A False Literal
“Where I am going, you cannot come.”
Renewed by this glory, Jesus has the personal security and steadfast confidence to turn his attention to the disciples. He prepares them for what is about to take place. He addresses them as “my children,” a term of endearment. He underscores their abiding relationship. He reassures them of his love. Jesus is off his knees, fully dressed and seated at the table, but the humility of the God who kneels prevails. Jesus seeks to comfort and encourage his disciples.
“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.”
At first glance this applies only to the original group of disciples who were literally with Jesus. He was concerned to prepare them for his physical departure and to guide them into a new phase of discipleship. They could no longer walk with Jesus nor enjoy table fellowship. They could not see him heal the sick or hear him preach. He was no longer there for them in a literal sense and they had to adjust. The New Testament is a testimony to the fact that the disciples made this adjustment amazingly well. Of course, they did so not in their own strength, but through the power and wisdom of the Spirit of the risen and ascended Lord.
In the upper room, Peter found Jesus’ statement especially difficult to grasp. Like a patient in a doctor’s office being informed of a difficult diagnosis, Peter missed what Jesus had to say about the new commandment. He was still focused on the line, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” He seems to speak on behalf of the group, voicing their shared concern, when he says, “Lord, where are you going?”
The absence of a literal, physical Jesus is as relevant for us as it was for the original band of disciples. The disciples had to learn how to follow Jesus without his physical presence. This is true for today’s disciples as well. The danger of a “false literal” confronts the church today as it always has. Given the absence of Jesus, we are given to substitutes that stand in the place of a physical Jesus.
The literal concreteness of a pre-Easter Jesus becomes transposed into the “false literal” experience of spiritual leaders who focus attention on themselves. It can be powerful personalities, but it can also be ecclesiastical bureaucracies, church buildings, cherished practices, and spiritual experiences, that stand in the place of Jesus. Traditional religious rituals, mega-church superstars, and down-home country pastors can substitute for the Spirit of the risen Christ. Instead of the church dependent on the fruit and gifts of the Spirit of Christ we give ourselves to “Christian” idols that stand in the place of a literal Jesus. Instead of shared leadership and every-member ministry, believers tragically live out their faith vicariously through charismatic pastors who they can see and touch. Jesus is gone, but he has not left a vacuum. The gift of the Holy Spirit makes possible the real presence of the risen and exalted Christ in the Body of Christ, the Church.
I recently attended an installation service for one my students. He became the new senior pastor in a large congregation. My friend is a humble, solid believer. He is a mature pastor, a gifted preacher and leader, grounded in the Word of God and committed to the priesthood of all believers. But if the service was any indication my friend will have an uphill battle, because many in his congregation expect him to be their new Moses. People want their pastor to be a substitute for Jesus. They want the “First Family” of the church to be everything their families are not, but hope they can become. They want a pastor who will come down from Mount Sinai each week and deliver the Word of God. It’s his job to lead them to the promised land. They fixate on their little messiah in place of the real Messiah. In the installation service for my pastor friend the congregation applauded when one of the speakers applied Isaiah’s messianic prophecy to their new pastor, “For onto us a son is given . . . and the government will rest on his shoulders.” I left amazed at the pressure my friend was under to meet his congregation’s expectations.
These two paragraphs on the immediacy of God’s glory (13:31-32) and Jesus’ literal departure (13:33), are related in a significant way. The individuals who confuse worldly glory with God’s humble glory invariably coalesce around charismatic personalities and powerful organizations to give their spiritual experience concrete meaning and inspiration. This “false literal” serves as a substitute for fixing our eyes on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). These stand-ins for Christ’s real presence in the Body of Christ cause many to miss out on what it means to follow Jesus. The temptation is strong to substitute a false glory for the humble glory of the cross.
Upper Room Reflection
What is the temptation of the false literal?
Have you ever made someone or something into a substitute for Jesus?
How do our expectations distort the meaning of discipleship?
Who defines what it means to glorify God and enjoy Him forever?