“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” John 12:20-21
“We would like to see Jesus”. One of the simplest requests in the whole of the Bible; nothing simple, nothing complicated; just to see Jesus. Is that same request not at the heart of why we come to church? Don’t we come to church on a Sunday because we expect somehow to meet with Jesus? Isn’t that what it’s about? Wouldn’t you would wonder how something so simple became so complicated? What can we do to respond to that question in our own times?
In Saint Matthew Chapter 1 Verse 21, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and says, Mary ’’will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The name ‘Jesus,’ the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’ meaning ‘the Lord saves’. Jesus’ mission is expressed in his name; to save his people.
Somewhere along the way, something got lost. A fellow theological student in college days had on his door a poster that summed up how many of us felt at times about our struggles with our theological studies. I searched for it once on the Internet found many variants.
Jesus said unto them: ‘Who do you say that I am?’
And they replied: ‘You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationship.’
And Jesus said, ‘What?’
We might have smiled, but, as with most humour, there was a kernel of truth. Jesus would probably not have recognized himself in some of the books describing him. To simply have said, ‘We want to see Jesus’, was not enough.
Sometimes I wonder if we have not taken a story of infinite simplicity and rendered it so complicated that we are no longer sure that we understand it ourselves.
“We want to see Jesus”, say strangers.
“Of course you can see Jesus”, we say, “you are most welcome”. But then comes the complicated bit.
Coming to church in the hope of seeing Jesus is not simple. First, there’s this slightly unusual building, and then there are the odd furnishings; and then there are the books and the words and the music and the funny outfits and the odd ceremonies and the strange language. The poor strangers who have only come in on a Sunday morning in the hope of meeting Jesus of Nazareth are hit by the weight of two thousand years of tradition.
Sometimes I think that it would be much easier to close the whole operation down and start again, though there might be some opposition from the cardinals and the bishops and the deans and the archdeacons and all the other people who attach so much importance to weird traditions and funny names and dressing up and 19th Century music and antique furniture.
“We want to see Jesus” is a heartfelt request in our own time and sometimes I think that if we simplified everything we might reach people in a way that we’re failing to do at the moment. Sometimes I think that Jesus might be seen if we got rid of 2,000 years of history.
But we wouldn’t be the first if we thought it possible to tear everything down and start again. There have been countless churches trying to simply be gatherings where people might see Jesus, attempting to be like the church was in the times of the New Testament, attempting to be gatherings where people might simply see Jesus. However, what happens with new churches is that by the time they reach the second generation they have had to become organised and they have as much their own way of doing things as churches that have been around for centuries: Jesus can quickly disappear.
Furthermore, in Ireland, where there is so much history and tradition and cultural identity attached to the traditional churches, there is no evidence of new churches having any significant impact. People do not easily let go of their former ties and people looking for a place of worship tend to want somewhere they recognize as a ‘church’. Often culture and identity come far ahead of Jesus in the way that people think
It is frustrating, but like the Greeks who come to Philip, introductions to Jesus come almost always through other people. Saint Paul expresses the matter very succinctly in Romans Chapter 10 Verses 13-15, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?’ If people are to believe in Jesus, says Paul, there must be a church to tell the good news.
‘We want to see Jesus’, say people today and what census returns show is that church members still identify with their church, even if tentative in doing so. If people are to meet with Jesus in 21st Century Ireland, then it is up to the traditional, mainstream churches, present in each parish to stir themselves, so that people have the opportunity to hear of Jesus and to believe in him.
We might be weighed down with history, we might be odd, we might be confusing, we might even seem weird to someone coming in off of the street, but, apart from those churches that have been around for a long time, there is no-one else—it’s up to us. In Ireland where people have been left lost and bewildered by the overwhelming social and economic changes, if people are to meet with Jesus there are few other options around. How can people hear of Jesus without someone telling them?
Perhaps traditional churches are not the most exciting, but even in the early days of the church Saint Paul was finding that people weren’t always full of enthusiasm and commitment. Read the closing lines of the First Letter to the Thessalonians, and you get a sense that even in the First Century things were not so different from a typical parish, In First Thessalonians Chapter 5 Verse 14, Paul writes, ’And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them’.
Paul realises that it is up to the local church to give people the chance to meet with Jesus. He realises that being a small group of enthusiasts is not an option for the church. Paul suggests to us that the style of church where one separates oneself from the local community to be a member of a group that thinks and behaves the same way as oneself is not actually very evangelical. It is the responsibility of the Christian community in Thessalonica to draw closer to the heart of the community and so closer to Jesus; Jesus is found not in words, but in a relationship.
‘We want to see Jesus’, say people and we must always take that request seriously. Traditional churches have been given the opportunity through their presence throughout the country to draw people into a community focused upon Jesus. The geographical parish system, our old-fashioned way of operating means an opportunity, that otherwise does not exist, to be there for all people.
Despite everything, despite the centuries of conflict, despite sectarianism, despite failings and flaws, Irish people remain extraordinarily patient with the church. Where the church acts with humility and care for people, there remains a genuine affection. “We want to see Jesus” and the way people will see him is through us—that is some responsibility.