I wonder if you might take a journey with me in your imagination. Imagine that you are one of Jesus' first followers. Maybe you're Mary, always ready to sit at Jesus' feet and listen. Maybe you're Peter, a bit rough and ready, impulsive sometimes. Perhaps you're more like Matthew, a civil servant, well educated and well off. Or are you Mary Magdalene, full of grateful devotion having been rescued from a life full of darkness. You've been with Jesus for about three years now, hearing his deep teaching, seeing some wonderful miracles. It's been great. But recently you've been getting more and more afraid. Jesus has led you all to Jerusalem. The religious leaders have been getting angrier and angrier. Jesus has started talking about his death. Just this evening, Jesus has been acting really weird. He washed your feet before dinner. And then, during the meal he talked about the bread and the wine being his body and his blood, and told you to share them to remember him. You're seriously concerned that all that you've invested in the last three years of your life in is about to come crashing down around your ears.
You're sitting round the table now, after the meal, talking with Jesus about what it all means. Is this the end? Jesus reassures you that it's not. He is going to die, but only so that he can return to the Father, to prepare a place for his followers. Thomas is worried that he doesn't know how to get there. Jesus says that he is the way. Philip wants the reassurance of seeing the Father. Jesus says that he and the Father are in each other and to know one of them is to know the other.
Then Jesus says something incredible.
“Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
What can he possibly mean? Your mind wanders off as you think back over the works that you have seen Jesus do. All the way back to that first one, at that wedding in Cana. The marriage feast that was threatening to run dry, so Jesus had turned about 150 gallons of water into wine. That had livened things up a bit. Then there was the man in Jerusalem that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. That had caused a right fall out with the religious leaders. Especially when Jesus had said that his Father was working on the Sabbath, and that he was just doing what his Father does.
Then you remember that mad forty-eight hours in Galilee. There had been this huge crowd of people, gathered to listen to Jesus teaching, and they had been out on the hills for a while. They were hungry, and Jesus had suggested feeding them. All you'd been able to scrape together was a few fish sandwiches. Jesus had made that small amount of food enough to go round over 5,000 people. There was even 12 baskets left over! The people had gone crazy, wanted to make him king, so he'd slipped off, and you'd headed home, over the lake. In the middle of the night, Jesus had joined you, in the middle of the lake, walking. You'd nearly wet yourself.
The next day, the crowds had tracked Jesus down again and were asking him all kinds of things. They started asking about what they needed to do to do the works God requires. They wanted to know how God expected them to behave. They knew that Jesus had taught that some things people do, some works, are evil and some are good. Some things are deeds of light and others of darkness. These people wanted to know what they should do. Jesus told them plainly, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
Then they wanted to know why they should trust Jesus, they wanted to have a reason to believe. They were testing his authority to teach. So they asked him what sign he would work to prove that he was who he said he was. As if feeding 5,000 people from the contents of a boy's lunch box wasn't sign enough!
As Jesus had continued talking to these people he'd talked about his own work as carrying out the will of his Father. To be the means by which people come to live life, in all it's fulness, for ever, with God.
As you remember these times, and Jesus' words, you wonder what kinds of works he's talking about now. He says you're going to do greater ones, but what does he mean?
Does Jesus mean that you're going to do greater miraculous works? Are you going to turn even more wine into water, feed more than 5,000 from even less food, heal more people. What could possibly be greater than raising someone from the dead – you've seen him do that not a fortnight ago. Maybe you will do similar miraculous works than these, but you can't imagine greater ones.
Does Jesus mean that you're going to do greater good deeds? Are you going to live even holier lives than he has? He has been the perfect example of a life lived full of good works of generousity, love, faithfulness, courage, and hope. How do you get greater than perfection? Somehow you find this difficult to imagine as well.
Does Jesus mean that you are going to be the means by which a greater number of people come to faith in God? The way things look like they're going at the moment, this isn't looking likely either. Jesus is the most gifted teacher and miracle worker and he's still only managed to gather together about 100 followers in three years. At least on this one you can see scope for improvement in terms of results, but how would it be possible to achieve those greater results? You just don't feel like you have the resources, you can't imagine it.
Your confused musings start to fade away and you find yourself back in the room, at the dinner table, and Jesus is talking about someone who will be sent after he has returned to his Father, a helper: the Spirit of truth. Maybe that might be a clue to the conundrum you are wrestling with.
As we look back from our vantage point, some time later, we have an advantage. We can see what happened in the days, months, and years following Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension. At first his followers were afraid and scattered, but encouraged by his resurrection appearances they returned to Jerusalem and waited. It was there that they received the fulfilment of that promise, the gift of the Holy Spirit. And on that day 3,000 were added to their number. A far greater number than were added to their number in the whole of Jesus' ministry on earth. The early followers of Jesus did do miraculous works, as have Christians throughout the ages. These are a sign and foretaste of what the Kingdom of God is like. But they have not been greater than those done by Jesus. The early followers of Jesus were marked by lives that were different and attractive to those around them. But they also failed, fell out with each other, and regularly got the wrong end of the moral stick. They did not do greater moral works than Jesus.
What has been a greater work since Jesus returned to heaven, that his people have been part of, is the bringing in of people to God's kingdom. Both in numbers of people, in geographical spread, and in time: greater things have been done since Jesus left earth than during the time that he was physically on earth.
How has this happened? As Jesus said himself, “because I am going to the Father.” Three important things happened in the process of Jesus going to the Father that enabled this to be the case. Firstly Jesus died on the cross, was raised to life, and ascended to heaven. He completed the work that God had given him to do on earth, and so revealed to the world who he was, how much God loves us, and the power by which we can be forgiven. Secondly, as he left Jesus sent his people to do their work. His body was no longer a single human body restricted in space and time, his body is now the church – many people spread across space and time. Thirdly the Holy Spirit was sent to fill his body and equip it with all the resources it needs to do that work. Each of us have been given spiritual gifts, not for our own sake, but to build up the body so that we can do the work that God has prepared for us to do.
There is no doubt that we are called to live holy lives, to do good works. We are also called to exercise the spiritual gifts that we have been given, including works of power and of healing. We can only do these things by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. However, we will not do greater things than Jesus did in these kinds of works.
What is absolutely amazing is that we can do greater works than those that Jesus did on earth in one way. It is entirely possible that by our ministry among people we will be the means by which more people come to believe in God than Jesus was by his ministry among people.
I wonder how that makes you feel. For my part I feel immensely grateful for the opportunity of being part of helping people come to faith. I just love seeing people coming to know God, to believe, and to begin following Jesus. There's a friend of ours who came to faith on an Alpha course I helped to run about ten years ago. Subsequently her husband came to faith. Her children are all growing up as vibrant young Christians. Every so often a snippet pops up in her Facebook status update showing yet deeper discipleship in her life. It is so encouraging.
I unashamedly want to be part of more people making this kind of journey to faith. It is the most fulfilling thing I know. Jesus did the work that his Father sent him do, all that he did was what he saw the Father doing, and all that he did was done by the Father. Will we do the work that Jesus has sent us to do? Will we do what we see Jesus doing? Will we allow Jesus to work through us by the Holy Spirit to do even greater things?