The scriptures referenced are 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 and John 14:6-14.
Last week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope. It has changed the way we see the universe and revealed the vastness and beauty of God's creation. Through it we have learned a great deal that we didn't and indeed couldn't know until we had the Hubble.
And yet after spending 2.5 billion dollars, they found out that it was flawed. The mirror was too flat by 2.2 micrometers, that is, millionths of a meter. This was fine for bright objects but a whole slew of observations of very distant, very faint objects were impossible. The Hubble became the butt of jokes. One of the Naked Gun movies put it in the same class as the Titanic, the Hindenburg and the Edsel. The solution was to send up spectacles, as it were: two mirrors ground to correct the Hubble's vision.
I was talking to an acquaintance who said the problem with most churches was that they have taken their eyes off Jesus. They are focusing on all kinds of issues, some trivial, some important but they have forgotten what is essential: Jesus. Our focus should be on Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done for us and what our response to him should be. Everything else must be built on that.
So why the heck are we honoring Saints Philip and James? Why do we honor anyone other than Jesus?
The reason we have the Hubble is because we really can't see outer space very well otherwise. Earth's atmosphere makes looking at the stars akin to looking at the sky from the bottom of a swimming pool, according to one astronomer. We needed something closer to the heavens to see them clearly. And we need people closer to Jesus to see him. Just as we use Hubble's lenses to see the stars, we see Jesus through the eyes of those who hiked the roads of Galilee with him, who crossed the rough seas with him, who ate with him, saw him betrayed and executed and embraced him alive again. And just as Hubble has more than one mirror, we have more than one account of Jesus' life and ministry. Multiple viewpoints give us the proper perspective on our multifaceted Lord.
Jesus himself is the lens through which we see God. As Jesus says to Philip in our Gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Paul writes in our passage from 2nd Corinthians that Christ “is the image of God.” That's real important because how we see God affects how we respond to him.
When N.T. Wright was a university chaplain, he said that part of his duties at the beginning of every term was to address the new undergrads and tell them what services he and the chapel offered. Afterward as the students left and he shook their hands, many told him that they would probably not be back to the chapel again. “Why?” he would ask them and they would usually say, “Because I don't believe in God.”
“That's interesting,” Wright would say. “What kind of God don't you believe in?” And they would often mutter something about a God who was a kind of cosmic killjoy, who when he saw anyone having fun would say, “Cut that out!”
And Wright would reply, “Well, I don't believe in that kind of God either. I believe in the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Like a lot of us, as a child I thought of God as a kind of cruel taskmaster who was never satisfied with anything I did. I feared God but I did not love him. It was through C.S. Lewis and J.B. Phillips and the New Testament that I saw God afresh. I saw a God who is love. Not a God who is “loving” but who is love itself. Our Triune God is an eternal love relationship, the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The overflowing of that love is what made the heavens and the earth. Jesus came to include us into that circle of love which is the whole reason that we exist.
But we can't always see that. We have polluted the spiritual atmosphere of the world as we have the air we need to breathe. We need a different viewpoint. We need a higher vantage point. We need help seeing God clearly.
In Jesus we see God as he is. And because he is not only fully divine but completely human, in Jesus we see what we can be. We too can be children of God. We too can mirror Jesus, reflecting the glory of his love.
So what about Philip and James? Philip features in the gospels--actually John's gospel--4 times. His record as a disciple is mixed, though. In the first chapter of John he fetches his brother and brings him to Jesus. So that's good. But then Philip pooh-poohs the idea of feeding 5000 people as being too expensive. So not much faith shown there. But then when some Gentiles want to speak to Jesus, he and Andrew approach the Lord. So, Yay! But at the last supper, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father. “To which Jesus replies, “Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” So not so perceptive.
The thing is that Philip shows that Jesus doesn't choose perfect people to serve him. Not that he has much choice. We are all a mixture of our good moments and our not so good ones, of knowing what to do and of getting it wrong. But Jesus chooses us anyway. And that's a real comfort and a reason for hope.
As for James, all we know of him is that he is the son of Alphaeus. Period. We know his dad. The gospels never record anything he says or does. Well, you know, few if any of us here will be noted in history 2000 years from now. Many of us are quiet. We don't stick out in as crowd. People forget our contributions. They turn to talk to others while we are still speaking to them. We never get the attention that flashier people do. For us, there's James; the quiet disciple, the unspectacular apostle. And yet Jesus chose him. Jesus made him one of the 12. God does not judge by outward appearance but looks at the heart.
Jesus chose “right half the time” Philip and silent James to represent him to the world. Because they, like the imperfect Hubble, could nevertheless be channels of light and offer glimpses of his grace. Even before the corrective mirrors were installed Hubble provided important information about the brightest objects out there. With those mirrors, it was also able to pick up the faintest ones.
With Jesus, the important thing is not being perfect but being willing and persistent. When Jesus told the man with the deaf, mute and epileptic son that “all things are possible for the one who believes,” he said to Jesus, “Lord, I do believe! Help my unbelief!” And that was enough for Jesus to work with. That small mixed, half-despairing, half-hoping trust in Jesus was sufficient for his son to be healed.
Jesus just needs a toehold to get started. If we provide the right soil and faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus can work with us. We don't have to be a superhero; we just need to be open and responsive. What we have to offer needn't be much. But it must we all we've got. We can't hold back. We need to disown ourselves and pick up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads. If we do that, it will be enough.
The liturgical color of the day is red because Philip and James are honored as martyrs. They gave all they had. They died for their faith in Jesus and in doing so, mirrored his self-sacrifice. They reflected the love and grace of God. And for that, they are remembered.
We were created in the image of God and when we marred that, God sent his son to remind us of that image and to restore that image in us. But how can any one of us reveal all the glory of our great and multi-faceted God? We can't. Not all of it. But if each of us reflects just a bit of what God is like, then all of us, coming together in love, can, like pieces of a mosaic, compose a properly large and complex and nuanced image of the ongoing love that is our God, the love that made the universe and which is the beating heart of all creation.