“We wish to see Jesus”

Three-Crosses“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” These are the words of the Greeks who have come to the Festival of the Passover in Jerusalem. They have seen Jesus riding his colt toward Jerusalem, and they approach Philip. Then Philip tells Andrew, and then Philip and Andrew tell Jesus. And then Jesus addresses the crowd with his speech.

These Greeks who ask to see Jesus are on a pilgrimage of sorts. They’re travelling to the holy site of Jerusalem for Passover. In many cases, pilgrimages are to sites of martyrdom, and that is somewhat true in this case: they are visiting a site of impending martyrdom, as Jesus makes clear in his speech to them.

One of the most visited pilgrimage sites is Canterbury Cathedral, which became famous after the martyrdom there of Thomas Becket in 1170. People come from all over the world to see the cathedral, the place where Becket was murdered by King Henry’s knights. And then they go down into the crypt where his body lay. An artist has suspended a sculpture of a man’s form from the ceilings, and it looks as if it has been made from nails that have been soldered together. Pilgrims go down into that dimly lit crypt and look at the body raised into the air, and then they emerge again into a brightly lit nave with a ceiling several stories high.

Really, those pilgrims are coming to see Jesus. In fact, the mission statement of Canterbury Cathedral is four short words: “To show people Jesus.”

How exactly does one do that? How does one show people Jesus when we seem far removed? Whom do we approach to say, “We wish to see Jesus”?

I would like to say that we show people Jesus in acts of compassion and social justice, in acts of radical love and acceptance and forgiveness. But recently, I was speaking about discipleship to a group of teenagers preparing for Confirmation, and I spoke about the importance of this type of service. They challenged that idea. They argued that anyone can perform these acts, so these acts were not necessarily a sign of being a Christian disciple.

Now of course, I had not argued that there was anything exclusively Christian about these actions. Certainly, people of other faiths and people who practice no religion also perform acts of compassion and social justice and demonstrate the radical love of Jesus. They are being children of the light. Jesus doesn’t say that everyone must join and practice a particular religion.

So when I ask myself, “How do we as Christian disciples show people Jesus?,” I think about those teenagers’ objection. What is unique about following Jesus? It has to be more than radical love. It has to be more than wise teachings. It has to be more than a devout love of God.

What is unique about Jesus? The Cross and the Resurrection. Why do people go to sites of martyrdom, sites where someone’s life has been sacrificed in a Christlike way that inspires others to journey there? They go to see the Cross and the Resurrection.

In 2012, I went on a brief trip with some classmates to El Salvador to visit various churches and mission efforts there. And while we were there, we visited two sites of martyrdom: the Jesuit house at La Universidad Centroamericana where six priests and two women were slain, and the convent hospital chapel where Archbishop Romero was shot while celebrating the Eucharist. While we were in the brightly lit chapel with white tiles all around, a guide showed my group where Romero was shot, and where his body had fallen on the ground behind the altar.

I felt very drawn to that spot. Very drawn. I waited until my classmates and other visitors had left the chapel, and then I knelt behind the altar and placed my hand on the cold while marble where Romero fell, where the pool of blood had been. But I wanted to get even closer. And so I prostrated myself on the marble and laid my heart where his heart had been, where his blooding aorta had been.

I can’t explain why I did that. I have never done anything like that before. But I think I wanted to get closer to the place of martyrdom. I wanted to be one with it. I wanted to see Jesus.

There were resurrections as the result of these assassinations. The international community put great pressure upon the Salvadoran government to end the civil war and the persecution of the poor and of the Church. And the liberation theology of the martyred scholar priests caught fire and spread throughout the world. It led to a rebirth of the Salvadoran people, and to a worldwide acceptance of the same liberation theology that before had been considered suspect, too closely tied to Marxist ideology and Communism.

These things came about due to the Cross and the Resurrection. How appropriate that these things happened in a country called El Salvador—which means “the Savior” in Spanish.

“To show people Jesus” does not mean  merely to speak of Jesus in witnessing and proclamation or to do mighty acts of charity, healing, and inclusion that signal God’s providence. It’s something deeper and more mysterious. When people ask me where my Christian faith comes from, I could spout stories from the Gospels, all that I learned in my childhood years of religious instruction, the wonderful examples of Christian discipleship that my parents and others have provided.

But these things are not the source of my faith. They are human sources of wisdom, which, as you can see, Paul is not so enthusiastic about. We can read tomes and tomes of theology and still not be able to see Jesus, much less show him to others. Here is one of the major sets of works by the great theologian Thomas Aquinas: the Summa Theologica, or “Summary of Theology.” He attempted to answer every possible question about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, humankind, and creation. And a few months before the end of his life, he stopped writing. He is reputed to have said on his deathbed, “Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears as so much straw.” His writings did not show Jesus—not completely.

And here are the many volumes of Karl Barth’s major work, Church Dogmatics, which he also worked on until he died. And yet he, for all he wrote, admitted that human wisdom was incapable of knowing God directly. He believed that Jesus Christ was the one pinpoint of intersection between the vastness of God and God’s wisdom and the human mind and spirit. Through Jesus, we could know God.

When people ask me about my faith or what I think about Jesus and his divinity, they are asking me to show them Jesus. And so all I can do is to explain how Jesus—God—came to me, often in times of despair or loss or tragedy, but also in moments of peace and quiet and joy. I can describe the effect these visitations had upon me: how I felt companionship, love, comfort, and an assurance of God’s presence in my life. I felt resurrected. At other times, I have felt Jesus spurring me on, encouraging me to go where I thought I could not go.

In short, I have seen Jesus in the Cross and the Resurrection. All of the human knowledge that I have acquired has bolstered my faith, challenged it, and developed it. But none of that knowledge explains why I lay down on the marble at that chapel in El Salvador to be one with the memory of the spilled blood of Oscar Romero. None of that knowledge explains why I never miss Palm Sunday or Good Friday, as painful as I find the descriptions of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. And none of it can explain the spiritual high I feel on Easter Vigil and Easter morning. Or the excitement I feel at baptisms. Or the fellowship and peace I feel in the Eucharist, which is in part a memorial of the spilled blood of Jesus.

In all of these things, I have been shown Jesus. And it is the Church’s privilege in Holy Week, and throughout the year, to show other people Jesus.

[Preached on Tuesday of Holy Week at All Saints Church, Pasadena]

Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

John 12:20-36

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