Lent 5—Year B
March 22, 2015
If you’ve ever been inside Trinity Church, in Copley Square, you would have noticed the enormous pulpit on the left-hand side, what we used to call the gospel side, of the church. You could get the whole altar guild in that pulpit with room to spare. From down below you are taken with its size. But when you actually get in the pulpit you are taken by the words inscribed that only the preacher can see. They are the simple words from today’s gospel in the translation of the King James Version: “Sir, we would see Jesus”.
That’ll stop any preacher: they want to see Jesus? They didn’t show up today to hear my theological skill or some cool story I got off the internet?
They want to see Jesus?
That will stop any preacher…For a time…and then we get our courage up again because we know there is a part of each of us that most definitely does not want to see Jesus, because we imagine that if Jesus shows up then all of a sudden we’re not in charge—If Jesus shows up then I may have to step aside and let him preach and celebrate. If we see Jesus then I might really hear such good news that my nice comfortable life will get uncomfortable and messy. If Jesus shows up he might start talking about losing my life in order to find it.
As Annie Dillard put it years ago:
Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
In The Brothers Karamazov Ivan tells his brother who is a novice monk a story in which Jesus returns to Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Immediately the people respond to him, but the Grand Inquisitor has him arrested. He visits Jesus in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him, because his presence will mess up the mission of the Church.
So there is sometimes a conspiracy between preacher and people to talk about ourselves and not about Jesus; to talk about what we need to do to be good people, how we have to work for the right political outcomes or the left political outcomes. We are happy to bring out the checklist of things we need to do to please God.
Those of us leading worship get caught up in the belief that it is up to us to execute such a good liturgy that God will be pleased and give us passing marks on our performance.
Yet Episcopal priest Robert Capon reminds us that: “Grace cannot prevail … until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”
But the good news never resides in our efforts. It is not our worship that forgives sins and unites us with God. It is the worship of Jesus our great high priest that forgives sins and unites us with God.
Our role in worship is not to perform but to participate in Christ’s communion with the Father.
So if we want to see Jesus we need to see, first of all, that Jesus is a High Priest who has united himself completely with our fallen humanity—that we are already in this moment woven into the fabric of his humanity.
Hebrews 2: 17 says: “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters[a] in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.”
In today’s reading from chapter 5 we are told: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”
Now at the right hand of the Father Jesus continues his ministry for us as it says in chapter 7: Jesus “is able for all time to save[e] those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
“Sir, we would see this Jesus who brings God to humanity and brings our humanity to God, and is eternally working on our behalf.”
And Jesus’ response is “Now is the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
In our world being glorified means having all the spotlights shine on you—being the center of attention and adulation, like being interviewed on the Today Show or receiving an Oscar.
For Jesus, being glorified means being hung on a cross in the Roman killing fields outside Jerusalem.
He says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit….
And what fruit does Jesus bear as he dies on the cross: he bears the whole human race. We are all with him on the cross as God removes the cancer of our sinful existence and floods us with the divine life.
Or as Jesus says today: Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
This is what is going on in worship:
Jesus Christ is preaching good news, not about how to be nice people, but how to see that we are God’s people. Jesus Christ is singing praises and leading our prayers to the Father, and it is our great High Priest who takes the bread which is his body and breaks it, and lifts up the cup filled with his own life. It is Jesus Christ who gives us himself, his vicarious humanity, and in giving us himself, gives us God.
The High Priest knows that we are human weak and frail, and knows our suffering. He joins with us so we can participate in his communion with the Father.
And it is also true when we’re not in church: We are sharing in Christ’s work as we do our work in office or home. We participate in Christ’s work with the poor and suffering; we share in Christ’s work against violence and injustice that dehumanizes a person or a people for everyone is included in the work of our great High Priest.
That’s why I like what Pope Francis said last year: “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
Our role in life is to trust that Christ has us all, the whole human race, and in that trust to see Christ working for us so we can drop all our efforts to make something of ourselves that would get the spotlights turned on us and away from Christ.
We can drop all our efforts to prove we are holy or special.
We can surrender to who we already are in Jesus Christ and let the Holy Spirit do her work in our hearts crying “Abba, Father!”
Then we will understand that believing is seeing.