A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
The Feast of Philip and James, Apostles
Reading John 14: 1–14
Cagney and Lacey, Penn and Teller, Ben and Jerry, Mel and Sue, French and Saunders – you can’t think of one without the other. Philip and James, this evening’s saints, are not quite like that. They are two of Jesus’ twelve disciples but the gospels don’t describe them as a double act. They only became that in death, when what were believed to be their relics were buried in the same church in Rome, dedicated on this day.
James is one of two, perhaps three people of that name in the gospels. Philip emerges into some individuality in John’s gospel, as tonight when he says to Jesus ‘Show us the Father’, and is drawn into that running theme of John’s gospel, the riddle of seeing and not seeing.
Preaching on this feast day in 2016, I mentioned but did not elaborate on an Australian theologian called John Hull. Hull was the subject of a documentary film in 2016, Notes on Blindness. As his sight faded – the last thing he saw was a church spire – Hull set out, in sixteen hours of audio diaries, to understand the state of blindness, something he felt his life would depend on. The result is astonishing. One scene, ‘Notes on the experience of hearing rain falling’, will stay with me for ever, as he describes how the sound of rain on different surfaces brings out the contours of the world around him. Other moments are searing: ‘Who has the right to deprive me of the sight of my children at Christmas time?’
Notes on Blindness tells its story on two levels. Hull’s eyes don’t work, but he constantly uses ‘eye’ words, seeing language, whether it is to describe the life of his mind – ‘horizons’ – or to get his little son ready for school: ‘Let’s have a look at you.’ Hull’s eyes, as he brutally puts it, are just ‘a mass of jelly’, but those eye words clearly mean something when he uses them. There is seeing of another kind going on here. I suspect John the theologian might have had particular insight – note the word – into the gospel of John, a book that is itself on two levels, seeing when you can’t see, and not seeing when you can, which is Philip’s problem:
‘Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.’
‘Have I been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’
There is no problem with Philip’s eyes – the retinas are processing the photons, no problem – and yet he can’t see; not really.
What drew Philip to Jesus? Was it a desire to see God in a way that is non-negotiable, unambiguous, a seeing-is-believing kind of way? And what is so wrong with that? What is the problem about Jesus showing Philip the Father, as it were direct? Why does God insist on moving in mysterious ways, so that Jesus himself, the Word of God made flesh, can be misread even by a close friend? Why make a world that one person can see as a window into Love divine, while another sees just a lot of stuff that happens?
The answer, it seems, is about giving us freedom, letting us be creatures who can choose, rather than overwhelming us. If Philip is to see the Father direct, that moment will be the day of judgement, for then he will see his Creator face to face. For this life, Philip (and you and I) must learn to go beneath the visible surface of things, and this is not God playing games with us: it is an act of courtesy, of kindness, of love.
Several years into sightlessness, John Hull revises his judgment that he would never accept his blindness. Now he feels ‘bolder, more intellectually confident than ever before’. Sometimes he finds his mind bursting with ‘new horizons’, and he describes a moment when he sensed the presence of God as never before, and received a word of knowledge: ‘That’s it!’ he says, ‘It’s a gift. Not a gift I want, not a gift I’d want my children to have, but it is a gift.’ So the question becomes, ‘Not “Why have I got it?” but “What am I going to do with it?”’
In one scene, Hull lectures on what he calls the problem of mutual understanding:
How can blind and sighted people truly understand one another? How can men understand women…the rich understand the poor…the old understand the young? Can we have insight into other people? This is the great question upon which the unity of our humanity hangs.
Part of his dark, paradoxical gift was that he was forced along a path that, in one sense, sighted people cannot take, but which gives insight into a journey we all must make, as he showed the truth of those scriptural words that faith ‘is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11.1).