GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
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.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
…but another is the symbolism of the number twelve -- tied to the new Jerusalem. So notice here it says that the city has twelve gates and at those gates are twelve angels. And on the gates are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. So think here of the tribe of Ruben or Simeon or Levi or Judah, each one of these gates has the name of a tribe or a son of Jacob on it. And then also there are the twelve foundations, and this is interesting that the twelve foundations have on them, not the twelve names of the twelve sons of Jacob, but the twelve names of the twelve Apostles of Christ. So Peter and Andrew, James and John, Thomas, Bartholomew, all of the names of the Apostles, presumably here with the inclusion here of Mathias, right? Who is the replacement of Judas. So what John is showing us here -- this is fascinating -- is to the extent that the New Jerusalem is an image of the Church, of the Church Triumphant, of the bride of Christ. Notice that the way you get into the Church, the access is through the old covenant, right? You have the twelve tribes of Israel, but the foundations of the Church are the twelve Apostles of the lamb. So it's a very powerful image that we actually see elsewhere in Revelation too, of the old and the new together in the Church. So for example, earlier in the book of Revelation, you'll see the twenty-four elders having these twenty-four thrones and you might think, well, wait, is the number twenty-four significant in Scripture? Well, not on its own, but when you recall that twelve plus twelve makes twenty-four, it's a symbol of the plentitude of the righteous, not just from the new covenant, but from the old covenant as well, coming together in the one church of Christ.
And then the third aspect of the New Jerusalem that John highlights -- it's really fascinating -- is that unlike the earthly Jerusalem, where the center of the city was the Temple, right? Even to this day, people will go to the Dome of the rock. There's a Muslim mosque up there now, but that's where the Temple used to be. And then the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall were the foundation stones for the Temple in Jerusalem, and that holy site is still the central site in the earthly city of Jerusalem. Well, for John, who would've made pilgrimages to the earthly Jerusalem and to the Temple in particular during his life as a Jew, one of the striking things he notices about the New Jerusalem is there's no Temple. Now if you say there's no Temple, the first thing a Jew might think is, well then God's not present there, right? Because the Temple was the dwelling place of God. But what John does is he qualifies that. He says:
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
So just as the earthly Temple was the visible sign of the invisible presence of God in the earthly Jerusalem, now in the heavenly Jerusalem, in the New Jerusalem, there isn't a need for a visible sign of God's presence because his actual presence is the Temple itself. So the Temple is the presence of God and the lamb in this mystical New Jerusalem. So it is very, very powerful imagery there. On the one hand you could say there's a new Temple, which is Christ. On the other hand you could say there's no Temple because the Temple was both a sign of presence, but also a barrier too, right? It was meant to point something invisible, but in the New Jerusalem, the risen Christ is visible and is fully present. So there's no need for a stone temple or a place of mortar and brick to symbolize invisible presence…
We could say much more, but that'll do for now.
In closing, I just want to highlight here something significant in this description of the new Jerusalem, and it's the relationship between the new Jerusalem and the apostolic Church. Let's shift gears for just a second, this is important. When I say the word church, what do you think about? Many people will think first and foremost of the earthly institution of the church, right? So if you are Catholic, you probably think of the Catholic Church, right? The communion of bishops, the body of bishops and faithful in communion with the success of St. Peter. And that's good. If you're from another Christian tradition, you might think of your local church, or even maybe you're a national church, right? If you're in the Orthodox tradition, like the Russian Orthodox Church; but in scripture, although the church can have different manifestations on earth, what John here is describing is the heavenly church, or what we sometimes call the Church Triumphant, which is embodied in this vision of the new Jerusalem. And what I can't help but notice as I look at that, is that the foundation of the Church, although it is of course Christ, right? He's the cornerstone. Revelation's really clear that the foundation of the Church are the Twelve Apostles. So every time we profess the creed, we say "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." What does that mean, apostolic? It doesn't just mean that the church I belong to comes down through visible history through the apostles and their successors. It means that, but it also means that the church to which I belong participates in a real way in the heavenly reality of the new Jerusalem, which is founded on twelve foundation stones of the Twelve Apostles; that the church participates in the triumphal reality, the mystical reality, the glorious reality of the invisible heavenly church in which the Triune God twelves, whose gates are the twelve tribes of the old covenant and whose foundations are the Twelve Apostles of the new covenant.
And with that in mind, just one last point. Sometimes Catholics are criticized by non-Catholic Christians for putting too much emphasis on the church. In fact, sometimes our Protestant brothers and sisters will say, "well we might be sola scriptura, but you all are sola ecclesia. We put all our focus on the Bible, but you put all your focus on the church, the church alone." And my response to that would be that in one sense, that's actually true, because if you look at Revelation 21, what is salvation? What is the ultimate destiny of all humanity, other than the Church? This is what John's describing. He describes the new heaven and the new earth and the new Jerusalem, which is the Church Triumphant, as if they are one thing, because ultimately at the end of the day there is no salvation apart from the Church, any more than there is salvation apart from being a member of the new Jerusalem. When you look at the new Jerusalem, what is it other than the Church? Not only is it centered on Christ, on the lamb, but also it's founded on the Twelve Apostles. The very foundations of the new Jerusalem are the Twelve Apostles. So if there's no salvation outside of the heavenly Jerusalem, then it follows that there's no salvation outside of the apostolic Church, because the new Jerusalem is nothing other than the church, which Christ has founded on the Twelve Apostles. That's why it says:
the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
In other words, what the book of Revelation is revealing, what the Church Fathers see here and what the book of Revelation is revealing is that the Church is not just an earthly institution. That even the apostolicity of the Church is not just a historical reality or an institutional reality, but that it's a mystical reality. It's a heavenly reality in which the Church and the Pope and the bishops and the faithful continue to participate as we await the final coming of Christ on the last day, when the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Church will be united as one in this new Jerusalem, in this new creation, in this new heaven and this new earth.For full access subscribe here >