“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 not 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?
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?’
I have often I sympathised with the Jesus of the poster. 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.
First, there’s this slightly unusual building, and then there’s 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.
We wouldn’t be the first if we thought it possible to tear everything down and start again. There are a hundred and one brands of evangelical church trying to preach a pure, untainted Gospel, believing themselves to be like the church was in the times of the New Testament. 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. Furthermore, there is no evidence of new evangelical churches having any significant impact, they are simply too small. In the 2006 Census the Baptist population of Ireland was 3,000 and the Evangelical population was 5,000, an aggregate membership that would probably correspond to the Christmas or Easter attendance at a Dublin suburban Roman Catholic church.
“We want to see Jesus” say people today and what Census 2006 did show was that 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 church to provide opportunities. 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.
Perhaps traditional churches like ourselves and our Catholic neighbours 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, “we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone”.
Paul realises that it is up to the local church to give people the chance to meet with Jesus. He realises that the ‘holy huddle’ is not an option for the church. Paul suggests to us that the evangelical 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.
“We want to see Jesus”, say people and we must always take that request seriously. Particularly in the Church of Ireland, there is a danger that the community becomes an end in itself rather than as a means of pointing people towards Jesus Christ. Traditional churches have been given the opportunity through our parish structure to draw people into a community that should be focused upon Jesus rather than itself. 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.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 29th March 2009