“Sir, We Would See Jesus”

This last May St. Ninian’s Anglican Church in Scarborough, Ontario was deconsecrated by the Anglican bishop of Toronto and returned to secular use.  Usually the deconsecration of Anglican churches is of no interest to me, unless they are nearby and are being offered for sale at bargain prices (which of course they never are), but this church was different.  It was in this church that I was received into the Anglican Communion, and it was in this church that I was married.  It was in this Anglican church that I first met its Rector, Fr. Bill Hewton (pictured inset).

Fr. Bill was a big man, both physically and spiritually, and he had a big heart, all of which belonged to Jesus.  He was a man of fervent faith, evangelical outlook, wry humour, loud laughter, and big hugs.  He loved life and he loved the Lord.  Under his leadership, this tiny little Anglican congregation (begun in the baby boom 1960s) grew and thrived.  For me it was all a gift, and a good place to learn the lessons of liturgical living and respect for history—greatly needed lessons for someone converted to Christ through the joyful but chaotic charismatic Jesus Movement.  Fr. Bill’s ministry at St. Ninian’s was God’s gift to me, as it was to many others, despite the fact that he suffered unjustly at the hands of lesser men.  Looking back, it seems unlikely that I would have ever found Orthodoxy if it were not for my sojourn in Anglicanism—a sojourn which began at Fr. Bill’s St. Ninian’s.  It was for this reason that the deconsecration of the little building brought a pang of sadness to my aging heart.

Fr. Bill preached from a tiny lectern at the front of the church, and it was on this lectern that he taped as a reminder to himself a piece of paper containing the words from John 12:21, “Sir, we would see Jesus”.  Fr. Bill knew that the function of preaching was to reveal Christ, to use words in such a way that the listeners would see Jesus.  That need to see Jesus was not confined to the little congregation crammed into St. Ninian’s church.  It is the need of the world.  Whether people know it or not, they need to see Jesus, for there is joy, life, peace, and salvation in no one else.

It is easy—in fact far too easy—for us to use our words in such a way that people do not see Jesus, but rather the Church as an institution and Christians with all their foibles, weaknesses, and stupidities.  I am reminded of the confession of Barry McGuire (of Eve of Destruction fame) after he read the New Testament for the first time.  He was surprised at its contents and was impressed, irresistibly drawn to Jesus.  But an obstacle still remained to his conversion:  he said that Jesus was cool, but that he didn’t want to be like all those Christians.  Like many others, when Christians started speaking, he saw only them, and not Jesus.  (Happily, Barry did convert, as  long-time readers of this blog will know.)  We need to speak in such a way that people will see Jesus, and this is more easily done if our lives at least begin to approximate His in terms of love, joy, and holiness.

This temptation to preach something other than Jesus is particularly strong for us Orthodox.  We can sometimes forget the words of St. Paul who said to the Corinthians that he preached not himself, but Christ Jesus as Lord, as himself as their servant for Jesus’ sake (2 Corinthians 4:5).  Because Orthodoxy is so rich, with a long history, deep theology, and beautiful liturgy and icons, it is easy to make Orthodoxy our message, rather than Christ.  It is easy to focus upon these beautiful things, rather than on Jesus, and to sing the virtues of the Orthodox Church when we should be proclaiming the glorious love and work of Christ.  We don’t want the world to see our icons; we want the world to see what the icons point to.  We want to the world to see Jesus.

That was the method and mandate of the Fathers, and it should be our method and mandate also.  Obviously, the Christ we preach is the Christ who reveals Himself in the Orthodox Church, rather than in the Mormon temples or the Kingdom Halls of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  But it is Christ who is the subject of our preaching, not the glories of Orthodoxy.  Those glories—the theology, the hymns, the icons—all only serve to proclaim Him.  Otherwise we invert the apostolic counsel and preach not Christ Jesus as Lord, but ourselves.  If we Orthodox (or any genuine Christian community for that matter) would be true to Christ, we must remember the words of Fr. Bill when we open our mouths to speak to the world.  The world stands before us with hungry hearts, hungry for what only Christ can provide.  By their hunger they are saying to us, “Sir, we would see Jesus”.

4 comments:

  1. Well, Father, in January, 1968, my second year in college, I was a tough place: nearly flunking out, not liking my major and losing my girl friend. So, I prayed: “Jesus, if you are real, I need to know it!”
    He let me know He is real. Suddenly, I saw the energy outlines of a man standing about 30 feet away with the unmistakeable conviction that Jesus is real. That conviction has never left me and neither has He. When I first attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy in 1993 during the Great Entrance, there He was again, the same Person being carried by the Priest. I retain that memory to this day but not always as strongly.
    Yet, when I long enough for Him, He always comes.
    I have yet to find a way to communicate Him to others in a way they will accept and believe even other Orthodox. He is so much more real than any thing or any one else. But all I get is blank stares when I tell people.
    What am I doing wrong?

    1. I’m not sure you’re doing anything wrong. The Lord said that no one could come to Him unless that Father drew him, and St. Paul spoke of unbelievers whose minds Satan had blinded that they might not see the glory of the Lord. But that does not get us off the hook; we still have do our best, leaving the results with God.

  2. I am also reminded of the Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead” My favorite version ifs sung by Paul Robeson. My favorite verse: “Now you can’t pray like Peter and you can’t preach like Paul but you can tell your neighbor, He died to save us all.”

    That I have never done well. God forgive me. I have some work yet to do, I guess. Along with Matthew 4:17.

  3. Thank you for this reflection, Father. So true. You might find it interesting that the Episcopal parish I pastor in the Dallas area has those same words on a plaque on our lectern: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Every lector and the preacher (myself) sees these words before reading or preaching.

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