The Fifth Sunday in Lent: March 18, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Anne Marie Witchger, Transitional Deacon
They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
In the chapter right before this one in the Gospel of John, Jesus raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. Lazarus had been dead for four days; his body had been wrapped and laid to rest; his family was starting to smell the decay. When Jesus arrived, he called to Lazarus and commanded him to come out of the tomb. To the amazement of everyone there, Lazarus walked out very much alive. Now, the people who had seen this take place were impressed as you might imagine, and they told everyone they knew. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem shortly after the Lazarus miracle, there were crowds of people who already knew all about him, even though they had never met him.
So, in the passage today, some men come to the disciples–the scripture says they are Greek, which means that they are outsiders who have been so captivated by what they have heard about Jesus, that they want to see him with their own eyes. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they say.
Seeing is often the natural progression after hearing. When we hear about a good movie, or a particularly striking exhibit at a museum, we want to go see it for ourselves. These men had heard about Jesus, but they wanted to see him in the flesh. How else could they really believe what he had done?
The power of sight was huge in ancient world and in the Gospel of John. At the very beginning of the Gospel, Jesus invites some prospective disciples to “come and see.” It is such a simple invitation, but it’s the best invitation we have to this day: come and see. If someone who had never been here asked, “what is it like at Saint Michael’s?” you might have some things to share, but eventually you would just say, “why don’t you come check us out for yourself? Come and see what we’re all about.”
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus helps people to “see” in new ways. He gives sight to the blind. He changes the way people see lepers and outcasts and women. It is by seeing miracles and the way Jesus teaches and acts in the world that so many people come to believe in him.
We can’t see Jesus in the flesh anymore, at least not the way these men could, but seeing Jesus has always been a powerful way for the church to believe. In medieval times, there was even a practice of ocular communion. Some people believed in the power of sight so deeply that simply gazing at the host–the large wafer that the priest elevates during the Eucharistic prayer–was enough to receive the body of Christ. Imagine if Mother Kate lifted the consecrated bread and just said “look, this is Jesus.” no need to come forward, everyone can stay in their seats.
I’m glad we don’t do ocular communion anymore, but I get the power of seeing. You might have been able to tell that I am just a few weeks away from having a baby–my first child. I have had this baby literally living inside of me for more than 8 months–I have heard her heartbeat, I have felt her moving around and kicking….I’ve seen glimpses of her on sonograms, but I know that when I see her, when she makes it out of the womb and I look into her eyes for the first time, that will be an entirely different experience.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see Jesus in person, but for many people it was awe-inspiring. One of my favorite Bible passages is the story of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke. Simeon is an old man and he meets the baby Jesus in the Temple when Mary and Joseph bring him there for a ceremony. Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die without seeing the Messiah; when he sees the baby Jesus he proclaims: “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see.” For Simeon, seeing Jesus was so powerful that he could literally die in peace. When I worked as a hospital chaplain patients would sometimes die just moments after seeing a loved one for whom they had been waiting. Somehow seeing could give people the peace and assurance to let go.
But in our Gospel reading for today, there’s a twist in this story. The scripture doesn’t say if these men ever actually get to see Jesus! When Phillip and Andrew relay the request from the Greek men, Jesus launches into a cryptic monologue about his own death and what it will take to follow him after he is gone. He is speaking to a crowd, but we don’t know if the Greek men are there, or if they are still waiting, hoping to see him for the first time.
Seeing Jesus is not a guarantee; it was not for these men and it is not for us today. Jesus is not with us in person, but I’m not just talking about seeing Jesus in the flesh. Many of us have seen Jesus–it’s why we keep coming back every week. We see Jesus in the Eucharist; we see him in acts of kindness and forgiveness; we might see or experience him when we pray, or sing; we see him in the faces of children. Being able to see Jesus is a great thing, but it’s not always possible. We may go weeks or months or years without feeling like Jesus is really with us. Faith would be a very easy thing if every time you experienced doubt you could come to church, ask to meet with a priest, and say, “I wish to see Jesus.” And the priest would go away and come back with Jesus in tow. Here he is! Our faith is not that easy.
And Jesus knows that. By the end of the Gospel of John, seeing is not enough for Jesus. After Jesus has died and been raised from the dead, he visits the disciples. Thomas–whom tradition calls “doubting Thomas”–demands to see the wounds from the cross before he will believe that it is actually Jesus; Jesus shows him the marks on his hands and his side, but then he says: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The question for us today is “how do we see when we can’t see? How do we believe when we cannot really guarantee that we’ll always experience that peace and joy of knowing Jesus is with us? Even Mother Theresa, a saint and faithful servant of God, doubted the presence of Christ in her life. She once said, “God has a very special love for you; [But] as for me–The silence and the emptiness is so great–that I look and do not see,–Listen and do not hear.”
I wonder about these men who wanted to see Jesus. Let’s imagine that they didn’t get to see him. If that was the case, then the men came right to where Jesus was and missed him. While they were waiting for him to come to them, he was just a short distance away, preaching to a crowd. On the other hand, perhaps when the men realized that Jesus was not coming to greet them individually, they began to look for him And maybe they found him and were part of the crowd that Jesus addressed.
As we look or wait for Jesus, we may expect him to show up in certain places–in church, in answer to our prayers, or acts of service, but the case may be that Jesus is showing up in other ways around us and we are missing it because we are waiting for him to come on our terms. It may be that, like Mother Theresa, we can see God’s love for others, but we struggle to know that God is there for us, too. There are no magic words to increase our faith or help us experience Jesus more fully—but we can have confidence that even at times when we can’t see him, Jesus is close by.