Sunday, March 22, 2015

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is in today's Gospel a couple of verses that might almost slip past unnoticed: Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Who were these men?

Well for a start, they almost certainly were not Greeks, not in the sense that we would mean that to be, Hellenists of Greek ancestry. The clue to that is in the fact that they had come up to Jerusalem to worship at the time of the festival, the Jewish Passover. They could perhaps have been what are sometimes termed 'God-fearers. ' These were gentiles who were attracted to the religion of the Jews, especially its strong and unyielding moral code. It was unlikely that they would convert – the dietary laws, strict monotheism, and, for men in particular, the requirement to be circumcised generally proved too great a barrier for most. But they did wish to learn all they could about this strange and ancient faith, one that often provided answers where other religions only had questions – or indeed often raised endlessly more questions if you took what it had to say about the gods seriously.

But far more likely that they were Jews living in the Greek part of the Roman Empire, part of the diaspora. The Jews, as you know I'm sure, had spread out into all of the known world, and had communities everywhere. Think of the missionary journeys of St Paul: the great Apostle generally went from Jewish to community to Jewish community, beginning his work of evangelisation first among those of his own people, using them as a base, and then moving out from them into the gentile communities.

Now the members of the diaspora were not generally people who had been born in Israel and moved away for business reasons and were back and forth to the home country on a regular basis. A few might have been born in Israel; and a few might have been wealthy enough to afford the high costs of frequent long distant travel, both in terms of time and money; but most would have been born in gentile lands and been brought in Jewish enclaves there and a trip 'home' to Israel would have been a rare, once in a life-time event. Think of the many people of Irish descent today, who dream of someday making a visit to the 'old country' where their ancestors came from; or indeed Christians who make a pilgrimage to the holy land, something that most will only be able to afford once in their lives.

So these were most likely the Greeks St John the Evangelist is speaking of. They have arrived in Jerusalem, having spent years imagining it, dreamt of walking in the courts and precincts of the great Temple, offering sacrifice there, and celebrating Passover in the place where all pious Jews of the time wished to celebrate it. They would have expected great crowds, travelers from all over Israel and all over the known world; but they found more. They found a city buzzing with strange news – that perhaps the Messiah walked among them. Only days before Lazarus had been raised from the dead by a man called Jesus; and this Jesus had entered Jerusalem to a heroes welcome from a cheering crowd who shouted 'Hosanna' and waved palm branches in the air. The air would have been thick with tales of this man, of the signs and wonders he had done – healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, walking on water, calming storms, driving out demons. And these men would surely have wondered if what would have been a once in a lifetime trip for any Jew living in the diaspora was instead a once in a lifetime experience for any person living – to meet and talk with the One promised by God from long ago, the Messiah.

But how to meet him, with so many thronging about the place? And then they learn that one of his closest followers, Philip, is a man of Greek background like themselves – for Philip, in case you didn't know is a Greek name. Perhaps he could help them? So they approach him, make their request that they might see Jesus and then watch breathlessly as he goes first to Andrew and then with him go to Jesus.

And then comes the reason why I said at the beginning that these men and their request might almost slip by unnoticed – because they are never mentioned again by the Evangelist. What happens next is that Jesus begins talking, and if these pilgrims ever got to meet and talk with Jesus privately we will never know, because St John never mentions it. Presumably they have not.

But that is not the same as saying that as far as we know our Lord simply ignored their request altogether. Because I think his answer was more profound than a mere 'why yes gentleman, come over and see me.' These men asked to see Jesus, and see him they did; not in the manner they asked for, by way of a private audience; and not simply as so many others would have seen him that day, from a distance and amongst the crowds. No, they are allowed to see and meet with him as we do: by hearing the Gospel message – by learning of his teaching, by hearing of the signs and wonders he performed. Was this not the reason that they asked to meet him in the first place?

St Paul, for example, never as far as we know met with Jesus face to face while he walked this earth. True, it is possible that he saw him from amongst the crowd; perhaps he even was on the fringes of the trial that condemned to death in some way. But a meeting such as these Greek Jews asked for was something he was denied also; and yet if anyone had said to him that he had never met Jesus he would have laughed at them. And later when he began his missionary journeys, preaching and teaching in the very towns and cities that those who were in pilgrims there that day in Jerusalem, the converts he was soon to make in that gentile world also knew that they had met with the Lord Jesus. Perhaps some of those converts were taken from among the men we read of in our Gospel today? They would have known then that their request was not denied or ignored; they would have known that they had truly met with the Lord Jesus, just as we do we hear his Gospel message, speak with him in prayer, and partake of his body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. How privileged are we, who can meet with our Lord and Saviour whenever we wish, every day, and every moment of every day. For he refuses no one who will welcome him into their hearts. Amen

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