Whatever Happened to Those Greeks? John 12:20-33 5th Sunday in Lent, Mar 18, 2018
Have you ever expected one thing, and received quite another? There was a movie that had this as its theme called “Date Night”. Although I only saw the trailer, and it’s likely not worth watching, I gathered that this was the plot line of this movie, as a couple expecting to have a quiet intimate date night, found themselves in the middle of criminal intrigue. Interestingly enough, I have had somewhat similar experiences in ministry, as have some of our interns. Landon Jack perhaps experienced this more than most, with a couple of encounters particularly that come to mind. The first happened while house-sitting in the country, when trying to find a “good road” into town (I put this in quotations marks, as those of us who live in the country know how difficult this has been over the past couple of years to find such a road). That search led to a pretty scary encounter when a man wielding a flashlight waved him over, shone the light into his face, and exclaimed in a scary voice that he knew exactly who he was and what he was up to, and threatened that if he ever showed up there again…there would be “trouble”.
Landon called me to get my perspective as to what he should do. We were both pretty confident that this was indeed a case of mistaken identity, but I was pretty sure I knew who he had encountered on that fateful road, and encouraged him to both report the incident to the police immediately, and never go down that road again, although this probably would have gone without saying. What was assumed to be just “another day at the office”, almost turned out to be the makings of a suspense-filled, thriller movie.
Such may well have been the case in today’s gospel reading from the book of John. The passage begins in stating “there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast”. For reasons unstated, these Greeks wanted to see Jesus, and approached Philip (who was from Bethsaida, which seems to be important to this account, but we are not exactly sure why), to help facilitate this. Again for reasons that we can only speculate, Philip takes this request to Andrew, and the two of them approach Jesus with their request. One would think only two answers would be possible (and a one-word answer would suffice for both). Rather than either of these words, Jesus begins a sober discussion about what lies ahead for him, and any who would wish to follow.
Jesus’ teaching that follows begins with what sounds like it could be “good news”…Jesus’ glorification. The word glory or δόξα in Greek, is used extensively in the New Testament, and means something like “good reputation and honor”. St. Augustine renders it as clara notitia cum laude in Latin, “brilliant celebrity with praise”. Glorification sounds like a good thing, and at this point those in the audience are probably “all ears”.
A farming/gardening metaphor about seeds going into the ground comes next; trying to connect this metaphor with the average person’s concept of glory would be a bit more challenging. Rather than becoming a “brilliant celebrity worthy of praise”, Jesus was now describing seeds that must fall to the earth and die. Even beginner gardeners get this basic fact, but what does this have to do with being a praise-worthy celebrity? For those who may have had trouble “connecting the dots”, Jesus spells it out even clearer, “the man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Although this is not readily evident in English, it is important to know that Greek has three separate words for “life”; bios (from which we get the word biology), psyche (soul and mind, from which we get the word psychology), and zoe (the life that exists in God himself, often paired with the word “eternal”). Jesus is not offering his followers some kind of “self-help” program in order to elevate their biological/psychological condition (although there is nothing necessarily wrong with caring for both), but essentially inviting his hearers to exchange this temporal life, for the life which exists in God alone. Perhaps the martyred Jim Elliot expresses this best in saying, “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose”. Our biological and psychological lives have a “best before date”, or more accurately, an “expiry date”. God’s life does not. Jesus offers this kind of life to his disciples and to us while still in this bios/psyche mortal state. This is not simply “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by”, but dessert for the eating in the here and now for those who care to receive it.
To sink the point home, God affirms Jesus’ message with an audible voice from heaven. Jesus has heard this voice already at his baptism, and Transfiguration, and as such is pretty familiar with it already (and come to think of it, has heard it for all eternity). This time Jesus says the voice is for their sake and not his primarily. Often people imagine if they heard the actual, factual voice of God from heaven…then they would believe. Perhaps this might be the case. These same people however might be like those who witnessed the multiplication of the bread and fish at the feeding of the 5000, and who demanded another miracle the following day, in order to sustain their faith (the verses that follow from 37 and following state as much). Whatever the case, God does not speak at our command, and blesses those who have not seen (or heard) and yet believe (Jn 20:29).
Today’s texts end with a word of judgement pronounced on both the world (used here in the sense of those forces in the world opposed to God), and the “prince of this world”, or Satan himself. The death of God incarnate was imagined to be Satan’s finest hour…but rather turned out to be the beginning of his end. Jesus dying on the cross was thought to be humanity’s and heaven’s darkest hour, but it turned out to be its most brilliant. The seed that entered into the earth and died…would burst forth with life eternal.
As this text comes to a close, we never actually do find out if these Greeks ever did get their “photo op” with Jesus. Perhaps they heard these words addressed to the disciples and the crowd, and perhaps not. Pending they did hear them, chances are they were not what they were expecting, nor wanting to hear. They may not be what you or I were expecting, nor wanting to hear either. But to those who do both hear and believe them…they are in fact the words of eternal life. Amen