It's all Greek to me

Message preached on March 18, 2018
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon John 12:20-33

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Κύριε, θέλομεν τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἰδεῖν.

             “Kyrie, thelomen tonIasoun idein.” Did you catch that? It’s right there in the scripture we just read. Didn’t you hear it? Would it help if I repeated it loudly? “Kyrie, thelomen tonIasoun idein.” ... That didn’t 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, which 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 wouldn’t notice.

            Of course, when I said “original,” as in the “original” text being in Greek, actually I have to admit that we don’t 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 weren’t 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, we’d 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,” don’t 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, “it’s all Greek to me,” we’re not just talking about language.

            Jesus said stuff that we still struggle to grasp, even as the words slowly get etched upon our hearts. That was definitely true of those who first heard his words back then. They didn’t 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, those who first heard him say that might not have had 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. But still they took the words to heart and remembered them.

            Before we get all high and mighty - thinking we know so much more than they did long ago because, after all, we’ve read the conclusion, we know how the story ends - we need to come back down to earth 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 we’re supposed to hate living in this world? Did Jesus hate living in this world? Was he ill all the time over all the sin which permeated the world he came to save? Did he walk around with a constant frown, as if he were ready to get sick over everything he saw? Is that what it means for us to “hate (this) life?” Are we to live dour lives, our smiles perpetually turned upside down?

            But what does it mean to “hate (this) life?” Could it suggest, instead, 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, it’s all Greek to us at times, even as the words slowly are written on our hearts… 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, wouldn’t you say? However, we know the rest of the story, don’t we? The powers-that-be targeted this servant leader, Jesus, as a troublemaker. That may make it harder for us to grasp his words about serving.

            A servant must follow his master, he said. So where did Jesus go from that point? He headed to the cross. Uh-oh! It’s one thing to serve, to wash someone’s feet, to help build a family a home, to clean up after a disaster, to extend an arm to help someone stand up, 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; it’s one thing to serve in any of these ways. It’s 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 it’s still all Greek to us, even as the words are slowly engraved on our hearts

            In this morning’s gospel story we heard 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 God’s 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? Yet still this thunder, these angel alleluias come to reside within.

            “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 “judgement” is actually one we still use today. When a person’s 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 don’t 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 tossed aside, 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? Engineers 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 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 it’s easy to move, isn’t it? Of course, it can slip back into the place where 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.” Did those words make it into anyone’s heart today? If so, were they words of promise, or challenge, or just plain fact, tickling your spirit?

            Of course, 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, as any, time of crisis - the purpose of the cross - is 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 John’s story we just heard? 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 wandered, something drew them to this moment and place, even if they didn’t have much of an idea what it was that has pushed or pulled them.

            One thing you need to know is that the name “Philip” is not a Hebrew name. It’s Greek. Perhaps that’s 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 tonIasoun idein.” Did you catch that this time? No? It’s in Greek, which was the language they understood, even if we don’t. In words we can grasp, they asked Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

            Of course, John’s gospel doesn’t 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 this 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 haven’t even begun talking about that other part of the story which can 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 comprehend of them. It’s easier to envision a bunny hopping around planting Easter eggs than it is to picture what an empty tomb is all about. And yet the events we will soon remember one more time, starting next week, and the words that all-too-inadequately seek to describe it all are gradually and deliberately being written on our hearts. That’s what being a disciple is all about – we take it in and it changes us.

             Now, 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 didn’t 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 – inviting to the feast of love and grace those who are on the outside looking in. Philip knew, just like deep down we know (because it’s being engraved within us) that we aren’t here for holding on to what we’ve got, afraid to share because we might get crucified in the process. He knew, we know – even if it’s still all Greek to us how transformation happens – that our first impulse is simply “Come, let’s follow Jesus together.”

Pray with me.


             Gracious God, we want to see Jesus. We know the temptation to see what we want to see and to be blind to those aspects of Jesus that raise our doubts and threaten our security. Heal us of our blindness. Give us eyes to see your glory manifest in self‑giving love, even on a cross. Give us courage to follow Jesus where he would lead us. Give us a heart, like Philip’s and Andrew’s, to bring outsiders to Jesus, so that God may be glorified. Amen.

prayer by Estella B. Horning, Goshen, Indiana
from Church of the Brethren Living Word bulletin
© 2003 Brethren Press.


©2018, heavily revised from 2003  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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