We wish to see Jesus

It was my name day last week, the Feast of St Andrew. It’s always lovely to get to that day; November is all but over and Advent has already begun or about to begin and the Advent calendar is waiting for the first door to be opened. But I actually love the day as well. I am always pleased with the name my parents chose to give me, I think I may have said that before. Why they chose to name me after the two brothers, Andrew and Peter, I don’t know. But they are names that I’m happy to travel though life with.

The reading for Morning Prayer on St Andrew’s Day is a passage from St John’s Gospel. It records an event that happened when Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem. The triumphal entry had just happened and Jesus was there at the heart of the religious authorities and institution, the Temple. Some Greeks approach Philip. They must have recognised that Philip was also of Greek heritage – his name gives the game away and the fact that he came from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee, which was in the hills above Capernaum, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and a place where the population was predominately from that heritage, made him an ally to approach. The request that Philip received and which led him to take these enquirers to Andrew, who then took them on to Jesus, was both simple and profound.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12.21)

They had heard of him, perhaps someone had described to them what he was up to, perhaps someone had repeated to them some of things that they had heard him saying, heard him teaching – and they wanted to see him and hear him and witness him themselves. ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’.

On the day before St Andrew’s Day this year some statistics were released from the most recent census that had been conducted in the UK. The data around religion proved to be newsworthy. For the first time less than half of those who answered the question – and the response to this voluntary question about religious affiliation was up on the previous census, 94% compared to 92.9% in the previous census which shows that people were willing to engage with the question even though they didn’t have to – identified as Christian. As it says in the census report

For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011; despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question. (ONS Census Release 29 November)

However you want to spin it this is a massive drop in numbers, a huge reduction. In the main points on the front page of the release it then says this

“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% (22.2 million) from 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011.

We can suggest what this might mean, why people say this, whatever it does or does not mean, that they are spiritual but would not describe themselves as practicing, believing, ‘signed up’ Christians, but whatever gloss you put on it the figure is a stark one.

The day after the release was the Feast of St Andrew, the patron saint of mission. It was a wake up call as we kept the feast that there is a real mission challenge facing the church. If we saw that kind of fall repeated over the next few decades then the church would be in a very very difficult situation. Already people are rightly asking why we have an Established church in a non-Christian country and I am sure the same questions will be asked around the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III.

I go back to those Greeks approaching Philip with that simple yet profound desire, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. My question to myself, as a dean, as an ordained minister of the gospel for almost 40 years, as a member of the General Synod since 2005, as someone who could be described as an institutional person, part of the Establishment, is this, is the church really showing Jesus? Do we take people to meet Jesus, or do we in fact block, restrict, obscure, distort that divine encounter. I wonder if the problem is not with Jesus, not with Christ, not with the one who comes amongst us and reveals the depth of the death-defying love of God for the whole of humanity but with the institution. Rightly or wrongly we are seen to be misogynist, racist, homophobic, privileged, exclusive, entitled, censorious, irrelevant, elitist – and you can add to that list – and at times and in places we have been and still are some or all of that. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ (Hamlet Act 1 Scene IV)

At it’s best the church is life-giving, life-changing, a blessing, the shepherd’s hut in the midst of a hostile wilderness, a place where we are fed, where miracles happen, where we encounter the Living God. But at our worst … well, I don’t need to spell it out. Yet, and there is a big yet in all of this, yet, we opened booking for our Cathedral Carol Services and all the places were taken within a few hours; yet we have a big online community, with us each morning to pray; yet we have a diverse congregation, age and ethnicity, and sexuality and ability and all the rest. The church is not dead and people are not uninterested but there is something that is getting in the way of us showing Jesus to those who wish to see him. That is the challenge for the whole church and we have to address it today because tomorrow comes along too fast!

Jesus, may we see you, in the church, in the world, in one another. Amen.

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