“Have you been with me so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” (John 14:9)
On a purely human level, this seems an expression not so much of exasperation or desperation, as of sadness, and perhaps also of loneliness. For those closest to Jesus, the ones with whom he has been living, amazingly still do not really know him. They revere him, to be sure, and love him; in Peter’s case, they even recognize him as the Messiah. But do they know him? Does Jesus feel known, deeply loved for the precious person that he is—or only for the role that he is playing in the lives of these men—these good men, but men of limited vision? In this passage, we might almost feel pity for Jesus, who is expressing a heartbreaking human experience, of not being fully understood by those closest to him.
Yet, there is another remarkable side to this story, and that is that these people who do not really know Jesus are those who are closest to him. In fact, these people have been specially chosen by Jesus to become his friends—no longer strangers, but friends (John 15:15, Eph 2:19). And, further, he wants them to continue his work, to proclaim the Gospel of salvation, the reign of God. They are apostles! In fact, today we remember two of them, James the Lesser and Philip, as saints.
What is going on here? Paul sets the tone in his rhetoric of self-deprecation—describing himself as one “abnormally born” (1 Cor 15:8)—born out of time, prematurely, out of sync, a mistake. Elsewhere he will call himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor 15:9), the foremost of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). He scarcely deserves the title of apostle. James and Philip, similarly, are either so obscure, or so failed, that we hardly hold them up as exemplars to follow. Except for the fact that they were loved by Jesus, and except for the fact that they became holy through proximity to him, just as Paul did when he came to his senses.
We are much more like these minor apostles than we are like the “successful” saints of legend and lore. We are the minims in the history of salvation. Yet, even when we count ourselves among the failed, as sinners, we are loved, chosen—known—by the unfathomable personal mystery of God made known in Jesus. Even if we do not really know the Lord, we are known, we are loved, by him; each precious human being’s life—known and loved in a particular and unique way (Ps 139).
Jesus’s question to Philip is also an invitation: In the time we have left here on earth, can we let ourselves come to know those we say that we love, and not take them for granted? In the time we have left here on earth, how can we open our eyes to see and to know the glory of God that shines in our midst, that can be found in all things? Or, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, how we might ask for an intimate knowledge of Jesus, so that we may love him more dearly and follow him more closely (Spiritual Exercises 104). This, it seems, is what Jesus wishes for Philip, what Jesus desires for each of us.