A sermon for the eve of St Philip and St James
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. Perhaps that is the reason that we are here tonight. We want to see Jesus. There is no better reason for coming to church than wanting to encounter Jesus. And here in the readings from Scripture, in the silence, in the music, in the prayers, in the architecture, in one another, perhaps even in the sermon, there are opportunities and pointers to help us to see Jesus. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. This is why we gather for worship.
But it is not just here that we see Jesus. It is not just in church or during acts of worship that we can encounter our risen Lord. We encounter Jesus throughout our lives, in the people, places and moments that make up our days. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand’. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Not just tonight, but each day. The Christian life is one of meeting Jesus day by day and walking with him.
Perhaps it might help to look back on the last seven days and try to recall where and when we saw Jesus. Were there moments when your heart sang with recognition? Where there moments when it was clear to you the way to go? Were there moments when you were drawn away from what you were doing to investigate the possibility that something important might be found? Take a moment and just reflect on the past week.
Let me share with you two moments from my week where I think I saw Jesus. I think I encountered Jesus in the care of a colleague who helped me to laugh when all I could see was an enduring and awful situation. In the care and the laughter, I became human again. The second time that I think that I saw Jesus was in the need of a man who I could have helped, but didn’t. I was in a hurry; I didn’t want to stop; I recognised Jesus in retrospect. I have seen Jesus in care and laughter, in need and rejection.
Learning to see Jesus, to recognise him when he crosses our path, is an important spiritual discipline. The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, taught a means of doing this called the Examen. The Examen is a simple discipline. It consists of reviewing the day. One teacher describes it as ‘rummaging for God’. Go through the stuff of the day, and see where God might be found. Where did you see Jesus in the day? The key to this is gratitude – be thankful for what God has given you in the day; and gentleness, be kind to yourself as you look back. Thankfulness and kindness are essential to this spiritual practice. You could try this in a lengthy way, spending fifteen minutes or so in review. Or you could simply look through the highlights, so to speak, and say thank you for one moment of encounter in the day that has gone. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is one way that might help.
Seeing Jesus is not, however, a guarantee that all will be easy and nice. It is all too easy to see Jesus in what seems nice and well suited to us, and to take hardship and difficulty as signs that Jesus is not with us. But that is not true, nor is it the world we live in. We live in a world with beautiful sunsets, and vicious and brutal wars. We live in a world in which people are generous to us, and in which people lie and hurt us. Jesus is present in all of this. He is present in our weakness and our joy, our pain and our accomplishment.
The people of Israel had been in exile for about fifty years when Isaiah spoke to them in the words of the second lesson. Jerusalem had been destroyed, and many taken into exile in Babylon. There they had, almost uniquely, managed to retain and even deepen their identity as a people. But they felt cut off, apart from God. ‘My way is hidden from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God’. This is a common spiritual mistake, and one that I certainly make frequently. To see that things going well is a sign of the presence of God, and to see things being hard and painful as a sign that God is distant. But it is a mistake, and one for which Isaiah rebukes the people. Jesus similarly tells Philip and Andrew that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’
The truth is that we can see Jesus in our weakness and in our hurting. Sometimes it is only there that he can be at work, breaking down our false images of ourselves and of God and gently building true ones. The hard question for each of us, is where we see Jesus in our hurt and our struggle. So let me suggest that we try to get better at seeing Jesus in our lives. Over the coming week, try reflecting on the day that is past and asking two questions: ‘For what moment today am I most grateful?’ and ‘For what moment today am I least grateful?’ Then ask God to show you where he was in those moments. Remember to be thankful and gentle. Thankful for the presence of Jesus with you; gentle on yourself for your failings. Try that this week, and see where it gets you.
“Sir, we want to see Jesus.” It is a good request. It is what we are about in worship and in life. As we go through this week, let us try to learn to see him better. Let me end with the prayer of St Richard of Chichester:
Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day. Amen.
First given at Derby Cathedral 1.5.16.