The Greek Mizzion
a sermon based on John 12: 20-33
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Nice Greek girls are supposed
to do three things in life, says Toulas father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Marry a nice Greek boy, make babies, and
feed everyone till the day we die. Not
that Toula, a thirty-something single needs reminding.
Day after boring day, she toils in the family Greek diner, her lank hair
falling around her face, her body hidden in a sackcloth dress.
One day Prince Charming
walks into the dinera handsome, sensitive, artsy guy named Ian. Does
Ian sound Greek to you? Thats the
problem. Toula falls in love with a guy who is
not a nice Greek boy. Not surprisingly, Toulas
Mr. Right becomes her parents Mr. Wronga big xeno, her father moans, with long
hairs on top of his head. Her father
wonders aloud of Toulas fiancÚ. Is he a good boy? I donnnt
know. Is he from good family? Is he respectful?
I donnnt know. Eventually a date is set, however, for this
You can almost hear the Us and Them
screeching and colliding as the story develops.
uppity parents writhe in embarrassment as they arrive at Toulas get-acquainted
party. The limo pulls up to the curb and
there, amidst modest suburbs homes, is Toulas house, a miniature version of the
Parthenon replete with Corinthian columns and statues and horror of horrorsa
lamb roast on the front lawn.
By movies end, our
pale WASP family finds in the Greeks a robust and exotic community, though unorthodox
(they mime spitting on each other for good luck), and both cultures are able to move
beyond their suspicions to form a new family. But
you just never know what will happen when the Greeks arrive.
who arrive at Passover in our gospel lesson. Technically,
the word refers to Toulas kinpeople of Greek descent, language and culture. But by the time of the Caesars, Greek meant anyone
influenced by Greek culturemost of whom lived in towns and cities rather than in the
rural countryside. But among pious Jews
in Jerusalem, the word, Greek, had taken on its broadest meaning. There are only two groups in the world: Jews, a
group of people held together by descent, language and culture, and Greeksthe rest of the world.
John tells us that some
Greeksnon-Jewish typeswho had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover,
paid a visit to Philip. Hey we want to
meet your leader, they ask. Please
wait right here, Philip says, and Ill get right back to you. Philip casually turns the corner and then
mad-dashes over to Andrew.
whispers Philip out of breath, weve got a problemsome Greeks want to see
responds incredulously. Are they good
boys? We donnnt
know. From good family? Respectful? We
donnnt know. Apparently so undecided about what to
do with the Greeks, they take their request to Jesus.
At this point, were
not entirely sure what Jesus will say about these outsiders.
Life had been so simple and tidy to this point. Israelites? No problem; all of the disciples were true-blue
Jewish. They spoke the same language, ate the
same motzah ball soup, swapped the same fish stories, lived in the same towns, and owned
the same history. What about Hellenized Jews? That would be a tougher call. Hellenized Jews lived outside Jerusalem, spoke
different languages, and held less stringently to the Torah than Israelite Jews. But the writer shoves us even further from the
center. He asks the Church of his day, what
about the Greeks? Thats everyone else in the world from the
Greek Isles to Cape Town. Now thats
risky! Bringing Greeks into the group! A gospel that includes them? Imagine that!
is so unsure of the reaction that Jesus might have toward Greeks that he scampers over to
confer with Andrew. Neither is sure what to do
about the Greeks, so they form a committee of two and approach Jesus about the Greek
Lets stop the
story for a moment and make some assumptions. Why
do these Greeks approach Philip in the first place? Youd
think that Peter was the man to get past. Or
James or John. The writer is silent, of
course, so we dont know. But did you
know that Philip is a Greek name which means, lover of horses? Andrew is also a Greek name and means manly. I wonder if maybe that could be precisely why the
Greeks gravitated to Philip and Andrewat least the names suggested a Greek-bridge to
Jesus. At any rate, Lover of Horses gallops
off to Manly and together Lover of Horses and Manly go to Jesus, who in this story will
become lover of souls.
Something else about
and Andrew that I think the writer wants us to know.
and Philip were the first people to become disciples in
Johns gospel. And not only that, but right from the start they
Come and see!
Jesus calls out to Andrew in chapter one. So
he does. Andrew and a friend come and stay the
day with Jesus. They sit in his living room,
have a quiet supper, exchange talk. Then
abruptly excuses himself from the tablebe right back! An hour later, Andrew returns with his brother,
Simon. So the two pull up chairs and join up as Jesus
Next day same thing
happens to Philip.
Jesus calls out to Philip,
Come and see! And
just like Andrewbe back in a few. He
rushes off to share this invitation with Nathaniel even though technically
received any invitation from Jesus. When
chokes on Nazareth as an appropriate town of origin for
Jesus, Philip simply says, Come
and see! So we have in
Andrew and Philip
two missions-minded people.
John wants us to
Can you imagine how
differently the story would have turned out if Peter had been the usher the day the Greeks
came to Jesus, (given Peters tendency to shoot op eds from the hip)? Little far from the Acropolis, arent
we, boys? What?
You want to meet Jesus? Well,
ours is an exclusive group, see? Better keep movingno vacancy here. This episode probably wouldnt have made
it in the gospel at all.
Peter and Greeks
would have mixed about as well as Ians and Toulas parents! Just like oil and water.
But what is so
astonishing about this story is that even such staunch missioners as Philip and Andrew are
unsure of Jesus the policy toward Greeks. Maybe
this is a boundary issue story. A Church boundary issue. We dont dare go where angels fear to
tread. After all, there must be a limit as to
whom Jesus is inviting into our groups. So
they wonder. Jewish? Yes. Hellenized
Jews? Most probably. God-fearers? Maybewith
a little catechism. But Greeks? So Philip and
Andrew go to Jesus with this
request from the Greeks to meet with Jesus.
Lets tamper just a
bit with the broadest definition of Greeks to mean anyone on the outside of our respective
communities of faith. If we say that Greeks
are anyone who is clearly different from us then first of all, who are the Greeks? Older or younger than us? Asian?
African? Hispanic? Do they wear blue jeans and ts? Body jewelry? Do
they drink Ensure and need help with their meds? Do
they get off on Bela Fleck or techno? Do they
worship Eminem or Christine
Aguilera more than Jesus?
Do they sing I Care 4 U better than Amazing Grace? Are they more familiar with USA Today than with the
NRSV and Starbucks than the Bread and Cup?
According to a recent
report in The Christian Century, only 15% of
American congregations have grown by even one person in the last five years! We can chalk up an impressive amount of reasons why
our congregations are in decline or plateaudemographics, lack of interest, lack of
energy, were having our own crisis of faith; the very idea of evangelism conjures up
unpleasant images, and so on. However we fill
in the blank, its been awhile since Greeks have found a home with us.
In another study, 1,000
churches were surveyed that included this question, Why does church exist? What would your write-in answer be? You may be surprised with the results. Eighty-nine percent of the congregational
respondents said, The churchs purpose is to take care of my familys and
my needs. I think that
means, keep the sheep already in the pen, happy.
Only 11% picked this option: The churchs purpose is to win the
world for Jesus Christ.
In his book, Church
for the Unchurched, George Hunter describes a set of attitudes in our congregations
that have worked against us in mission: believe like usadopt the same brand of
doctrine as we do; behave like usvalue the same rules as we do; share our
experiencewhether high church liturgy or praise music, adopt our experiences and
in short, become like ustalk like us,
dress like us, see the world like us, and share our tastes from food to sports to our
kind of music. I wonder if, in the
context of the gospel lesson, we need to recover the ability to engage the Greeks?
On Saturday afternoon I
was gulping coffee at Borders when a young man and womyn entered. With all the tables occupied, I invited them to sit
I think the service stinks around
here, the guy said.
Yeah, I know what you mean, I
comforted. Then I blathered myself right into
a corner. If I ran my company like this
I would be out of business.
Oh, really? What business do you manage?
Uhhh . . . Im a pastor, I
responded a bit sheepishly.
kidding! Why Ive been thinking about
going to church!
The next day, sure
enough, Mike was in our church, sitting stiffly by himself.
Following morning worship I rejoined my Greek guy in the Fellowship Hall
only to meet a strange scene: he wasnt hard to spot.
He was standing almost in the middle of the large room still alone. Pockets of people were standing all around in their
coterie of friendship and inside knowledge, laughing and talking weather and scores.
Sorry no ones
come up to meet you yet, Mike; let me introduce you to a few folks around here, I
said. Thats okay pastor, he
said, after all, this is a church. Those
words continue to sting me. Its not that
congregations dislike newcomers, but sometimes the very congregations that champion the
fact that theyre one big family creates problems for Mikes and Greeks. Because when youre on the outside looking in
at the family, fellowship hour becomes the loneliest singles hour in America.
Philip and Andrew
take the request to Jesus. Jesus, theres
some Greeks who want to meet you. And
in that rare powerful moment something connects deeply and passionately within
Jesus. For the mere mention of the Greeks triggers one of
the greatest speeches in favor of blowing open every closed door, every locked door that
the Church owns.
This is it! This is the hour of my glorification. Im going to die, true enough. But that wont be the end. In my death will come forth a harvest of peopleJews
and Greekswho will benefit from my life. Im giving my life awaysame as you need
to do. Its not the time to say save
me, save me! Thats why Im
hereto bring honor to the Father. And
when Im lifted up, I will draw all peopleToulas and Ians, meticulous moralists
and loose-living immoralists, the discouraged, the defeated, whoeverto myself.
No one could have known
it at the time. But I think these Greeks
pushed Jesusas Mary had earlier pushed
Jesus into turning the water into wineinto
a momentary vision of the totality of his entire mission, one that would impact all people
everywhere with overflowing, lavish, life-satisfying, abundant possibilities that
would offer the world as his legacy.
The mission continues as
we invite all and everyone to the celebration that God throws for us. Amen.