How far would you go to save someone you love?
Sit with that question for a few moments. How far would go to save someone you love? Would you go to the next city, the next state, the next country, the next continent? Probably. Would you mortgage your home, lose your job, max out your plastic, sell your plasma? I would. Would you alienate family and friends, throw your reputation to the wind, break the law? If necessary.
How far would you go to save someone you love?
For many of us, this isn’t a hypothetical question. You have perhaps had to answer this question any number of times. You may have endured endless conversations with physicians who outline treatment options and quote statistical norms. You may have raged at administrators whose hands are tied by petrified policies and procedures. You may have attacked ossified institutions that argue against your dear one as an exception. After all, if we do that, where will it end?
All the while, the life of your loved one is leaking into oblivion. The future of your loved one drains into despair. Every answer is no. Every door slams shut. Everyone is so, so terribly sorry. And none of it makes a lick of difference.
Now we might be ready to hear today’s gospel story. There’s this royal official whose son is on the verge of dying. How far does he go to save his son? The trip from Capernaum to Cana isn’t exactly to the ends of the earth. But it is two days’ journey, even by horse and wagon. That’s two days away from his son’s bedside, not knowing whether his son still lived. Those two days might as well be two centuries for that frantic father.
When our oldest son was eleven months, he had sudden seizures. The local hospital couldn’t figure it out. They sent him by ambulance to a bigger hospital. Usually that trip took about ninety minutes. But this was anything but usual. A blizzard was beginning, and the roads were treacherous.
We followed a snowplow most of the way. The trip took almost three hours. In the days before cellphones, we had no idea if the ambulance was on the road or in the ditch. Those were some of the longest hours of our lives. Those hours were punctuated by prayers and torn by tears. I have some small notion of what that two-day trip was like for the frantic father.
I imagine you know as well. To love anyone is to risk having such a terrifying experience. The fact that the father even undertook such a trip is evidence of his desperation. Everyone and everything else had failed.
The father heard rumors and reports about this Jesus guy. He seemed to have a knack for healing. Folk healers were a dime a dozen in those days. Perhaps the father had tried several already. But what if this guy was the real deal? How far would you go to save someone you love? On a trip to one more healer, it seems.
The rumors and reports came from Galilean pilgrims newly returned from the Passover in Jerusalem. This Jesus character had stirred things up a bit – with some wonder working and civil disobedience. He came back to Galilee through Samaria rather than taking the usual detour around that unclean territory. This wasn’t a stellar resume. But when your loved one is dying, who cares about such details?
The father finds Jesus in Cana. He begs him to come down to Capernaum. A crowd gathers, hoping for some fireworks. Jesus replies to the father, but his first words are for the rubberneckers. “Unless you all see signs and wonders, you all will never believe.”
The father has no time for this theological debate. “Lord, would you please come down before my child dies?”
Pause for a moment as the drama unfolds. How far would you go to save someone you love? The frantic father is also a royal official – a person of power, privilege, position, and property. He is used to giving orders, controlling information, dictating terms. People come to him asking for favors and begging for help.
But not today. Desperate need flattens hierarchies. If my child is about to die, I don’t scan the social registers or research personal pedigrees. I will go to any height – or any depth – to get help for my child.
Jesus says to him, “Go. Your son lives.” That’s it. No hand-waving or incantations. No spitting or sighing or prancing or praying. Jesus is brief, not to mention brusque. Most astonishing, the man puts his trust in Jesus’ words and heads for home.
I would have balked rather than believed. If this isn’t on your schedule, or if it’s above your pay grade, Jesus, just tell me! Don’t put me off with some blue-sky promise. But the frantic father puts his trust in Jesus and heads down the hill.
We’d been on the road for about ninety minutes. We had cried and raged and prayed ourselves into an exhausted calm. We decided that our son had come to us as a gift from God. Nothing changed that. Whatever his condition, his location would not change. He was in Jesus’ loving arms now and always. After that, we drove on in silence.
I don’t know if that’s where the frantic father ended up. But I do know he entrusted the life of his son to Jesus. I do know that he put himself fully in Jesus’ hands, come what may. In the Gospel of John, that’s the definition of believing.
In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther asks a simple question. What is it to have a god? His answer is equally simple and simply profound. “A god,” Luther writes, “is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.” In other words, a god is whatever or whoever we depend on in life and in death. “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself,” Luther concludes, “is really your god.”
The frantic father trusts Jesus to be God. John’s Gospel wants us to know that this is the source of Life. Not just biological existence, but Abundant Life – with a capital “A” and a capital “L.” In John 20:31, we read that the signs in this book “are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have Life in his name.”
The man who trusted Jesus went about a day’s journey homeward. His household slaves met him on the road. They said, “Your child lives.” Some calculation revealed that the son recovered at the moment Jesus promised the healing. As a result, the man and his household entrusted themselves to Jesus.
I know that mixture of joy, relief and wonder the father felt. The little boy we sent off by ambulance in a blizzard – he celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday about a month ago. By the time we got to his hospital room, he was standing up, wanting to go home.
How shall we respond to this story in John’s gospel? Let’s rejoice with the father, but let’s also temper our celebrations. This isn’t about cheating death and then moving on. That little boy had a funeral at some point, even through Jesus rescheduled it. Even Lazarus –dead, smelly, and then blinking in the sunlight – even he had another funeral. Abundant Life is more than just delaying death.
The Christian good news tells of a God we can trust in life and in death. The gospel isn’t a primitive terror management strategy. The gospel is about who we are and whose we are in life and in death. In John 1:12 we hear that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:39, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In addition, look at the frantic father. He probably wasn’t a Jew. He was more likely an agent of the Roman oppressors. If he was wealthy and privileged, he achieved that status on the backs of people like Jesus and the folks in Cana. He wasn’t a solid citizen or model disciple. Yet, he begged, he got, and he trusted. Our human categories and criteria are always too small for God’s grace. God loves every bit of the cosmos and will do everything to save us.
I also invite you to see the father as an image of Jesus. This is the season of Epiphany. How far does God go to save those God loves? From infinity to mortality. From heaven to earth. From deity to humanity. From Creator to Cross. How far does God come to save those God loves? Into the very center of our hearts.
So, we might think a moment of the distances we’re called to cover. Racial divides. Wealth gaps. Class chasms. Gender differences. Ability divergences. Political divisions. How far will we travel to walk alongside those God loves? That’s the ministry question every day…