Easter 5A: What Spiders?
By: Jay Butler
Growing up, my family strongly emphasized our faith in God through Jesus Christ. We went to church all the time, participated in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and any other activity that the church offered. It’s not that I was forced to go either. I genuinely wanted to be there. As a product of me being there all the time, I picked up a lot of information, especially after I started attending a Christian school in seventh grade. I was a “Bible class All-star”, because I was banking all of this knowledge. Knowing that information was important to my faith. It also warped what I thought a relationship with Christ was, but that’s a whole different story, for a whole different time.
My job as pastor now requires me to use that knowledge to help my congregation, and to help my congregation understand the importance of having that knowledge in their lives. Being a pastor also means we have to deal with people who don’t get it the first, or second time. It’s not because they’re trying to undermine your ministry. They just genuinely don’t get it. Nevertheless, ministry can sometimes give you “facepalm” moments.
Have you ever heard of a “facepalm” moment? A “facepalm” moment is when you are either so embarrassed or frustrated at something or someone, you put the palm of your hand up to your face and just shake your head in disgust. One of my most memorable “facepalm” moments occurred in seventh grade. We were reading “The Hobbit” in English class. In “The Hobbit,” Bilbo and his company of dwarves encounter and run away from a band of giant spiders. We talked about them for days in class, because it’s a sizable portion of the plot. However, one girl in our class looked up from her book and asked our class, “What spiders?” The class just froze. How could you miss that? The whole class just shook their head in disgust. Jesus must have a lot of those moments in the Gospels.
Jesus, in His ever-abundant patience, dealt with a lot of questions during His ministry on earth. Whether it’s people asking Him questions they already know the answer to, or Pharisees trying to trap Him with questions, Jesus answers them all to some degree. He also answers questions from his apostles. Oftentimes they’re questions they should already know the answer to. In this week’s Gospel reading, John 14:1-14, I want to look at the dynamic between Jesus and His apostles, specifically Jesus’ responses to those questions.
John 14:1-14 takes place in the middle of Jesus’ “Last Supper Teachings.” These are the final teachings of Jesus before He is arrested, and starts a process that leads to the death and resurrection of our Savior. It has iconic verses, such as, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” In many ways, this is Jesus’ farewell sermon. However, the first thing I notice when approaching this scripture is not Jesus’ profound wisdom, but the apostles’ many interruptions.
Jesus is interrupted twice in only fourteen verses. Thomas asks in verse 5, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In the next verse, Jesus responds with the iconic “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, when Phillip asks Jesus another question, Jesus seems exasperated. It reads as though Jesus is confounded by the idea that Phillip doesn’t know the answer to his own question. For the longest time, when reading the Gospels, I grew frustrated at the apostles’ supposed sheer stupidity. How can you not understand what Jesus is saying? What don’t you get when it comes to following God? I then had a stark realization that my viewpoint was immensely prideful and arrogant. It was then I began to identify with the apostles in the Gospels.
Character studies can be a tricky way to exegete scripture. It’s not an exact science, but it allows the text to come to life, not just in the interpreter, but in the congregation that hears the interpretation. When we dive into the characters of the Bible, we make theology more relevant and applicable to our congregations. When preparing a sermon on this text, my mind immediately wanders towards the apostles. I want to know what they’re thinking, because even though Phillip and Thomas are the only ones that John mentions as asking questions, I’m sure that the others had questions as well. What was going through their head-space during Jesus’ last sermon? The text focuses a lot on Jesus leaving the apostles, so maybe there was confusion. This wasn’t the first time Jesus spoke about this in the book of John. Jesus has been dropping hints that he will be betrayed and die, so maybe there’s fear and anxiety. Finally, there may be some anger or stubbornness (I’m looking at you, Peter), because they do not want their Rabbi to be hurt, and will do whatever it takes to protect Him. Whatever they felt, I feel it’s necessary to look at the apostles and to look at their questions from their perspective.
When looking at the interactions between Thomas, Phillip, and Jesus, I notice that Jesus is trying to give some of His most important theology as an answer to the apostles’ questions. In the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “These verses announce in clear language the theological conviction that drives the Fourth Evangelist’s work…” The verse that that theological conviction is based off of is verse six, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This powerful display of the power of God is in response to a “dumb question”! It wouldn’t have been given if Thomas hadn’t asked that question!
Thank the Lord that the Lord is so patient. Our humanity gives God many “facepalm” moments, but the Lord is just and powerful. It allows us to ask the questions like, “What spiders?” that portray us as not seeing the work of God overtly playing out in our lives. It gives us the freedom to grow, because God gives us gems in response to our questions. It frees us to grow unhindered, and to leave no proverbial stone unturned. Thank the Lord for patience, and ask your stupid questions.
Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.
 O’Day Gail R., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Luke/John, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (1995; repr., Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 633-34.