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6th Sunday in Easter, Year C

"The Father is Greater than I"


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...And then he says these words: “For the Father is greater than I.” Now, alright, what does that mean? Have you ever wondered that? I thought Jesus was God. Isn’t he fully divine? Isn’t he God from God, light from light, true God from true God? I mean, that’s what we confess in the Creed. And the foundation, one of the foundations of Christianity is the confession of Jesus’ divine Sonship. That he isn’t just a man, but that he is God made flesh. Especially in the Gospel of John, it’s the Gospel of John who says, “And the beginning was the word, the word was with God, the word was God, and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” No gospel seems to reveal the mystery of Jesus’ divine identity more clearly than the Gospel of John. And yet it’s in the Gospel of John (and not in the other gospels) that we find Jesus say “the Father is greater than I.” So, throughout the centuries, heretics, various people who had erroneous views of Jesus, have latched on to this verse to argue that Jesus isn’t divine or that he isn’t fully God, or that he’s somehow “less than the Father”; that he’s “subordinate” to the Father. You’ll sometimes see that terminology used. And so, what do we say as Catholics to that? How do we interpret the verse?

Well the answer to that’s real simple. We just ignore it. We don’t talk about it. We don’t preach about it. We just pretend like it’s not there. No, okay, that’s wrong. That’s not what we do. The Church canonized the scriptures. This is not a surprise to us, that Jesus says, “The Father is greater than I” in the Gospel of John. The Church gave us the Gospel of John and said this is the word of God. So the question becomes not “what do we do with the verse?” (in the sense of, “do we take it out of the Bible” or “do we ignore it”), the question becomes, “what does it mean? How do we understand this verse in context (in the context of the whole gospel).” And I’m going to come back to the living tradition in just a second, and we’ll look at how this verse was interpreted by St. Augustine, but for now I would just make this one clear point: in its broader context, this verse cannot mean that Jesus is denying his divinity, because the whole Gospel of John is structured around revealing the fullness of Jesus’ divinity. So the Gospel of John begins by saying “the word was with God and the word was God.” The first line says that the word who became flesh is God. There’s both a distinction (there’s the word and there’s God), but there’s also equality, he was God. And if you fast forward to the end of the gospel (or, almost the end), how does it climax? With Thomas (the disciple) saying, “My lord and my God.” And Jesus does not say, “Woah, woah Thomas, you’ve got it all wrong here. I’m just a man.” If Jesus had said in that context, “No, Thomas, the Father is greater than I”, then you might think “Okay, well, there’s got to be some difference here. He’s denying his divinity.” But that’s not the case, Jesus accepts the worship due to God alone that Thomas gives him in John 20. And then, of course, there are all kinds of passages throughout the gospel, like John 10:30, “I and the Father are one”, Where the Jews pick up stones and they’re going to kill Jesus because “he, although a man, is making himself God.”

So, the fullness of Jesus’ divinity is really unquestionable in the Gospel of John. So the question becomes, well what does he mean in this verse, by saying, ‘The Father is greater than I”? Well the answer is really simple, although, it takes some pondering to understand fully. The answer is simple. As Catholics, you have to remember, in the Gospel of John, Jesus isn’t just fully God, he’s also fully man. He’s fully human. And in the context of his Last Supper discourse, what is Jesus focusing on here? Is he focusing on the mystery of his divinity? Or is he focusing on his humanity, that is about to be crucified, that is about to die, and that is to be raised and then do what? Ascend to the Father. “I’m going to go to the Father.” So in context here, the emphasis is on his human nature, his human body, which is going to be crucified, it’s going to be put to death, and it’s going to rise again, and then here’s the great mystery of the ascension: something unprecedented will take place. Namely, that a human body, which is finite and limited (it only takes up one place), which has flesh and bone and takes up matter and space, that limited human body is going to be glorified and is going to enter into the life of the Trinity. It’s going to return to the Father.

That’s something that’s never happened before. So in terms of the mystery of the Trinity, from all eternity, as John says at the beginning of his gospel: “There was the word. There was the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are the eternal God, the triune God.” But Father, Son and Spirit are all pure spirit, right? They’re not bodies. They don’t have limitations of space and time. They are the eternal triune God. But when the second person of the Trinity takes on a human nature, when the word becomes flesh, as John says at the beginning of the gospel, one of those persons of the Trinity assumes a finite, limited, human nature. This means he has a body, he has a soul, a human mind, a human will, everything that there is about being human (which by definition is being limited) is assumed except for sin. So in context here, what Jesus is speaking about is not his divine nature, but his human nature, his human body, which is less than the Father. The Father is omnipotent, omnipresent (he’s present everywhere, that’s what omnipresent means). But in his humanity, is the Son omnipresent? Well, no. He’s omnipresent in spirit, but not in his body; his body is limited.

So the Father here is greater than Christ in the sense of Christ’s humanity (his limited human nature). And so what he’s telling the disciples is, if you understood this, you would actually rejoice because my human nature is going to be put to death. My human body will die and it will be raised again and then I will return to the Father. You should rejoice at that, because before the ascension of Jesus, there is no human being (no human nature) that has been brought into the life of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). That union of God and humanity is something that takes place through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. It’s the entry of Jesus into the life of the Trinity, not just in his divine nature, which has always been the case; he’s always been united with the Father and the Spirit for all eternity in his divine nature, but something new is taking place in the human nature that he’s assumed in the incarnation.

Now, I guess that maybe doesn’t pass…I said earlier that it’s really simple, so maybe it’s not really simple. It is a mystery. But what I mean is that it’s clear when you look at what Jesus’ words are…it’s clear what he doesn’t mean in context. He’s not denying his divinity, he talking about his humanity. And whenever you look at the words of Jesus in the gospels, always remember, although we don’t separate them, it’s important to distinguish between…sometimes he will be talking about his divine nature and other times he’ll be talking about his human nature. And it’s always crucial to kind of ask yourself, which of those is he focusing on? Because there is a distinction between the two that’s important to keep in mind. He’s not saying the Father’s greater than him, with reference to his divine nature, but the Father is greater than him with reference to his humanity, to his human nature, which is the focus of these words.

Okay, let’s do something a little easier. Let’s go to the Acts of the Apostles and talk about why we can eat crawfish...

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