A sermon preached for the feast of St Philip & St James on Monday 2 May by Canon Dr Robert Titley, Treasurer
Reading John 14.1-14
We meet Philip tonight not with James but with another disciple, doubting Thomas, the patron saint (some would say) for our time.
In his first Sarum Lecture the Bishop of Salisbury showed us graphs indicating a decline in people’s engagement with the Church of England. Evidence of an age of doubt? Not really, as the lecture went on to show. So a better saint for our times might be our man Philip. ‘Show us the Father,’ he says to Jesus, ‘and we shall be satisfied.’ And Jesus says, ‘Have I been with you all this time…? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ Seeing, that’s my theme.
It’s a metaphor we use widely, and sometimes hurtfully for those who do not have the power of sight - think of phrases like ‘blind prejudice’ - but it’s a powerful metaphor, as Bishop Nicholas showed when he quoted a perceptive insight (note the word) from the late John Hull, a theologian who was himself blind.
Throughout John’s gospel there is seeing and seeing: seeing with the eyes, and seeing with the eye of the mind, seeing as ‘getting it’; and the frustration of having one but not the other! At school, I struggled with maths. For the boy next to me, the equation would leap off the page. I’d see the same numbers, letters, symbols, but I could not see what he saw. Years later, I used to do reading support at a local primary school. ‘Oh, Mr Titley,’ a teacher said, ‘you’re so patient with the ones who find it hard,’ and I thought of myself doing reading with our own children: ‘Look – it’s the same word in first line as it is here. You read it perfectly just now. It’s the same word! Why can’t you see that?’ But sometimes you just can’t see it, and no amount of daddy ranting is going to help.
Now Philip wants to see God, the one Jesus calls Father. He wants to see the heart of meaning and love in the universe. ‘Go on, Jesus,’ he says, ‘just show us and we’ll be satisfied.’ Jesus replies, ‘You’re looking at it!’ But Philip can’t see it; or not yet.
That’s why Philip gets my vote as an apostle for our times. A while ago, David Cameron caused a flutter by talking about ‘we Christians’ at a No 10 reception. Guardian columnist Andrew Brown wrote,
Cameron has acknowledged one of the most significant intellectual shifts of this century. The hope of secularisation is now a busted flush. Religion is not going to die. The fanatics who think it must look increasingly like…men with sandwich boards…announcing the end of the world.
Nice image, and experience suggests he could be right. Two examples. First, if you let the guilty secret slip out that you go to church, you may be surprised by the reaction: not embarrassment but curiosity, respect, perhaps even envy. Second, like most cities, Salisbury has a Street Pastor scheme, in which church volunteers provide a friendly presence among those who tumble out of the pubs and clubs of our city’s boisterous night economy. If it’s like west London, from which I’ve recently come, revellers ask what Street Pastors are for, and why they do it; and after a few drinks punters are uninhibited enough to say what they really think. There’s banter a-plenty, but rarely does anyone say that Christianity is bad or stupid. No - you’re more likely to hear, ‘You’re [four stars] great, you are!’ (it’s seven stars, actually) a compliment I’ve rarely received on a Sunday morning.
So, many people are well disposed to all this – to us – but still they just don’t get it. They look at the same sunsets, hear the same music, but where another sees that all this points beyond itself and that some great love is over all we do, they just can’t.
And ‘they’ are also ‘we’. Perhaps you come here looking, seeking, heroically persisting in the quest for God, and find yourself saying, like Philip, ‘Please God just show me.’ Why doesn’t God just do that? Why for one person is it easier to believe than not believe, while another stands outside, nose squashed up against the window of faith, longing for a glimpse of God? (If I knew, I could retire early on the proceeds of the book I’d write.)
And even for those who call themselves believers, the moments of seeing can be rare. The poet TS Eliot thinks of hearing rather than seeing when he considers moments that hint of God. He talks of
…music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
But that’s rare. What about the rest of life, which is most of life? The rest, says Eliot,
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
Not a sexy list, but these are the lens, the retina, optic nerve and the rest, the components of the eye of faith, through which we may see – or see again – the truth at the heart things. This day of Philip, the one who looks but just can’t see, reminds us to be a place and a people where these things are honoured.
If you have seen me, says Jesus, you have seen the Father. No one can see Jesus now in the way Philip and his friends could that night at the last supper. Instead we see each other. Here we encounter people through actions and words, human activity that can remain merely that – or become a window into God. And it may become that, if seekers after God can find certain things here: a welcome, genuine gladness that they are here; an atmosphere of expectation, people who have shown up genuinely expecting God to show up too; words of scripture said and sung as if those who hear them might be changed in the hearing; and prayers which remind us that Jesus came not to organise the church but to save the world.
The word of God became flesh in Jesus, and now the life of Jesus is made flesh again in us, for we are the body of Christ. We refresh that life here in the Lord’s Supper. There’s not a lot to look at, a wispy wafer and sip of wine; but if we can taste and see, we find that it brings us all the fullness of God.
TS Eliot Quotations are from Four Quartets, ‘The Dry Salvages’, V.