A couple of weeks ago in Poland I visited a church which has a picture of the Holy Trinity on the wall. My attention was drawn to the representation of God the Father, shown as an elderly, majestic man with a full white beard and, on his head, a triple crown resembling the one used by popes before Paul VI. Every time I looked at that particular part of the picture, I had a strange feeling that something was not quite right.
In today’s gospel one of the Apostles, Philip, addresses Jesus with a request: ‘Lord, let us see the Father.’ The problem is that nobody has ever seen God; and, for a Jew, seeing God is a blasphemous idea. If Philip expresses such a desire, he must believe that Jesus can fulfil it. His request is in fact an indirect profession of his belief that Jesus is someone much greater than even the greatest of teachers; someone much closer to God than anyone else. That belief of Philip is the result of what he has seen and heard while following Jesus – today’s passage of the gospel is part of a farewell speech made at the Last Supper.
Jesus’ reply to that request is a really bold claim: ‘To have seen me is to have seen the Father.’ A similar claim confirmed in front of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, sealed his fate when the high priest called that a blasphemy. Ever since then there have been many people questioning that special, unique position of Jesus the man in relation to God; some attempts to explain and to understand that position ended up as heresies, rejected and condemned by the Church. Do we accept more easily today that Jesus is God? There are many who can accept Jesus as an exceptional teacher or speaker, or as a champion of social justice, but many are reluctant to acknowledge him as God. Despite two millennia of Christianity, for many it’s still incomprehensible that God can become man.
However bold that claim may be, accepting it in faith is the only way forward if Christianity is to make any sense. It was difficult in the ancient world, where Jesus crucified was an insult to the Jews and a ridicule to the Greeks. It’s no easier in our modern world, where Jesus is ‘a stone to stumble over, a rock to bring men down’ as St Peter says in today’s second reading; he continues: ‘they stumble over it because they don’t believe in the word.’ Faith is the key factor to acceptance of Jesus as someone unique in his relation to God. At the beginning of today’s gospel he says: ‘Trust in God still, and trust in me. Do not let your hearts be troubled’ and then he finishes with these words: ‘whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, he will perform even greater works.’ His words have been proven, initially by the Apostles and their immediate followers, and then by the generations of Christians taking their faith seriously.
Today’s world is as challenging to our faith as it was two thousand years ago. The Christian faith and its moral teaching is ridiculed and scorned. It seems fashionable to reject religion, particularly Christianity, by those considering themselves to be modern and enlightened. Today, as two thousand years ago, declaring ourselves Christian makes quite a strong statement, because it goes against the tide of fashion. It requires some spiritual strength. We are not short of it if we believe. St Peter shows us the source of it: ‘the man who rests his trust on him will not be disappointed.’ We don’t have to trust an old bearded man with a triple crown on his head. We are called to trust Jesus, who is our way, our truth and our life.