Here’s my sermon for this Sunday.
Now amongst those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”
Why Greeks? Our gospel this morning began with these couple of sentences about some Greeks – it appears pretty unrelated to what follows – we never even find out if they did see Jesus and we certainly don’t know what happened if they did.
Well you kind of have to know what has happened before and whereabouts we are in John’s Gospel. In the previous chapter, Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, had died – you remember how the sisters send for Jesus but he apparently comes too late and Lazarus is not only dead, but buried. But Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and he struggles out still bound in the cloths that wrapped him for burial.
It is a dramatic moment and it divides those who witness it. John’s gospel tells us that “many of the Jews……who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.” It is the point when the plot thickens. John is building the story. In the text the tension and conspiracy start to grip the reader.
“What are we to do?” say the Pharisees, “this man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” There is a clue in there to “why Greeks?” but let me just fill you in a bit more. The Pharisees concern was that Jesus would cause a commotion, there would be disturbances and the Romans would have their excuse to put down rebellion and end the power that the Jewish religious leaders had. The more well known Jesus gets, the more signs he performs, the more dangerous he becomes to the Jewish establishment.
From this point we are told, the Pharisees plan to put Jesus to death. A political assassination is planned. Only last weekend a Radio 4 programme told of how the British had thought about assassinating President Nasser and Idi Amin, and the Americans – well there’s Bin Laden of course, and they thought of putting an end to Fidel Castro. Personally I suspect they tried often and failed. Jesus, of course, was not like these figures other than that he was a threat to the established power base. Ironically the country it is thought that plots and carries out the most political assassinations these days is the land of Jesus’ birth – Israel.
Nothing new – here the Pharisees plot – how can they end this man’s life? But somehow Jesus must have known because the gospel tells that he no longer walked openly among the people, but went into semi hiding in a place called Ephraim on the edge of the wilderness. However Passover is approaching. Jews are coming up to Jerusalem and asking each other will Jesus come or won’t he. Surely he won’t risk it they say amongst themselves. The Chief Priests and Pharisees have got the equivalent of an arrest warrant out for him. If anyone sees him they have instructed them to let them know and they will come and arrest him.
As Chapter 12 opens, Jesus goes to Bethany again – the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Mary anoints Jesus with perfume, which Jesus says she bought for the day of his burial”. We can see where this is heading. And the plotting of the chief priests also thickens. Lazarus is becoming a celebrity in his own right – he is a man who has died and come back to life – so yes he will get celebrity status and the gospel tells us that many come to see him and through their encounter with Lazarus they come to believe in Jesus. So the Chief Priests plot to kill Lazarus too.
And then rumours spread that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem. The will he, won’t he debate is over – Jesus is coming – and he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and the crowds cheer. And the Pharisees say one to another “Look, the world has gone after him.” And there is another clue to “Why Greeks?”
And so we come to today’s gospel. It follows immediately after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which may seem rather topsy turvy as we will be remembering that event and hearing that gospel next week as we celebrate Palm Sunday. But location and time are important. We are in Jerusalem immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry and just a few days before the Passover. In the week we call Holy Week. We have seen how the conspiracy against Jesus is building. Jesus has been in hiding, but now he chooses his time, his hour.
“And among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip …………and said we wish to see Jesus.” Why Greeks at this point in the story, why do they appear and disappear? Well I don’t think we know why they disappear other than that the writer forgot about them, but we do think we know why they appear, and it is to stress the point that Jesus’ fame is spreading beyond the Jews to the world, the known world at the time. Remember I pointed out the clues – the Pharisees fear that everyone would believe in him and their comment on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was “see the whole world has gone after him”. So to illustrate the point John recounts this event when some Greeks asked to see Jesus. It’s significant they asked Philip because Philip is a Greek name and the comment that he came from Bethsaida is relevant because there were many people of Greek origin living around that area. They have a connection with Philip.
So John is illustrating that the Pharisees fear is real. But this is John’s gospel and as we know John is more interested in theology than history. He is more interested in telling us the “why” of Jesus than what actually happened. So that is probably why the Greeks appear and then disappear without explanation. They appear so as to emphasise that everyone will believe and the whole world will go after him. And see here are Greeks wanting to see him. By the time John’s gospel is written, many Greeks have come to believe in Jesus. The good news is for gentiles as well as Jews. And John is telling us that this Jesus is for the whole world. He has come to save everyone, not just the Jews. He has come to herald a new age. “Why Greeks?” “Why you and me?” Because Jesus is for everyone.
What is about to happen to Jesus – the events Jesus foretells in our Gospel reading and we remember over the next two weeks – are events that changed the world. They are the reason we are here today. We are the Greeks. Good news first preached to the Jews became good news for the whole world. And even before the cataclysmic events that were to happen over the following few days, Greeks came to see Jesus.
John is emphasising that the salvation, the saving acts of Jesus are for everyone.
Today is known as Passion Sunday. We enter into Passiontide. Today’s Gospel is preparation. The Greeks ask to see Jesus. How often do we ask that – maybe not quite in those words, but do we ask to understand Jesus, do we ask what would Jesus do, do we seek guidance from Jesus. If only we could see him and hear him, then we might fully understand and really believe.
Whenever I have taken confirmation classes, I have always said to candidates “Try to come to the great services of Holy Week and Easter”. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil – following these through you may begin to get a glimpse both in understanding and emotion of what Jesus was about. There are glib answers as to why Jesus’ death and resurrection bring salvation, but I think it is much more mysterious and complex than the glib answers tell us. But just because it is mysterious and complex doesn’t make it not real. It is intensely “real”. The events of Holy Week and Easter are events to enter into with heart, mind and spirit. If we want to see Jesus, it is in this week more than any other in the church, that we are likely to glimpse him, to come closer to him and to understand more fully the mystery of why a grain of wheat has to fall into the ground and die to bear much fruit.