Isaiah 30:15-21, Ephesians 1:3-10, John 14:1-14
PIP (& JIM?) (not at the Barn Church!)
“Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” John 14:8.
‘Unaccustomed as I am’ to delivering sermons by mail rather than face to face, I will do my best to imagine your looks of dismay or cries of “shame!” as you read this.
In my first job as a high church curate in the Black Country I made the mistake (never repeated) of asking a member of the congregation if she had enjoyed my Sunday evensong sermon. “Ooh no, Father, she replied, “You went on for 25 minutes, and my feet were hurting”. What follows should take less than 10 minutes to read, and you can do so lying down if necessary.
In the gospel for today Philip deserves some sympathy, if we are to take Jesus’ reply to his request at face value. He had asked a good and important question, “Jesus, you go on an awful lot about the person you describe as your father: well, where is he? What is he like? How can we tell?” And Jesus replies in what can seem a rather impatient or rejecting manner, “If you want to see the father, then look at me!”.
Maybe Philip felt a bit embarrassed, a bit ‘put down’ by this, perhaps rather tactless, reply. Jesus could be quite sharp at times, to his friends, and even, you may remember, to his mother – “Woman, what have you to do with me?”. Dress it up and sanitize it as much as you like with anodyne translations from the Greek, it wasn’t a ‘nice’ way to treat her! But the heartfelt plea “Show us the father” may be one that we know from our own experience. And I dare say that at the moment, as you read these thoughts of mine while at home, rather than through hearing them when attending a service in church, it may be a question that you very much want to ask, and have answered. Where is the Father, where is GOD, in other words, at this transformational moment in human history, when so many people are suffering and dying, and we suspect, probably correctly, that nothing will ever be quite the same again.
What we can put right out of our minds is the thought that God has deliberately sent this plague to us, perhaps as a test, or, even worse, as some kind of punishment for sinful human behaviour. I don’t believe in that kind of God at all, even though the Bible can sometimes seem to suggest it.
What I do believe, on the other hand, is that Jesus walked on earth as a man, a real, complete, full and genuine human being. He was never shielded from the awfulness, the tragedy and pain of human life. He was there in the middle of all the mess and the muddle. He certainly was not God, as it were, dressed up to look like a human being - but actually unaffected by what was going on in people’s lives around him. And learning of the death of his great friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept”.
When he replied to Philip he was saying, in effect, if you can see me as the person I really am (and not the person you want me to be) then in seeing me, you have access to seeing God: you can learn who and what God is, and how this encounter can transform your lives for the better. And, bearing in mind that the gospel of St John was written towards the end of the first century when the Church was spreading and preaching the gospel in many places, Philip and the other apostles were being commissioned to preach this loving, healing, risk taking, forgiving, even suffering, God, wherever they might go.
In Philip’s case, this may well have involved travel to Asia, and although we haven’t got much information about him, he probably died at Hierapolis, in Turkey. So he certainly did his share of missionary work, although he is of course chiefly remembered now for the various occasions in the Gospel when he played a leading role, such as in the story of the loaves and fishes.
But this leads us back, I think, to his profound request to be shown the Father. And to our own, perhaps agonised, question, “Where is God in this current crisis?” It is easy perhaps to be a bit dismissive about the impact of the virus on the economic welfare of the world, because we would rather concentrate on health and the avoidance of infection where at all possible. Mr Trump and other politicians – even our own - are sometimes, and perhaps rightly, thought of as hard headed and cynical. But of course for thousands, perhaps millions of people, that economic impact is real, and even perhaps as frightening, in its social consequences, as the disease itself.
But at a human level there may be many urgent questions that the current situation is asking. Questions about what kind of society we live in, and what kind of society we really want to be in. Is it possible that the situation with this virus is in fact asking some very profound questions about our responsibilities to one another, focussed at a physical level in the important demand that we protect others by things like washing our hands and social distancing?
Is a new understanding of our dependence on one another at least one possible good outcome of what is going on? There could be good news in that. And we can’t fail to salute the wonderful and sometimes risky commitment of hospital staff, and of course care home staff, in caring for the sick and dying, alongside other, perhaps less glamorous public servants such as bus drivers, in lonely self-isolation in their cabs.
And at a more mundane level perhaps, have you noticed how the pace of life in this city, with its empty roads and buses, has slowed down recently? More time perhaps to make that phone call, write that email, or just enjoy the environment which we don’t usually have the time to notice.
So - not a punishing God, but in spite of dreadful suffering, maybe a God of opportunity?
Rev Dr Nicholas Roberts