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John 12

Lent 5: Seeing Jesus

John 12.  20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."

In the summer of 1956 I was a guest preacher at the Methodist Church in Hollis, Queens.  Sitting behind the pulpit as the service began, my eyes were drawn to a legend tacked to the inside of the pulpit, where the preacher could see it, but the congregation couldn't.  "Sir," it read, "we would see Jesus." 

Always the Christian preacher's task, and, for that matter, every Christian's duty, to help others see Jesus.  And it's far from easy.  Although some of my colleagues have seemed to think so (that it is easy), like the fellow who shall remain nameless who declared that he considered it his responsibility in every meeting, in the pulpit or out, to leave the other soul with the feeling he had been touched by grace.  Whew!  I, of course, kept my distance from him, lest I suffer the fate of Uzzah who, trying to prevent the ark from tumbling to the ground, held out his hands, touched the sacred vessel, and was immediately struck dead.  No, no, don't take me literally.  I don't ascribe Raiders of the Lost Ark whirlwind powers to my colleague: I just found him more than a bit too much... and kept my distance.

But he exemplifies one strategy by which some "Sirs" try to get the rest of us to see Jesus: by presuming to incarnate him... by the very quality - graciousness, holiness, righteousness, lovingness - of their lives.  It's the strategy behind the television preacher with the smile engraved on his face.  The artifices of sincerity should be familiar: the beatific look, as if beholding the heavens opening and an angel descending; the frequent exclamation, "Praise the Lord!"; the sugary and pietistic phrases which adorn every conversation; and, especially, the pained forbearance with which hopeless cynics like me are held in contempt.  The only reason I ever had second thoughts about entering the pastoral ministry was the thought, only a passing one, that I would have to fit into this mold and, if not walk on water, then make it seem like I could.  My dear wife does a riff on this theme when, dredging up memories of our first meeting, and why she was reluctant: because she never wanted to marry a minister, having met too many in her years as a young PK. 

That is, I too am royally put off by preachers whose response to "Sir, we would see Jesus" is "OK, look this way."

On the other hand I have little sympathy for those advocates for the Gospel who claim a priest's personal morality is irrelevant.  I once heard an Orthodox priest, with whom I was to do a wedding (yes, icon, handkerchief, and seven circles, the whole bit) explain, with a certain amount of self-satisfaction anticipating my being scandalized, that a priest in his church could be alcoholic, adulterous, and ungenerous and still perform his sacred duties effectively.  That's elevating the objective element of the priesthood to the extreme.  

The preacher should be at least as good as everyone else, but never think herself better than most.

The better strategy for getting others to see Jesus comes from John the Baptist.  Remember him?  from last December's lections?  Jesus' cousin, the guy in camel hair (no, not that camel hair, like the jacket I once bought at Jos. A. Bank, but the stuff right off a camel!) who waxed prophetic on a diet of locusts and honey? the preacher who didn't mince words and never courted favor with those who ran things in the church or in the government?  That John the Baptist: his strategy for getting us to see Jesus was to point to him and away from himself.  Which may have been easier for him, since he had the earthly Jesus, like I have you and you have me, living and breathing, near at hand (or near at computer monitor). 

But friends of Jesus, clerical and laic, must try.  By pointing to authentic representations of Jesus in the world around us. 

In the world's literature, for example.  Don Quixote, Prince Myshkin, Billy Budd, the tall soldier in The Red Badge of Courage,  Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven, and one of my favorites, Don Camillo, especially as he was portrayed by Fernandel in the movie.  No smiles engraved on any of these faces.  No pietistic chatter.  Lots of eccentricities.  More of John Arthur Gossip's "stormy north side of Christ" than most contemporary Christians can abide.  But authenticity?  Plenty of it. What each of these cited, with the possible exception of the comic priest Camillo, is an extraordinary capacity to draw out of those they meet along the way a largeness of soul, a new capacity for wonder, a generosity of spirit and substance. And they, these blessed doppelgangers of Jesus, transfigure human life into... remember my favorite quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins... immortal diamond.     

Not everyone majors in literature, but everyone, literate or not, lives in a world peopled with worthies in whom something of the light and love (both the tender and fierce varieties) of Christ are reflected.

I've spent my career as a professional Christian collecting examples of such.  Like K. L. Hansen, on the verge of ninety, volunteer lay Protestant chaplain at a Jewish hospital in Brooklyn: his sixty year old son in Tennessee suffered a nervous breakdown, went on a bender, and the family couldn't find him.  So what did K. L. do?  He flew down to Tennessee and personally led the search.  He explained, to this effect, that "once my son always my son."  Not even the Prodigal had a better father.  Nor a lost sheep, a more persevering shepherd.

Many of us have no further to look than to our own families.  Plenty of grown children claim their mothers were angels.  But mine really was.  Just as was yours.  I don't mostly mean, though I could, how she lavished her time and energy on me. I put her in the company of angels because of what she taught me about the second greatest commandment; and, boy, did I have a lot of trouble loving the Murphys, who lived next door.  But Mom, who would never fail to defend me, also never let a cruel or thoughtless remark pass her lips about the Murphys or, for that matter, anyone else.  In the pre-Second World War years, a moment rife with ethnic slurs, Mom never participated.
We lived a block away from Adams Avenue, where every other house was occupied by an African-American family.  Mom was friends with the Joneses and the Harrisons; Mrs. Childs came once a week to clean my aunt's house next door. Never a disparaging word did Bobby hear from his British (Northern Ireland) immigrant mother.  She'll fit right in at the great banquet feast with Abe, Ike, and Jake, in the company of Jesus who, you will remember, loves all the children of the world.

You want to see Jesus?  Come with me and I'll show you my personal pantheon.

Had I the wit or sufficient experience that Sunday morning in Hollis, Queens, taking in the legend tacked to the inside of the pulpit, I could have fulfilled that request, "Sir, we would see Jesus," with more down-to-earth visions of the rabbi from Galilee than the congregation or I had time for.  Now I know in my bones what that twenty-three year old I was couldn't, except in imagination, that the world is not only filled with the grandeur of God, but that in every corner of the creation there is hidden in plain sight a human reminder of the fullness of God in a Galilean rabbi.  

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