.
Supporting or initiating such endeavours is a significant part of the gospel in action.
Where it becomes less than the gospel is when we cannot quite bring ourselves to see our fellows as equally deserving of our assistance if they don’t share our heritage.
In world war one at Gallipoli when the Turks were fighting British and Anzac troops every now and again a truce was called to allow both sides to retrieve their wounded and bury their dead. In some instances the wounded were returned by soldiers from the other side. We should reflect on this then ask ourselves if the act of shooting prisoners and shooting the wounded enemy which has characterized other arenas of conflict could ever have been acceptable as Christian acts by those claiming to follow Jesus and his teaching.
While I accept the causes of war and acts within such conflicts are rarely simple and clear-cut, if we can at least go as far as to accept that the existence of such neutral helping organizations reflects the general intentions of Jesus’ teaching. For those of us in the happy situation of being able to afford to help either by donation or in some more tangible fashion, we should at a minimum ask ourselves if we are already doing so.
Alternately if we are helping in living the gospel in some other field, are we prepared to go so far as to at least admit, if only to ourselves, that our actions should reflect the intentions of our belief.
While it is not for me to try to put words in Jesus’ mouth, I cannot help but speculate that his statement “…the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” might be rather more difficult to ignore if he had added the implied words: “so why not accept the challenge to do such deeds.”
Remember it had been quite a few hundred years before someone like Henry Dunant came along to see the need for such a helping organization. What is more there have been many needless and foolish acts of battlefield slaughter in the years since Henry Dunant initiated his great deed for humanity, so we can hardly use the excuse that Henry Dunant has solved the problems for us.
I know some act as if Christianity is virtually entirely restricted to what happens in the context of Church services. This is why it is easier to recognize Saints for religious healing of one or two rather than those who achieve far more healing by the application of little more than common-sense. For those who use the Church service as retreat from the world it is worth reminding ourselves that the acts of Jesus, the subsequent acts of the disciples and the acts of the various apostles through the ages have for the most part been outside the Church or synagogue, and for the most part, are deeds in response to real life situations. The scriptures can only take us so far.
The gospels can tell us how Jesus chose to act as he interacted with people and situations around him. Our church histories and contemporary histories tell us how those who were inspired by the words, the attitudes and actions of Jesus and his followers then chose to live out their response.
But our experiences are not going to mirror Jesus or his first century followers. Our experiences and setting can’t be exactly like those encountered by a Swiss businessman encountering some nineteenth century war in Europe. The deeds we are called to dare are those in response to what we discover in our world today. Jesus claimed those who believe in him would recognize what he stood for by his deeds. What will our deeds tell others about the one we follow?