Greater Works Than These

By Pastor Seth

You will do greater works than these.

We hear this proclamation from the mouth of Christ in the Gospel of John. And no, Jesus is not talking to another messiah, not talking to some heavenly being, not talking to God, but to his disciples. These words are part of Jesus’s departing discourse to his disciples, serving as a means of preparing them for the eventuality of his death. But he doesn’t just say: Good luck, try hard! No, he says you will do greater things than these — addressing his team of rag tag outcasts and lowly laborers, whom society would have labeled anything but “great.”

In our scripture for today, Phillip tells Jesus to “show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus replies by imparting a little theological lesson: “whoever has seen me has seen the Father…do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:8-10). Language like this is typical of John, for, of all the Gospels, John is undoubtedly the most spiritualized. Having been written later than the Synoptics, the Gospel of John is a product of time: time to review and reflect and reframe the life and teachings of Jesus in more theological, spiritual terms. There are stories and teachings found in the Gospel of John that are not found in any other Gospel account, theological embellishments and flourishes that serve the purpose of providing more explicit language and ways of understanding Christ, the Son of God. And we see that in this passage.

Jesus is not shy about his identification with the Divine; there is no messianic secret like we find in other Gospels. Jesus says, whoever has seen me has seen God, for I am in God and God is in me. It’s quite a seemingly lofty statement, an elevating remark pointing to the divinity of his nature. And yet, even after identifying himself with such spiritual heights, such capacity for greatness, Jesus says, “you will do greater works than these” to his disciples.

How are we supposed to do greater works than Christ? What is Jesus trying to say here in John 14:8-14?


Congregational Response

How are we supposed to do greater works than Christ?

  • Christ has confidence in us
  • We are the body of Christ; greater as more
  • The empowerment of the Holy Spirit

Theological Reflection

Of all the civil rights leaders gone before us, it is arguable that we know the most about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Aside from his speeches and sermons, interviews and writings, affording glimpses into this remarkable heart and mind, there exists more nefarious proof to this statement — for wherever King went, so too did the listening ear of the FBI. Led by the racist agenda of FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, Hoover amounted a full blown surveillance attack on King in the 60s, which included bugging his hotel rooms, tapping his phone, and maneuvering informants into every facet of King’s not-so-private and public life.

Convinced of King’s alliance with the Communists but quickly turning into an attack on King himself, an anxious Hoover sought to destroy his reputation, intending to gather evidence that would discredit his character, halt the traction of his message, and force him to step down as a leader for civil rights. It was an effort by the FBI that began after King’s involvement with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 but that ramped up exponentially in the final four years of his life — going so far as to send King an anonymous letter suggesting he commit suicide. In the year before King’s assassination, the FBI formed an entire counter intelligence program against him and, in their words, “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” — targeting him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with vigor and vitriol for fear that King would become a “messiah” figure to unite other “Black nationalists” against the state. “The world’s most notorious liar,” Hoover called Martin Luther King. In retrospect, though, instead of memorializing King under the shadow of infamy, all the FBI really accomplished was painting a fuller picture of King’s humanity (kinginstitute.stanford.edu).

From listening in on his phone calls, observing his interactions, and intruding upon the comfort of his own privacy, the FBI’s findings presented a more complete and complex depiction of the man behind the dream. A man who smoked cigarettes when he thought no one was watching, who cheated on his wife on numerous occasions, who struggled deeply with his mental and physical health. A man who made mistakes and was by no means perfect. But what these findings also revealed was a man of unbelievable conviction, of unquenchable passion for justice, committed to the struggle for equality even to the detriment of his own well being. A man who worked tirelessly, despite the threats and degradation, towards a future where the validity of one’s humanity was not based upon the color of one’s skin.

Martin Luther King was a lot of things, including a leader and preacher, a father and husband, a friend and advisor, complete with flaws and follies and convinced that humanity can and must do better. In an interview with Time Magazine, David Garrow, a biographer of King, remarks: “It is ironic [that] the best evidence of what a selfless human being Martin Luther King was comes from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI,” (https://time.com/5930571/martin-luther-king-jr-fbi/). And first and foremost, that is who Martin Luther King was: a human being. A human being who struggled and prayed, indulged and sacrificed, contemplated and wrestled, whose blood ran red like you and me — who fought for the freedom to simply exist, be.

I think we tend to relate to the people we look up to, especially heroes of history, by doing exactly that: only looking up. We place their personhood on a pedestal of perfection and their achievements in the realm of the ideal — far away from our own common, ordinary humanity. And make no mistake, figures like King and other civil rights leaders unquestionably deserve our reverence, appreciation, and admiration, but our relation to these remarkable titans of change requires, too, our recognition of their humanity. When we idolize those who have lived extraordinary lives of compassion and justice, those who have impacted the very face of the world through their heroism and selflessness, we have a habit of painting a glaze over their lives — drawing our focus solely to the shimmering tint of seemingly superhuman standards. In so doing, we oftentimes reduce them to their achievements, lessening their humanity and, in the process, convince ourselves that loving one another is for the legends not little old me. But we could not be more mistaken.

In Christ’s parting words to his disciples, he does not just make a statement; he utters a charge. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do even greater works than these,” (John 14:12). Whether referring to quantity, quality, or both, one thing is clear: Christ has unbelievable faith in the humanity of his disciples. He does not say they must become the next messiah or be God in order to do so. He simply invites them, as they are, to be successors to the work Christ began in recognition that the Kin-dom of God is participatory. Jesus’s words here are a proclamation that the work of love is not some unreachable ideal of perfection — for it is Christ’s humanity that calls to our own, incarnating the spirit of justice, mercy, and grace in the realm of the attainable here and now.

Of course, not everyone can be Dr. King’s or Nelson Mandela’s — and we’re not called to be. Who we are called to be is who God made us to be: our own expression of humanity, charged with enacting change in the places we have been placed in and never selling short our capacity to do the work of love God has ordained in each of us. But the first step of doing the work of love is remembering that we are defined by our humanity first, not by how much our humanity produces. Danté Stewart — an up-and-coming contemporary Black liberationist, author, preacher, and former classmate of mine in seminary — makes this poignant statement in his book Shoutin’ in the Fire:

“Black people should not have to be perfect to stay alive, be seen, and be loved. Black History Month is not just telling stories of how we have been ‘exceptional.’ It is about embracing the fullness of our lives and creating a world where we are free to be human…The story I want to tell is this: Our lives are not just resistance. Our lives are not just lessons. We are not heroes. We are not villains. We are human—as beautiful as we are terrible. And we are worthy of the deepest love,” (Stewart, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle).

I think one of the hardest things about being human, especially if we are on the recieving end of oppression, is believing for ourselves that we are worthy of love: complete with all our blemishes and beauty marks, flaws and flourishes, exceptionality and ordinariness. We think that we must achieve greatness before we can claim God’s affirmation of our goodness. We must ascend to heights of heroism before our heart is deemed enough. We must check off all the boxes of righteousness before we get a seat at the table. That we must “do” before we can earn the right to “be,” but that could not be more contrary to the love that Christ calls us to be in the world.

When Jesus says, “you will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father,” I wonder if part of what he means is that he will not be around in flesh and blood much longer to show them God’s love in person. That, soon, they will have to rely upon themselves and the Spirit working through them to be the love that God calls them to be. You will do greater works than these because this being human is hard, and loving our humanity can sometimes be even harder. You will do greater works than these because you will have to draw upon the love that is inside you, that is the core of your very being, without me physically there to remind you when your mind leads your heart astray.

Very truly I tell you, your humanity is worthy enough for the Spirit to work through. This Kin-dom work, this work of love must always begin with the recognition of our own belovedness — not in spite of our messy humanity but inclusive of it. For it is only by relating to ourselves in the light of grace that we are able to relate to others in the light of grace, as well. What a world it would be if that were so for us all.

This Black History Month, let us not look upon the achievements of others as some vacuum sealed, sterilized ideal to reach in order to be enough — for achievement always has a story underneath it and a human being behind it. Instead, may we look to the humanity of one another as a means of empowering our own humanity, bearing the cross only we can bear and letting our hearts be stirred wherever needs reminding of love. In so doing, may we realize that perhaps the greatest work we are called to in this life is reminding ourselves who we truly are: human beings, worthy of the deepest love.