Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"It's all Greek to me"

Message preached April 6, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon John 12:20-32

Order of Worship

            "Kyrie, thelomen ton íIasoun idein." Did you catch that? Itís right there in the scripture Terri just read. Didnít you hear it? Would it help if I repeated it? "Kyrie, thelomen ton íIasoun idein." ... That didnít make it any more clear? Oh, I see the problem. What you heard earlier was an English translation of these words. Just now I was reading from the original, cartoon ©1998- 2001 KEN WESTPHALwhich is in common (not classical) Greek. Few, if any of us here speak Greek, so if I butchered my pronunciation of these words (which is quite probable), you wouldnít notice.

            Of course, when I said "original," as in the "original" text being in Greek, actually I have to admit that we donít really have the "original." What we have are copies of the original, which no longer exists - at least not as far as we know. There werenít printing presses or copy machines back then. But even the real "original" from Gospel storyteller John - wherever it might be - is not fully "original" when it comes to the language in which it was "originally" written. The truth is, Jesus and his disciples were not Greeks. They were Palestinian Jews. The language of their faith was Hebrew, but their everyday tongue was Aramaic. So, if we were to hear the words of Jesus as he "originally" spoke them, weíd be listening to Aramaic or Hebrew. Which, if the truth be told, would make about as much sense to us this morning as the Greek phrase I spoke earlier.

            However, even if we were all "experts" (you know my definition of an "expert," donít you? An "ex" is a "has been" and a "spurt" is a "drip under pressure.") in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, there is a lot in the Gospel that still seems to go over our head. When we say, "itís all Greek to me," weíre not just talking about language.

            Jesus said stuff that we still struggle to grasp. That was definitely true of those who first heard his words back then. They didnít know the rest of the story like we do, the part yet to be lived out before them. When Jesus said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," what were they to make of those words? Then again, what do we make of them, we who know about the Son of Man being lifted up on a cross? When Jesus spoke of a grain of wheat falling to earth and dying, but then going on to bear much fruit, the folks back then didnít have a clue that he was thinking about himself and his own pending death. They may have thought this was just another one of his nifty agricultural stories.

            Before we get all high and mighty - thinking we know so much more than they did long ago because, after all, weíve read the conclusion, we know how the story ends - we need to come back down to the ground and admit that we still struggle to comprehend it all. "Those who love their life lose it," Jesus said, "and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Explain that one to me in fifty words or less. Did he really mean that weíre supposed to hate living in this world? Did Jesus hate living in this world? Did he walk around with a constant frown all the time, as if he were ready to get sick over everything he saw?

            Iím reminded of a scene in the movie, "The Matrix." By the way, if you want to understand a bit of the "world" of our younger generation, you might want to view this movie. It speaks a language and presents a reality that generations "X" and "Y" understand... Anyway, in this scene, the antagonist, a "machine" called Agent Smith, speaks of his disgust with having to live among people. "Humans smell," he says, "their stench makes me sick." Is that how Jesus lived, always sick to his stomach of the sin which permeated the world he came to save? Is that what it means for us to "hate (this) life?" Are we to live dour lives, a frown perpetually on our lips? Well, thatís how some have understood it, though I donít believe thatís what Jesus meant. The "evil one" may be among us that way, perhaps suppressing disgust with a shallow smile, but thatís not how Jesus lived. Nor, I believe, is that how we should live.

            But what does it mean to "hate (this) life?" We struggle to understand. Does it mean that we should not be afraid to let go of our life, that we should live with open hands and arms instead of always trying to hold on to everything and everyone? Perhaps. Still, itís all Greek to us at times. What Jesus said next is easier to comprehend, especially for "Brethren" types, who are big on the word "service." He said, "whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor." Wonderful words, wouldnít you say? However, we know the rest of the story, donít we? And that may make it harder for us to grasp these words.

            A servant must follow his master, he said. So where did Jesus go from that point? He headed to the cross. Uh-oh! Itís one thing to serve, to wash someoneís feet, to help build a family a home, to clean up after a disaster, to feed a meal to the homeless, to wrap a health kit for those in need, to give a heifer or some other animal to those who could use it to feed themselves; itís one thing to serve in any of these ways. Itís quite another to follow Jesus wherever he goes, especially when that "wherever he goes" involves suffering and death. Are we to be like that grain which dies? We can read what Jesus said in plain English, but itís still all Greek to us.

            If we were to continue listening to this morningís gospel story according to John, weíd hear about a voice from heaven speaking the glory of God right there in the middle of that crowd. John says that some of the people thought it was a clap of thunder - the language of weather. Others thought it was the sound of angels - what language do they speak? Regardless, it was still all Greek to those folks. Just like Godís voice can still pretty much be a mystery to us when we hear it today. This voice of glory is often lost amid all the background noise of our daily life. And even if we do hear the sound - perhaps in the crunch of gravel beneath the feet of someone who is walking in a whole new direction after years of wandering from God - do we really understand?

            "This voice has come for your sake," Jesus told them back then, according to John. "Now is the judgement of this world," he said. The Greek word John used for "judgment" is actually one we still use today. When a personís world is turned upside down, when he can no longer live it the same way he has in the past, when she runs into a difficult time which will forever change her, we say that such a person is facing a "crisis." That is the Greek word John used to convey what Jesus said. "Now is the crisis (krisis) of this world."

            Often, in the middle of facing into a crisis, we donít have a clue as to what is going on. The road signs could be written in Greek, for all that we understand of them. The world as we have known it is ripped away, and we have to find another way of living if we are to continue. As wrenching as these times can be - terrifying, in fact - these are also moments pregnant with possibility... Think of your life right now as a big square block. How easy is it to move such a block? Our engineer types here could probably come up with a 1001 ways of moving this block, but for most of us the prospect of pushing it is daunting. The "The Cube," by Bernard (Tony) Rosenthal, 1968, Regents Plaza, Univ. Mich. "Although seemingly massive, the Cube will rotate on its axis, given a gentle push."surface in contact with the ground makes it difficult.

            Crisis times put this box of our lives on edge. There it teeters. In this position itís easy to move, isnít it? Of course, it can slip back into the place it once sat, though will everything be the same as it once was? Probably not. On the other hand, on its edge this box can move to a new place. Jesus said, with a touch of glory in his voice, "Now is the crisis of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be driven out." He wasnít talking about Sadaam Hussein, my friends.

            Now, I know the world is not shaped like a box, but what Jesus was aiming to do was to put things on edge. However, unlike some who prefer the world to be constantly that way, Jesus had a clear purpose beyond merely creating chaos. "And I," he said, "when I am lifted up from the earth (he was speaking about his death upon the cross), I will draw all people to myself." The purpose of this time of crisis - the purpose of the cross - was for all people to be drawn to God through it. Even those Greeks who came to Philip asking about Jesus.

            Do you recall that part of Johnís story which Terri read? Here Jesus and his disciples were all in Jerusalem for the festival leading up to Passover, and out of nowhere came some foreigners from Greece. The way John tells it, these were not Jews who just happened to be living in Greece and had returned home for this celebration. No, these were people who, at this point in their life journey, were seeking God. This Jewish stuff was all Hebrew to them. But as they wander, something has drawn them to this moment and place, even if they havenít much of an idea what it is that has pushed or pulled them.

            One thing you need to know is that the name "Philip" is not a Hebrew name. Itís Greek. Perhaps thatís why these Greeks came to Philip. Here was a bit of common ground in a very foreign territory. What did they say when they come to Philip? "Kyrie, thelomen ton íIasoun idein." Did you catch that this time? No? Itís in Greek, which was the language they understood, even if we donít. In words we can grasp, they asked Philip, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."

            Of course, Johnís gospel doesnít recall the actual meeting of Jesus with these foreigners who came to see him. But when our Lord spoke of drawing all people to himself in the crisis of the cross, you better believe that that included those Greeks, just like it includes everyone today. That much we understand, even as we struggle to make sense out of his crucifixion. And I havenít even begun talking about that other part of the story which can be just as confusing for folks - you know, the resurrection. For many people, perhaps some of us in this room, these words might as well be in Greek for all we Apostle St Philip, by Museo del Greco, Toledo, 1606comprehend of them. Itís easier to envision a bunny hopping around planting Easter eggs than it is to picture what an empty tomb is all about.

            Donít you think, though, that when people are seeking Jesus (of course, they may not realize that is what they - in some time of crisis - are after), we are called to be like Philip to them? A funny thing you may have noticed from the story is that when those Greeks came to Philip, he didnít sit them down and fill them in on all the details they may not have understood. No, when they said to Philip, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus," he went to Jesus himself, along with his fellow disciple Andrew. Perhaps it was all Greek to Philip what God might be doing by bringing these strangers to the party. God has a habit of doing that, you know.

            Perhaps, this morning, you are like these people who came to see Jesus. A lot of this "religion" stuff may not make a great deal of sense. You may struggle to understand all the big words, like crucifixion and resurrection and ascension and the rest, and what it all might have to do with you. Well, be assured that we donít have all the answers, ourselves. A lot of it is Greek to us, too. But we know the One who has drawn us all to himself, and thatís enough. We believe that God has a peculiar habit of bringing strangers to the party, and if that is you just now, letís go to him together.... Thereís a prayer on the back of your bulletin. Letís pray it.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see John.


©2003 Peter L. Haynes

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