I’ve been to my fair share of graduation ceremonies—for myself as well as for friends and family. All of them have featured some sort of “commencement speech.” Most of it is the standard inspirational, get-on-with-it, we’re-just-here-for-my-kid kind of variety. Every so often someone will pull out Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You Go as if they’re the very first people to ever read this at commencement (really?).
Commencement. The root word “commence” refers not to an ending but to a beginning. And that’s what commencement ceremonies are meant to do. Students have spent all the time they need (or can afford!) with their instructors. Now it’s time to test their knowledge in the crucible of the real world.
So when we turn to John 14-17, we find what Dallas Willard calls Jesus’ “commencement address.” If you have one of those Bibles where Jesus’ words are all in red, you can easily see that most of these chapters consist of Him teaching. We find two distinct speeches—one in John 14 and another in John 15-16. Both “speeches” are concluded with a prayer.
In this opening section, Jesus is comforting His disciples. He is about to return to the Father; He wants them to know what it means to stay connected to God. In broader terms, we can see these chapters as describing what it really means to be a “church,” something new that would begin after Jesus’ death.
THE TRUE TEMPLE
John 14:1-14 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Jesus returns to an earlier theme. He refers to His “Father’s house.” But do you remember what “Father’s house” referred to in John 2? Jesus “was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:21). Jesus’ death would secure His followers a place in the body of Christ.
And do you remember the actual function of a temple? A temple was a place where God was encountered—a kind of “cosmic crossroads” if you will. Jesus is saying that what took place in a building would now take place in a body—referring to what would later be called the church. So it’s interesting that Philip would take this moment to ask Jesus about seeing God.
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 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 authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
Today’s world is more spiritual than ever. Many, like Philip, long to see God up close. But far, far fewer expect such a radical encounter to happen within the walls of a church. Instead of finding Jesus in a church, many people find themselves disillusioned, disheartened, disgusted. Still others are content not to find Jesus—at least not the Jesus of Scripture—but are satisfied with moral lessons and self-help seminars.
But Jesus is saying that if you want to truly know Me, if you want to truly know God, sooner or later you have to get real with this whole thing called “church.” Too often we look at church as a building, the sum total of its canned programs and a martyr to its own shortcomings. Jesus says that the church is more than that—it’s a body, a living, breathing organism, rich in life and saturated by His gospel. This is why church can never merely be a service to be attended but a community to be embodied. It was a gift—purchased through the blood of Jesus (John 14:3) and given to His people.
DO BIG; DREAM SMALL
Jesus begins to describe the mission of the church:
12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
It’s easy to get lost in the extravagance of Jesus’ words. Whatever I ask? Anything? But let’s not forget the most immediate context. Jesus had displayed an attitude of a humble servant by washing the feet of even those who would betray Him. When Jesus is talking about “greater works,” I somehow can’t imagine He’d taken the towel from around His waist to put on a royal robe.
Again, as I think back to commencement addresses and other such inspirational moments, it’s always been within the context of “dreaming big.” Success means chasing after your dreams—no matter how larger, no matter how foolish they are in the eyes of others. Do you see how dangerous this could be to our spirituality? Think about it. If we only view God as One who accomplishes “big things,” only moves mountains, only causes the sun to stand still, we have placed Him in a very confined box. We have limited His power.
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe in a God powerful enough to accomplish these “big things.” But do you really think that God has a separate category for “big things” and “small things?” If God’s “glory”—His significance, His importance—is about to be revealed in a humiliating death, what does this say about the tasks that lie before us? Is it possible that the power of God is revealed not when we accomplish much, but when we are simply faithful? Is it possible that like Jesus, God’s power is revealed not only in our achievements but in our scars, our wounds? Is it possible that like Jesus, God’s power is manifested in us when we humbly serve others in simple, small ways? Is it possible that like Jesus, God would use our lives to impact only a few people—but carry on a movement that would stretch into eternity?
That’s what church really is. That’s why one’s experience of church can never be fully evaluated on the basis of a Sunday morning experience alone. “Doing” church starts with “being” church. In the next few chapters, Jesus will reveal all the more what this will look like when we throw our hats in the air.