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Wisdom to Follow
Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 2: Wisdom in the Gospels
Sunday school lesson for the week of July 26, 2020
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: John 14:1–14
Key Verse: John 14:6
To affirm that Jesus shows us the way to live a life that honors God
No Place to Call Home
This season of isolation, social distancing, and self-quarantine has gone on for much longer than any of us would have imagined. Perhaps you remember hearing that if we would just be careful for a couple of weeks, we could flatten the curve and return to life as normal. Now our patience is wearing thin. People are tired and frustrated. A pervasive cynicism has taken root, and people are not sure who they can trust or what advice they should accept.
As tough as it seems, though, let me ask you to imagine going through this season without access to a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence that is decent, safe, sanitary, and affordable. Imagine what it is like for those who are homeless. Whether they are living under the bridge, squatting in an abandoned building, spending their nights in a shelter, camping in their car, couch surfing, or making due in a motel room, there are more than half a million people across the United States who are living through this crisis without a place to call home.
On top of that, there may be another four million who are “
doubling up,” or sharing the housing of others for economic reasons. Some of these people have fragile relationships with their hosts or face other challenges in the home, putting them at risk of homelessness.
There are many reasons a person or family may experience homelessness, including high housing costs, low-wage jobs, job loss, catastrophic illness, physical or mental disabilities, substance abuse, death of a family member, family break-up, or domestic violence. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the nation is currently facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history.
For those who are low-income but employed, wages have been stagnant and have not kept pace with rising housing costs. The typical American worker has seen little to no growth in weekly wages over the past three decades. Low-income households are typically unemployed or underemployed due to a number of factors, such as a challenging labor market, limited education, a gap in work history, a criminal record, unreliable transportation, poor health, or a disability.
An acute physical or behavioral health crisis, any long-term disabling condition, or substance abuse may lead to homelessness. A person can become chronically homeless when his or her health condition becomes disabling and stable housing is too difficult to maintain without help. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), people living in shelters are more than twice as likely to have a disability compared to the general population.
Many survivors of domestic violence become homeless when leaving an abusive relationship. Sadly, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence are common among youth, single adults, and families who become homeless.
Racial disparities also contribute to homelessness. Most minority groups in the United States experience homelessness at higher rates than Whites, and therefore make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population. By far the most striking disproportionality can be found among Blacks, who make up 40 percent of the homeless population, despite only representing 13 percent of the general population. From slavery to segregation, Blacks have been systematically denied equal rights and opportunities. The effects of long-standing discrimination linger and perpetuate disparities in poverty, housing, criminal justice, and health care.
Every year, HUD requires that those providing shelter for the homeless conduct a count of people experiencing homelessness who are sheltered in emergency shelter, transitional housing, and Safe Havens on a single night in January. In January 2019, 17 out of every 10,000 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness. These 567,715 people are associated with every region of the country, family status, gender category, and racial/ethnic group.
Compared to the previous year, homelessness increased by 3 percent. This marked the third straight year of national-level increases. Over the last decade, the nation hasn’t made any real progress in reducing the number of Americans who are at risk of homelessness. The current COVID-19 crisis has the potential to overwhelm the current systems of support.
A Place for You
John gives us more details about what occurred in the Upper Room on the night of Jesus’ arrest than any of the other Gospel writers. While the passage we are considering for this lesson begins at the start of chapter 14, John’s account of that night actually starts a chapter earlier. Before we get to the passage we are going to study, it would be helpful to do a quick review of what has just transpired.
Jesus begins by excusing himself from the table and washing the disciples’ feet – including Peter’s, even though he is initially resistant to the idea. Jesus tells them that he is setting an example for them to follow, but then announces that he is aware that not all of them are on board for the mission. Indeed, one of them will betray him. Judas leaves the room, rather conspicuously, but the disciples remain clueless.
Jesus tells them he is leaving them soon and gives them a “new commandment:” “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (13:34).
Peter seems to be stuck on Jesus’ announcement that he is going away, and they cannot follow. Peter makes the bold proclamation, “I’ll give up my life for you” (13:37b). To which Jesus replies with the prediction of Peter’s denial.
That is where we start chapter 14. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” These are powerful words of comfort. So powerful that they are included as the primary suggested gospel passage to be read at funerals. We are so used to hearing these words in that context that we might miss what Jesus was saying to the disciples.
Jesus is saying more than, “I’m going to turn back the sheets, fluff your pillow, and leave you a mint.” Jesus is declaring once again God’s great promise: “I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I could make a home among them” (Exodus 29:46). Jesus is not leaving his disciples to go put the finishing touches on their cabin in the sky; Jesus is announcing that he committed to completing his mission to be “God with us” – “Emmanuel.”
From the Garden in Genesis to the New Jerusalem in Revelation, God does all that God can to establish a “place” where God can be in relationship with those God created. “
s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). Indeed, in John’s prologue, he testifies: “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (1:14a).
Recall that Proverbs is pointing God’s people to the kind of community God desires. It is not an impossible dream. Woman Wisdom promises that it is within the grasp of those who will turn to God. The goal of the faithful must be to know God and God’
s ways more fully and to commit themselves to following the path of righteousness, the way of wisdom – to “
walk blamelessly.” People of faith must value community as a place where the presence of hope, peace, and joy flourish.
Still this is more than just a promise of a place to reside that will be fulfilled following some mysterious future apocalyptic cataclysm. Remember that Woman Wisdom invited those on the street to come into her house. The way of wisdom is the way to fellowship with God. It is not just an invitation into the living room, but an invitation to the table – an invitation to a feast. “
Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:5).
Jesus is saying that he is going to prepare more than a room in God’s mansion; Jesus is preparing a place at the table for his followers. Not only is Jesus preparing a place at the table for them, Jesus is the feast: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them (John 6:56). In John 15 Jesus declares “I am the vine; you are the branches” (5), and then over and over he says “abide in me,” “remain in me,” “live in me.” Somehow Jesus is saying that what he is about to do will accomplish God’s intention – and Jesus’ intention – “that where I am you will be too” (John 14:3c).
This is not the only time that Jesus has promised his disciples that he will be with them following his death, resurrection, and ascension. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” Matthew 28:20b). If we only offer people the promise of the presence of Jesus in some other life, we have robbed them of a great treasure.
Finding Your Way
This was difficult for the disciples to comprehend. What Jesus says next was even more mystifying: “You know the way to the place I’
m going” (John 14:4).
Perhaps everyone in the room feels like Jesus is speaking in riddles, but it is Thomas who asks the awkward question: “
Lord, we don’
t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).
Before we look at Jesus’ answer, let’s review what we have learned about “the way” when we were still studying Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Halakha
is the Hebrew word for the practical application of the 613 commandments in the Torah. It is commonly translated as “law.” However, this word is derived from the Hebrew root halakh
– “to walk” or “to go.” So taken literally, halakha
translates as “the way to walk.” This is important because wisdom leads one to “
walk blamelessly.” And when a person is walking blamelessly – in a way that honors God’
s will and purpose – that path leads to righteousness, justice, and equity – or put another way, “to grow in favor with God and humans” (Luke 2:52).
Why did Jesus invite disciples with the words, “follow me”? Could it be that Jesus was fully committed to “walking blamelessly” the “path of righteousness”? That is why Jesus declares, “
I am the way” (John 14:6). And Jesus is the true way, the way that leads to life.
One of the distinctive features of the gospel of John are the seven “I am” statements of Jesus. This is one of those seven. All of them are invitations to living life in right relationship with God and with one another. Each of them acknowledges the sovereignty of God and of God’s desire to restore the relationship with humanity. Throughout his life Jesus has affirmed by the words he has said and the life he has lived that God deserves our respect, our obedience, and our utmost regard for the ineffable wonder of God’
s presence, power, and glory. Those who live in alignment with the way of wisdom – those who “
fear the Lord” – experience a covenant community where people live in right relationship with one another and with God. In this community – founded on the wisdom of God – people discover a more complete understanding and a deeper appreciation of the power, presence, and wisdom of God – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
Doing the Work
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
From the beginning of his gospel, John has explicitly and repeatedly made the point that Jesus and God are inextricably united. Look at the long discourse in chapter five where Jesus begins by saying, “
Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (5:19). When Jesus is declaring that he is the bread of life, he says clearly this is not his idea: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (6:38). When Jesus announces, “The Father and I are one” (10:30), the religious leaders start looking around for stones. So if you hear a bit of exasperation in Jesus’ reply to Philip’s question, it may have something to do with the reality that this is not the first time Jesus has made this claim.
Jesus pushes on. “Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves” (14:11). Let me paraphrase: “If you don’t trust my testimony, just look at the evidence.” Some have said that Jesus is asking his disciples to consider the miracles he has performed. When you review all four gospels, most scholars agree they recount 36 distinct supernatural events.
John includes only seven “signs” in his gospel: changing water into wine at Cana (2:1-11), healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum (4:46-54), healing the paralytic at Bethesda (5:1-15), feeding the 5,000 (6:5-14), Jesus walking on water (6:16-24), healing the man born blind (9:1-7), and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45). At the close of the gospel John writes that Jesus did many other signs, but that he chose these, in particular, that his readers would “believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’
s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name” (20:31).
Over the centuries, scholars and theologians have considered these seven signs and the seven “I am” sayings as more than evidence of Jesus’ supernatural power, but as an indication of the type of kingdom Jesus came to announce and establish. Healing, feeding, forgiving, restoring are all characteristics of a realm based on mercy, grace, and love. It could be that Jesus is asking the disciples to consider the congruity between what he has done – “the evidence of the works” – and the character of God’s nature. He trusts that when they consider that evidence, they will believe that he is in the Father, and the Father is in him.
And when they believe, they will “do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father” (14:12). This is a powerful promise, but it is not necessarily the promise of supernatural power. It is the promise that those who follow the path of wisdom – “the way” – will be empowered to establish a community that more fully reflects the character of God. Working in line with God’s plan and purpose – healing, feeding, forgiving, and restoring in Jesus’ name – they will extend God’s reputation and more people will come to trust in God’s mercy, grace, and love.
Even Greater Things
Thanks to the work of Rev. Bobby Gale and the mission organization he established and leads, Unto the Least of His ministry (www.totheleast.com
), more than 50,000 people are able to drink fresh, clean water. Their vision is to equip individuals and churches to become more actively involved in Christian mission opportunities and service. “We are called to present the Gospel to the lost and encourage the faithful, give a cup of water to the thirsty, clothe the poor, feed the hungry, visit the sick and the imprisoned. We are called to equip and train leaders and churches to reach out to people of all ages and in all walks of life.
Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia (www.helpendhunger.org
) serves as the food safety net for tens of thousands of children, senior citizens, low-income families, and people with disabilities who are at risk for hunger. They work diligently to feed the hungry by distributing nutritious food to non-profit agencies and at-risk elderly and youth. Their programs are designed to provide hunger relief to those most vulnerable. They partner with 298 faith based and non-profit agencies to provide emergency food assistance. Last year, Second Harvest food bank provided more than 16.1 million meals (more than 19.4 million pounds of food) to hungry people.
In May 1968, a group of young doctors decided to go and help victims of wars and major disasters. This new brand of humanitarianism would reinvent the concept of emergency aid. They were to become Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known internationally in English as Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org
). MSF was officially created on December 22, 1971. At the time, 300 volunteers made up the organization: doctors, nurses, and other staff, including the 13 founding doctors and journalists. MSF was created on the belief that all people have the right to medical care regardless of gender, race, religion, creed, or political affiliation, and that the needs of these people outweigh respect for national boundaries. Since 1980, MSF has opened offices in 28 countries and employs more than 30,000 people across the world. Since its founding, MSF has treated over a hundred million patients – with 8.25 million outpatient consultations being carried out in 2014 alone.
Habitat for Humanity (habitat.org
) is a global nonprofit Christian housing organization that was founded in 1976 outside Americus, Ga. by Linda and Millard Fuller. Habitat now works in all 50 states in the U.S. and in more than 70 countries and has helped more than 29 million people achieve strength, stability and independence through safe, decent and affordable shelter. Their mission is to bring people together to build homes, communities and hope as they seek to put God’
s love into action. Habitat subscribes to a vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
Clean water to drink, food to eat, healing for bodies and communities, a place to call home: I give thanks for those who follow “the way” in our world today.
Rev. Ashley Randall is the pastor of Garden City UMC in Garden City, Ga.
- What do you know about the state of homelessness in your community?
- How have you experienced Jesus preparing a place for you?
- What other organizations do you know are doing great things in Jesus’ name?