Talitha Arnold: Seeing Jesus

I wonder if those Greeks knew what they were asking.

They came to Philip after Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with its shouts of "Hosanna," and even the Pharisees acknowledging the world had gone after him. And the Greeks said to Philip, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Did they have a clue as to what they were asking?

We do. Starting with the story of that triumphant entry next Sunday, we will see Jesus throughout the week that follows. We'll see him riding on the back of a donkey through a cheering crowd. We'll see him overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and argue with the religious leaders.

We'll see him at another table, breaking bread with the disciples and kneeling to wash their feet. We'll hear him tell them to serve one another in the same way. We'll also hear him tell them that one of them will betray him, another deny him, and all the rest fall away. And we'll see his dismay when they then start to argue amongst themselves as to who is the greatest.

We'll see Jesus alone in an olive grove, as the disciples sleep and he prays for the cup to pass. Sweat and blood drip from his face as the terror of what is to come overcomes him. I wonder if the Greeks could have possibly known that's what they would see when they asked to "see Jesus."

Could they have imagined they would see him surrounded by men with swords and torches who have come to arrest him? Could the Greeks have pictured Jesus' friend kissing his cheek to betray him or his being hauled off to the religious leaders and Roman governor to be tried, beaten, whipped and presented to a mob for sentencing? Could the Greeks have possibly imagined that same crowd who shouted "Hosanna" and waved palms of praise five days later crying, "Crucify," as they shook their fists to demand his death?

Would the Greeks have known that their request to "see Jesus" would be to see "a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief," a crown of thorns pressed into his head and a cross of wood on his shoulders as he struggled up a path to a place called the Skull? Could they have imagined that they would see Jesus on that cross and hear his cry of abandonment?

Did those Greeks have any idea what they were asking for when they told Philip, "we wish to see Jesus"? Probably not. But we do, we who know the story and know where next week's journey will lead. Of course, we do.

But before we - or at least I - critique those Greeks for their seeming naivete about their wanting to see Jesus, I need to remember what I hope to see last year in the days after Palm Sunday - namely a church filled with people, choirs, song, excitement, and increasing energy as the closer we got to Easter.

Perhaps like you, this time last Lent I was looking forward to going deeper into the season and especially into Holy Week. Our youth were set for their Lenten pilgrimage of service and learning at the U.S./Mexican border. Our Lenten adult education classes were full and exciting. Worship planning included multiple ways to "see Jesus" on the journey through the gates of Jerusalem all the way to the empty tomb. We'd ordered the palms for Palm Sunday and dozens of Easter lilies to adorn the Sanctuary. The choirs had been rehearsing the Holy Week anthems since February and they were about to start "The Hallelujah Chorus" for Easter. We'd recruited extra ushers for all the services, and the Youth Initiates were preparing their readings for Tenebrae. Lent 2020 had begun with excitement and anticipation, and I could hardly wait to see how our journey to Easter would unfold.

It's an excitement and anticipation I've felt ever since I started serving a local church, back when I was a student intern for a congregation in Arizona - an excitement and anticipation that led me into parish ministry. For, you see, even as a seminary student, I never intended to be a pastor. To be honest, I never intended to go to seminary - but once there, I planned to do social justice work or political advocacy after graduation. Being a local church pastor wasn't on the agenda.

But an unexpected year of full-time parish ministry changed those plans. It was a full immersion into the life of a local church - council meetings, Christian education, pastoral calling, youth ministry, stewardship campaigns, and most of all, Sunday worship. Week after week, I found something powerful about seeing a group of people come together every single Sunday - and in between times - to try to be the body of Christ, warts and all.

I still do - every Sunday and especially in the Sundays leading to Easter. This time last year, I was eager to see where the journey of Holy Week would take us, individually and as a congregation. Most of all, I looked forward to "seeing Jesus" as we gathered to engage his story in worship, prayer, and service.

But, like the Greeks who asked Philip to see Jesus, I had no idea what I was asking for.

March 15, 2020 was the last time our congregation - masked and distanced - gathered for worship. It was an odd way to "see Jesus." I had no idea how odd or hard it would become. By the next Sunday, I was looking into the screen of my laptop, trying to connect virtually with a scattered community. I felt disoriented and out of my league, switching overnight to online worship. Perhaps like your congregation, the church I serve has always been high-touch, not high-tech. We've sought to engage the incarnate Christ, both as a gathered community and in hands-on serving the wider community. But, since March 16, 2020, that has not been possible.

By the time Holy Week started, the oddity had been replaced by grief - the national grief that came with the rising death rate (1,000 people by March 26, 2020) and also the pastoral loss of the in-person, flesh and blood Body of Christ that is our congregation. It was clear that none of the ways we had "seen Jesus" in past Holy Weeks - the children parading around the Sanctuary waving their palm branches, the sharing of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the youth leading us into the darkness of Tenebrae, and a sanctuary filled with lilies, Hallelujah Choruses, and people on Easter - would be possible last year.

Those things still aren't possible this year, and perhaps that's true for you and your congregation as well. There is a deep sadness in that realization, just as there was last year at this time. I suspect those Greeks might have known a similar sadness, when the Jesus they saw over the next few days was not the Jesus they expected.

We never hear from or about those Greeks again. Perhaps what they saw overwhelmed them and they decided that "seeing Jesus" wasn't such a good idea. Or perhaps what they saw changed them. Maybe seeing him not respond to violence with violence made an impression on them. Maybe witnessing the one called the Son of God alone and abandoned on a cross gave them a different understanding of who God is and how God works in this world, even in their lives. Maybe seeing someone give his life for others made them rethink their own lives. Perhaps seeing Jesus not as they expected helped them to see Jesus - and this world - in a new way.

Perhaps that can be true for us as well. As our congregation approaches our second socially- and physically-distanced virtual Holy Week, I know that, like last year, we won't "see Jesus" as we did before the pandemic - before the pandemic upended and distanced our lives and our worship as the gathered community. But I also know that God continues to open our eyes to see Jesus still at work in this world.

Just as we see Jesus give his life for others in the Passion story, we have seen Jesus throughout this whole year as we've seen nurses, doctors, hospital aides and nursing home housekeepers risk their lives for others, day after day, month after month. As John's Gospel shows us Jesus kneeling before his disciples, we've seen grocery store clerks kneeling to stock empty shelves and school cafeteria workers bending to hand lunches to hungry kids. As the Gospel portrays Jesus washing the dirty, calloused feet of his disciples, this year has shown us Jesus at work through the people who change bedpans and mop floors, who wash feverish bodies and sanitize rooms.

No, we have not seen Jesus in the gathering of our congregations this past year, but we have seen Jesus in the heart-wrenching pictures of ICU patients, alone and separated from loved ones - as surely as he was alone and abandoned on the cross. We've seen the photographs of hospital and nursing home workers, holding their cell phones to a patient's ear so families can have one last connection, standing by bedsides to bear witness as surely as the women did at the cross.

"We wish to see Jesus," the Greeks said to Philip, but what they saw was not what they expected. Whether in our individual lives or in our distanced congregations, what we have seen since last Lent is not what we expected either.

But make no mistake, we have seen Jesus. Not as we had in the past, not perhaps as we'd hoped, but we have seen Jesus.

And we will continue to do so, if only we have the eyes and hearts to see.

Thanks be to God. Amen.