By Mel Williams
Watts Street Baptist Church, Durham, NC
John 14:8-17, 25-27
“Greater works than I you will do.”
Jesus said it, but what did he mean? He was obviously addressing his disciples who would be around after he left. What greater works did he mean?
Did he mean that they – we—would be a kinder and gentler people? Did he mean that we’d all grow up to be “compassionate conservatives”? Did he mean that we would take up his healing ministry? Did he mean that we are to reform the religious bureaucracy? Did he mean that we would include people different from us? Did he mean that we’d all become non-violent as he was? Perhaps he meant these – and more!
One of the dangers of having a bold leader is that as long as the leader is there, we can keep our distance, remain timid admirers and say, “Oh, let him/ her do it for us.” I remember hearing some church member say, “I give my money to this church so Rev. Goodheart can keep doing good works.”
One way we can avoid our own responsibility is to support someone else who will do the leading for us. But that’s clearly not the way of Jesus.
Clarence Jordan said long ago, “Jesus did not want admirers. He wants disciples--followers.”
To follow the leader is to do what the leader does. So, the least we could do is to try to imitate Jesus. If he heals the sick, we do the same. If he calms a disturbed person, we too try to calm the disturbed. If he protests unjust treatment of women, we do the same. If he faces violent people with non-violence, we do the same. And with a bloated Pentagon budget in this country, Jesus’ disciples will be clearly counter-cultural. We follow Jesus by spending our resources not on war, but to find non-violent solutions and to meet the needs of the “least of these” – the poor and the weak. The task of the church is simply to continue the ministry and mission of Jesus.
When Jesus got ready to leave this earth, to ascend to be with God, he made an unsettling statement: “You will do the works that I do; but in fact, you will do greater things than I.” What is he saying? Jesus may sound a bit like a parent saying, “I want my child to surpass me. I want those who come after me to do greater things than I’ve done.” The child is to be better than the parent. The true disciple is to do more than be a cookie-cutter follower. The church is far more than a sweet society of pleasant, nice people; our job is to be a Greater Works Company of Disciples.
Someone said that there are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who don’t know what’s happening.
Jesus seems to be saying that true disciples will make things happen. They will be facing the future with clear resolve, with Jesus’ agenda in our minds and hearts. What is Jesus’ agenda? Put bluntly, his agenda is: alleviating suffering, caring for the poor, and bringing peace on earth. This sounds like an overwhelming mission, impossible to accomplish. But as we’ve said many times here, our job is to pick up the “near edge” of these great problems – this great mission---and act at some sacrifice to ourselves.
We are called to be Pentecost people, filled with the Spirit and eager to continue the ministry of Jesus. Some might respond by saying, “That sounds good and idealistic. But, well, we’ve got a lot of other things on our plate, a lot that claims our attention.”
We also know that there are times when our courage is low, when we feel clumsy and awkward in the face of such a challenge. You may remember the Charlie Brown story about Charlie Brown and Lucy sitting in the back of a big boat. Lucy says, “Charlie Brown, do you think it’s better to open our deck chairs facing forward to see where we’re going or backward to see where we’ve been. In his usual fumbling way, Charlie Brown says, “I can’t even figure out how to get my deck chair open.” We all have days when we feel like Charlie Brown.
Even when we know that our job is to pattern our lives after Jesus, it’s very difficult to do it. We have many obstacles — awkwardness, anxiety, depression, job worries, low self-esteem, excessively high expectations and more.
Jesus is trying to tell us that we are limited only by the extent of our vision—and our openness to the Spirit. We’re called to do what Jesus did—and more. We’re called to be Jesus’ People, filled with his love and justice and powered by the energy of the Holy Spirit that he sends us at Pentecost. Part of our job is to allow the Spirit to enter, to breathe through us, to energize us and carry us beyond our fumbling, muddling ways.
What did Jesus mean by “greater works” that we’ll do? We get our direction by first looking at Jesus’ priorities. He spent his time worrying about the things that God worries about—the poor, the outcasts, those who suffer. He was in the business of bringing about reversals. The poor are lifted up, the prisoners restored to freedom, the sick healed, those pushed down are pulled up, those who are isolated are brought into the circle of community. He came in complete non-violence; he came to bring peace, not a sword, not a gun, not an electric chair, not stealth bombers and tanks. His only weapon was love.
Jesus didn’t spend his time hanging out with only “my kind of folks.” He spent his time mostly with the down-and-outers, the marginal people—the poor, the sick, the mistreated, the left out. He broke down social barriers. He treated women as equals. He welcomed children. He spent time with people who had little power or authority. He wanted to lift up the “little people” and give them new dignity and help them see how much God loves them.
In other words, Jesus took risks on behalf of the least privileged people. That means then that we too will be following Jesus by giving a voice to those who have no voice, by being advocates for the poor, by being agitators for peace in a world gone mad with war and violence. Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, to give us energy to continue his mission—and to do “greater works” than he did. Stop war, end poverty, welcome the stranger, heal the sick.
We do this by taking one person, one project at a time---the “near edge.” As the Spirit leads us, we will write letters to Congress, stand in vigils, use our energies and resources to lift the poor, and reach out to the stranger. We can start a mission group in this church—for migrant workers, for Hispanic neighbors, for the environment. We can’t do it all, but we can respond to the specific task that the Spirit sets before each of us. With our limited energy, we take risks, just as Jesus took risks.
There is a story that some of you have heard me tell. It’s about a general who came to inspect a division of paratroopers, the soldiers who make those parachute jumps out of big airplanes. The general came to one paratrooper and asked him, “How many jumps have you made?” “Over fifty, sir,” the soldier said. “Do you enjoy it?” the general asked. “Yes sir,” he said. The general went down the line asking each soldier these same questions. The he came to another man, small, swallowed up by his uniform. “How about you?” asked the general. “How many jumps have you made?” “Twenty-nine, sir.” “Do you enjoy it?” “Oh no, sir, I hate it, sir. It scares me to death every time I jump.” And the general asked him, “Man, why did you ever join the paratroopers?” The little man swallowed and said, “Because I like to be associated with people who are not afraid to jump, sir.”
Our business is to be a part of a people, Pentecost people, who are so committed to following Jesus and living by the Spirit, that we are not afraid to jump into the middle of human need with all the gumption, courage and compassion we have.
“Greater works than I,” Jesus said, “you will do.”
May it be so. By the power of the Spirit, may it be so.