What is “enough for us”? Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 14:1–12:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”

As we try to stumble our way through a once-in-a-century pandemic, one of the great challenges we face is sufficiency. What exactly is “enough”? Our life in the material world requires sufficiency — we have to feed our families, put a roof over our heads, clean the homes under those roofs, and make enough income to have some confidence in our ability to do all these things. Those are normal concerns.

The extent and scope of our definition of sufficiency is what this crisis tests — in me, anyway. How much food should be in the refrigerator for the two of us? Do we need to have more disinfectant strategies as the virulence of COVID-19 continues? How many rolls of toilet paper are truly sufficient? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into detail here …)

Can we rely on what is truly sufficient, or do we demand more than sufficiency? In this kind of crisis, when production lines are shutting down and people are losing jobs left and right, our impulse is not to scale down our estimations of sufficiency but to scale them up. I have not done any better than most people in falling prey to that kind of despair, as my basement stock recently revealed to me. When we lose confidence in our world, our vision of sufficiency changes — at times, dramatically.

In today’s Gospel reading, this question comes up just as the disciples truly grasp that Jesus will leave them as He prepares them at the Last Supper. They are aghast at the news that Jesus will sacrifice Himself, and that “where I am going, you cannot come.” By this time, they had all understood Jesus to be the Messiah, even if they had not completely realized the implications of what that meant. The disciples had spent years with Jesus on His mission and had grown in faith in Him. Now, at this moment, Jesus presented them with what they saw as an existential crisis — a blow so profound that it might have alienated them in any other circumstance, and did alienate Judas Iscariot, who had just left the room in John’s telling.

The reaction to this news is telling. First, Peter tries to stop the Passion even to the point of violence, promising to sacrifice himself for Jesus’ sake. Jesus rebukes Peter and predicts he will deny Jesus three times rather than stand up for him in panic over this existential crisis. (Peter does at first try violence later in the Garden of Gethsemane to stop Jesus’ arrest as well.) Thomas laments that all will be lost with Jesus’ departure.

Finally, Philip redefines sufficiency to suit his own despair. Show us God, Philip proposes, and “that will be enough for us.” That disclosed Philip’s crisis of faith in Jesus, who until that point had been accepted by all the disciples as the Son of God based on Jesus’ words, works, and love. Belief and faith were no longer sufficient in this crisis, and Philip’s request comes across as a desperate ultimatum, one to which Jesus responds kindly and with love, but firmly sets aside.

What does Jesus say in response? “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do.” Philip wants proof rather than faith, even though the proof has been in front of his eyes for years. He wants to see to believe, but contrary to the old axiom, seeing is not believing. Seeing is witnessing. Philip has seen but not had complete faith, a point which demonstrates this lesson, and would not have complete faith until after the Resurrection and Pentecost.

The irony of this should be apparent to most Christians, who at one time or another fantasize about traveling to the time of the apostles and watching Christ in His earthly mission. We believe, imperfectly of course, without having seen any of this for ourselves, only reading about Christ’s works through His witnesses, and we find that sufficient. Philip walked with Christ for three years and saw His works first-hand, and yet at the crisis does not find that sufficient.

I am not arguing that we are somehow superior in faith to the apostles — far from it, in fact. We hear these stories through the witness of these apostles. How else does Peter’s story of denying Jesus three times come to us but from the confession of Peter himself? How else does John write this story of Philip except with Philip’s cooperation? We would never know the story of “Doubting Thomas” without Thomas’ cooperation in making it an object lesson of faith over personal scrutiny, one that has overshadowed Thomas’ full contribution to the early church.

In this way (among others), these apostles sacrificed themselves for our sake. They made themselves into cautionary tales at times because they knew we would face these same struggles, these same crises of faith, and the same despair. They confess their weaknesses and shortcomings to us to remind us that they were all flawed and frail human beings, too. Even as close to Jesus as they were, they struggled with their own definitions of sufficiency in faith and trust, and they did not always make the right decisions.

These days, we struggle with these questions in a multitude of ways. Our brothers who came before us offer their own experience to remind us that faith is stronger than despair, and that materiality does not answer the depths of the latter. We are beings of of both materiality and spirituality, made in God’s image, so the material can never been sufficient for our yearning. Only the Father can fill that darkness — and if we focus on Him rather than our own despair, we can find that our definition of “what is enough” changes dramatically as well.

The front page image is a detail from “Calling of the Apostles,” a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandio, c. 1481, in the Sistine Chapel. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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