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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 Toula’s 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 diner—a handsome, sensitive, artsy guy named Ian.   Does Ian sound Greek to you?  That’s the problem.  Toula falls in love with a guy who is not a nice Greek boy.  Not surprisingly, Toula’s Mr. Right becomes her parents’ Mr. Wrong—“a big xeno,” her father moans, “with long hairs on top of his head.”  Her father wonders aloud of Toula’s fiancÚ. “Is he a good boy?  I donnn’t know.  Is he from good family?  Is he respectful?   I donnn’t know.”  Eventually a date is set, however, for this clash-of-the-cultures wedding.

You can almost hear the Us and Them screeching and colliding as the story develops.  Ian’s uppity parents writhe in embarrassment as they arrive at Toula’s get-acquainted party.  The limo pulls up to the curb and there, amidst modest suburbs homes, is Toula’s house, a miniature version of the Parthenon replete with Corinthian columns and statues and –horror of horrors—a lamb roast on the front lawn. 

By movie’s 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.  

Greeks.  That’s who arrive at Passover in our gospel lesson.  Technically, the word refers to Toula’s kin—people of Greek descent, language and culture.  But by the time of the Caesars, Greek meant anyone influenced by Greek culture—most 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 Greeks—the rest of the world. 

John tells us that some Greeks—non-Jewish types—who 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 I’ll get right back to you.”  Philip casually turns the corner and then mad-dashes over to Andrew.

“Hey Andrew,” whispers Philip out of breath, “we’ve got a problem—some Greeks want to see Jesus.”   “Greeks?” Andrew responds incredulously.  “Are they good boys?  We donnn’t know.  From good family?  Respectful?  We donnn’t know.”    Apparently so undecided about what to do with the Greeks, they take their request to Jesus.  

 

At this point, we’re 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?”  That’s everyone else in the world from the Greek Isles to Cape Town.   Now that’s risky!  Bringing Greeks into the group!  A gospel that includes them?  Imagine that!  Philip 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 problem. 

Let’s stop the story for a moment and make some assumptions.  Why do these Greeks approach Philip in the first place?  You’d think that Peter was the man to get past.  Or James or John.  The writer is silent, of course, so we don’t 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 Andrew—at 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 Philip and Andrew that I think the writer wants us to know.  Andrew and Philip were the first people to become disciples in John’s gospel.  And not only that, but right from the start they are mission-driven.    

“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 Andrew abruptly excuses himself from the table—“be right back!”  An hour later, Andrew returns with his brother, Simon.  So the two pull up chairs and join up as Jesus’ followers.    

Next day same thing happens to Philip.  Jesus calls out to Philip, “Come and see!”  And Philip reacts just like Andrew—“be back in a few.”  He rushes off to share this invitation with Nathaniel even though technically Nathaniel hasn’t received any invitation from Jesus.  When Nathaniel 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 remember that.

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 Peter’s tendency to shoot op eds from the hip)?  “Little far from the Acropolis, aren’t we, boys?  What?   You want to meet Jesus?  Well, ours is an exclusive group, see?  Better keep moving—no vacancy here.”   This episode probably wouldn’t have made it in the gospel at all.  Peter and Greeks would have mixed about as well as Ian’s and Toula’s 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 don’t 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?  Maybe—with a little catechism.  But Greeks?   So Philip and Andrew go to Jesus with this request from the Greeks to meet with Jesus.

Let’s 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 t’s?  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![1]  We can chalk up an impressive amount of reasons why our congregations are in decline or plateau—demographics, lack of interest, lack of energy, we’re having our own crisis of faith; the very idea of evangelism conjures up unpleasant images, and so on.  However we fill in the blank, it’s 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 church’s purpose is to take care of my family’s and my needs.”    I think that means, “keep the sheep already in the pen, happy.”   Only 11% picked this option: “The church’s 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 us—adopt the same brand of doctrine as we do;  behave like us—value the same rules as we do;  share our experience—whether high church liturgy or praise music, adopt our experiences and in short, become like us—talk 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 with us. 

 

“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 . . . I’m a pastor,” I responded a bit sheepishly.

“You’re kidding!  Why I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 one’s come up to meet you yet, Mike; let me introduce you to a few folks around here,” I said.  “That’s okay pastor,” he said, “after all, this is a church.”   Those words continue to sting me.  It’s not that congregations dislike newcomers, but sometimes the very congregations that champion the fact that they’re “one big family” creates problems for Mikes and Greeks.  Because when you’re on the outside looking in at the family, fellowship hour becomes the loneliest singles hour in America.

So Philip and Andrew take the request to Jesus.  Jesus, there’s 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.  I’m going to die, true enough.  But that won’t be the end.  In my death will come forth a harvest of people—Jews and Greeks—who will benefit from my life.  I’m giving my life away—same as you need to do.  It’s not the time to say “save me, save me!”   That’s why I’m here—to bring honor to the Father.  And when I’m lifted up, I will draw all people—Toulas and Ians, meticulous moralists and loose-living immoralists, the discouraged, the defeated, whoever—to myself.” 

No one could have known it at the time.  But I think these Greeks pushed Jesus—as Mary had earlier pushed Jesus into turning the water into wine—into 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 Jesus 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.


[1] The Christian Century (November 20-December 3, 2002): 5.