My Big Fat Greek Discipleship Test (John 12:20-33)

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”  It’s not a question.  These visiting Greeks make a statement.  They don’t ask questions.  Why not?  They’re Greeks.  Think about who the Greeks were and their reputation in the ancient world.  The best philosophers, writers, soldiers, historians, and writers were all Greek.  Homer, Alexander the Great, Sparta, Athens, the traditions of ancient Greece.  We like to think UNC Basketball or Duke Athletics have long traditions of winning and ego; imagine what it would have been like to be a Greek from Sparta or Athens!  It’s like having gone to Harvard, Yale, or Oxford become a Navy SEAL, and then conquered the known world.  When John tells us “some Greeks” came to speak to a group of disciples he wants us to be aware of the baggage (both good and bad) they bring with them.  This is a group of people Jesus hasn’t encountered before.  It means Jesus’ message is going to places no one expected it to travel.

It’s also significant that John tells us that Philip and Andrew are from Bethsaida in Galilee.  He wants us to know that Jesus disciples are definitely NOT Greek.  John sets up the contrast.  If you read too fast you miss this and this may be one of the most important points in the passage.  These are Greeks: Ivy League educated, multilingual, worldly, well traveled, elite Special Forces types seeking Jesus.  They’ve just presented themselves to Philip from Galilee.  Philip is from Galilee.  Galilee is not Greece.  Galilee is the backwoods of the backwoods.  To get to Galilee, go to nowhere and take a left.  Galilee is 1st century hillbilly moonshine country.  They talk funny in Galilee.  They’re not going to college in Galilee.  Are you starting to get the point John is trying to make?  This is a clash of cultures.

These carpet bagging no good Yankee types (remember Greece is north of Judea) have come to the festival and demanded to see Jesus.  This is what’s going through Philip’s mind.  Those people didn’t even have the common courtesy to ask, “Was he busy?”  “Excuse me, do you know Jesus?”  “Or, can you help me find Jesus?”  Who do these fancy Greeks with their Greek language think they are with their slow, loud talking?  “Sir, wee waant too see Jee SUS.”

It’s easy to follow what happens next.  But don’t breeze by the simple stuff.  We do this.  We want to hurry by this dialogue to get to the point where Jesus starts his mystical teaching about light, darkness, and who truly understands the coming of the Son of Man.  It’s all important.  However, John is the most complex and esoteric of the four gospels.  If we’re not careful, we can become bogged down in John’s weeds.  If we pay attention on the way into the jungle (with conversations like this) it’s much easier not to get lost and keep our bearings when we’re in the thick of it.

Philip tells Andrew.  The Greeks tell Philip.  That’s the first jump.  Then Philip tells Andrew.  This is the second jump.  How do you think it sounded when Philip told Andrew?

“You’re not going to believe this?”

“What am I not going to believe?” asks Andrew.

There is a group of Greeks who just walked up to me of the clear blue and asked, get this, “We want to see Jesus.”  Can you believe that?  No questions, no courtesy.

“You got to be kidding me?”

“No.  I’m not kidding you.  What do you think we ought to do?” asked Philip

“I guess we ought to tell Jesus”, says Andrew.  So both of them go and tell Jesus.  There’s your third jump.  After starting with the Greek, three hoops later, the request the Greeks made finally lands on Jesus’ desk.  How long did this take?  Was it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or maybe longer?  Who knows?

It doesn’t really matter.  We know it didn’t happen instantly.  There wasn’t a text message exchange between Phillip, Andrew, and Jesus.  We can’t read the emails.  We do know this:  someone asked to see Jesus and the disciples allowed culture, language, stereotypes, doubt, and other hoops to get in the way.  Someone wanted to see Jesus and they made it harder than it needed to be.

What gets in the way of people seeing Jesus?  We could name hundreds of obstructions which prevent people from encountering Christ.  You might say drugs, alcohol, power, corruption, or any number of manifestations of sin.  However, that’s not the question this passage poses:  what are the things that stop people (hinder or slow down) an encounter with Jesus that are wittingly (and unwittingly) used by disciples of Jesus?

Disciples of Jesus:  people who ought to be greasing the wheels, making the calls, opening up the back channels, and doing everything possible to clear any possible obstruction to reach Jesus because they already know Jesus. In fact, I’ll go one step further:  seeing a disciple of Jesus ought to be the next best thing to meeting Jesus personally.  Think of it as a customer service representative for Jesus, what can I do, to remove any barriers between you and Jesus today?  The last thing a disciple of Jesus wants to do is erect new barriers or embrace existing obstacles to encountering Christ.  Disciples look for ways around or opportunities to remove anything which inhibits someone’s ability to see Christ.  Do we see this in Philip and Andrew?  Is this our own practice?  I think these are fair questions to ask.

We’re disciples, Christians, and followers of Jesus.  When someone comes to us; either directly or indirectly and wants to see Jesus, what are the barriers that might inhibit their ability to see Christ?

Before I go any further, I want you to understand me:  I’m preaching to me.  I’m looking myself in the mirror here as much as I’m looking at each one of you.

What comes to mind when we think of the hurdles to seeing Jesus and Jesus in our lives and actions?

I think the first clue comes from the text.  I’ve said it a couple of times already this morning. It’s the dreaded “c” word, “culture”.  What do I mean by culture?  Think back to the beginning.  John wanted to make sure he told us the Greeks were Greek and Philip was from Galilee.  That matters.  Culture, geography, language, and history all impact how we see Jesus.  How we talk, who our parents are, where were were born, and countless other things are the building blocks which make us unique people. Those cultural realities can either be something we use to shut out the world or we take them to build a bridge connecting someone outside our culture to someone who is truly beyond culture:  Jesus.

As I used to preach in Ireland:  Jesus is not a Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Greek, Methodist or Assembly of God, or anything else we may wish to label him. Jesus is Jesus.  This is why Jesus can connect in some way to all of us.

The second clue also comes from the scripture.  Doubt is an obstacle that prevents other seeing Christ in the lives of disciples.  What do I mean by doubt?  Philip had to go to Andrew.  What was this about?  He didn’t go straight to Jesus.  There was a measure of doubt and anxiety.  Are these people right for Jesus?  Should we present this people to Jesus?  He wanted to run in by Andrew before he made a fool of himself before Jesus, or so he thought.

Try this on for size:  I want to invite someone to church.  We’re a small group, I don’t know if they’ll like us.  Will people speak?  I should ask someone first.  Somehow, someway, we have come to doubt that Jesus is a good fit for everybody.  We know Jesus should be a good match but you still don’t want to let anyone and everyone get access to Jesus.  What if your own relationship to Jesus becomes marginalized?  Will Jesus like these new people better than you?

Doubt takes many strange forms.  We can rationalize doubt as being in Jesus’ best interest more than most other actions as a disciple.  Philip wanted Andrew to agree with him.  He wanted to hear Andrew say, “Yes, these snooty Greeks are not right for Jesus.  He’s in a mood and it might upset him further.  It’s best if they don’t meet him today.”  We can find a way to feel good about dragging our feet and acting on our doubt.  Doubt becomes an obstacle to seeing Jesus we often make sacred, pray over and institutionalize; especially in United Methodism.

Lastly, I think there are natural obstacles to seeing Jesus.  Time is one that jumps off the pages of this encounter.  There are some difficulties to encountering Christ that are not of our making or choosing.  What do we do then?  We find a way around them.  Money is always present in my mind.  As a former missionary, I’m cognizant of language barriers.  If someone doesn’t understand you they can’t know you.  But that same idea applies to people speaking the same language.  Even when we speak English, we can talk past each other.  Being on the same page, as I learned in Ireland, saves lives.

I believe the best way to encounter the natural barriers to seeing Jesus is to remember these two simple realizations:  our hands are God’s hands.  Our lives and words can be a reflection of Jesus’ life work and teachings.   We can talk about Jesus is clear simple language.  We can cut out middlemen like Andrew and deal with our doubts.  Through the gift of prayer, we go straight to Jesus.  What a friend, isn’t that what we sing?  Culture doesn’t have to be a burden, barrier, or baggage.  Take the bricks down and build a bridge.

Richard Lowell Bryant


It’s Time To Jump Off The Saint Patrick Bandwagon

We’re three days away from Saint Patrick’s Day.  It’s time to roll out the “What We Can All Learn from Saint Patrick” articles and essays from Irish loving bandwagon jumpers everywhere!  Aren’t we all a little bit Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day? Don’t we all have some Irish religious opinions on this the High Holy Day of Irish loving Celtic Christian types everywhere?  Why yes!  I believe I do have something to say!

Please, spare me the sentimental claptrap about a semi-mythical slave trader whose legends have nothing to do with the religious realities in a secularized Ireland or a politically divided America.   This is not one of this articles.  You’ve been warned.

Saint Patrick, the man venerated each year on March 17th, is a combination of myth and multiple people, who reputable historians can’t accurately describe, define, or delineate from countless other figures in post-Roman Britain.  In many ways, the mythological figure of Saint Patrick symbolizes much about modern Ireland:  religious contradictions built upon political misconceptions.

In this country, where more Irish live than in Ireland proper, we have idealized images of green fields, thatched cottages, and the Ireland we see on PBS specials.  We know of the Ireland we hear from relatives and stories like Angela’s Ashes.  Two weeks on a bus around the Galway Coast, one go at the Blarney Stone, and a few dollars to and you’re as Irish as Michael Collins or Saint Patrick himself.

Sadly, that’s not Ireland.  After giving two of the hardest and most demanding years of my life to living and ministering in an Irish town that once held the reputation as the “most bombed city in the world” (after falling prey to the Irish propaganda machine-yes, some of it Guinness fueled); I can honestly say I am no clearer today on what Ireland is or what Saint Patrick means.  Anyone who gives you a definite answer is drunk on their own Guinness.

If anything, I’ve grown more certain of one fact: Ireland resembles the rest of Europe in that the church is dying.   In the land where Saint Patrick was a missionary, where he is still revered as a saint in the North and South, the church he is credited with founding is dying.  The Christians who are his descendants learned nothing from him despite embracing his legacy and teaching, year after bloody year.

The church in Ireland (Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Catholic) isn’t dying because of feuds over scripture, gay marriage, or any of the things we’re fighting over.  I think it’s finally hitting home that the churches in Ireland stood silent for centuries while its members murdered each other in the streets and fields of the Emerald Isle-all while celebrating the common legacy of Saint Patrick. They killed each other.  United Methodists, on the other hand, are committing denominational suicide.  Why not do it while we tell ourselves Saint Patrick was an environmentalist mystic?  As Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted would say, “Oh, go on now!”

No, to paraphrase the great Canadian vocalist Shania Twain, Saint Patrick and his legacy “don’t impress me much”.  Maybe it was the day I was beat up by a group of thugs on the street outside my church.  Maybe it was the day I was yelled at by church members for taking my family to view our town’s local Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Perhaps it was a combination of factors.  For one reason or another, the scales fell from my eyes and I realized:  the Saint Patrick’s Day myth is harmful and wrong.  Look what it’s done to Ireland.  When your Christianity (and idea of church) is built on a myth, no matter how inspirational the blessings and the prayers attributed to a fifth century slave trader appear to be, your Christianity is still formed on a myth.  Eventually people figure out the truth (no matter how green the beer is and how good the parades are) and stop coming to church.

What myths like Saint Patrick are we recycling?  Too many for me to name here.

Richard Lowell Bryant


I Am Against

  1.  Daylight Savings Time
  2. Papal Infallibility
  3. The misinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment
  4. The ACC Tournament being held in New York City
  5. The Men’s Untucked Shirt fad
  6. Seven to Ten Part Sermon Series
  7. Anything in the key of F sharp (that’s six flats)
  8. Olives
  9. Fascism
  10. Vaping
  11. Instachat
  12. Snapgram
  13. Facetwit
  14. Twitterbook
  15. Elon Musk’s Desire for Global Domination
  16. Most of the things you’re for.
  17. Panic
  18. The machine
  19. Yesterday
  20. Tomorrow

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Trinitarian Methodist Universalist Reads John 3:16

John Milton, The Guy Who Gave You Your Idea of “Perishing” in Hell

Don’t tell anyone I told you this.  But between you, me, and the internet; I’m a Universalist.  I guess I’m a Trinitarian Universalist.  (Cue rim shot!)  Keep it quiet!  I don’t want this getting back to some crypto-Calvinists lurking in the shadows of online Methodism.  This is between us.  We’re cool, right?

But seriously, I’m a Methodist Universalist hiding in plain sight.  I eat BBQ chicken, pay my taxes, send my kids to the Orthodontist, and have my oil changed regularly.  I also believe God has a grand plan to save us all.  To put it athletic terms, God wants the win.

The Hell most of us believe in was shaped by John Milton’s Paradise Lost (and Dante) more than anything in the Bible.  I love Milton but I’m also comfortable not putting him on par with Paul, John, (George or Ringo for that matter).  Culture shapes our theology.  We live and die by beliefs not formed by scripture.  This realization should make you more than a little uncomfortable.

One reason we need the idea of Hell is because it helps keep good people sane.  It’s difficult for us to understand those who commit radical acts of evil.  These days, acts of evil are regularly attributed to a lack of mental health resources, proper psychiatric care, and someone being under medicated.  Despite this, you’ll still hear the word “evil” bandied about.  If we’re going to stop evil, beyond the thoughts and prayers level, we need identify reasons.  Churches are good at fighting evil, especially the social ones which tear families and communities apart.  The place to fight evil is on this side of eternity.

The desire for justice (and vengeance to a degree) is one of the deepest human emotions.  We really don’t want to know the causes of evil.  Whether it was society, video games, or access to firearms; it’s easier to call it “evil” and ask the devil to open the gates of Hell.  Somebody must pay.  Where else are you going to put all the people who you’ve deemed unworthy to receive God’s grace?  Hell seems like the best option for everyone we’ve deemed deplorable and unredeemable.

What if, in God’s eyes, everyone is worthy of love despite our collective unworthiness? Is it possible God sees things we can’t possibly perceive? I hope so.

Remember what the apostle Paul said, “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”?   I know.  When you put it that way, it’s best to take the Heaven/Hell debate out of the hands of any human being.  Again, I know.  None of us ought to be condemning anyone to Hell or giving away free tickets to Heaven.

My universalism is grounded in six words, “for God so loved the world”.  God loved us before anyone of believed in God, went through Sunday School, Confirmation class, church camp, or we accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.

God loved us into being.  Love, in the context of this passage, is simply another means of talking about creation.  And once we’re talking about creation (as created beings ourselves), we realize there’s no other way to talk about ourselves and describe our lives apart of from creation; that is God’s love.  We can’t step outside our lives and look dispassionately at what God is doing.  If we take one step away from God’s creative love, we’re still in the heart of God’s grace.  The gift of God’s son makes this point even clearer.  At any moment we think we’re able to be objective about our relationship with God, we’re overwhelmed with a graciousness (a gift) we’ll never be able to understand.  No matter where we are or where we look, we are unable to overcome the reality that our existence is formed, nurtured, and maintained in the presence of God’s love.  The cross not only directs us to see God’s love in places where we’ve refused to acknowledge God’s presence but sends the unmistakable message:  God’s love is not controlled by the boundaries of death and time.

God’s love is real.  Does God’s ability to love us, anyone, or anything; given the expansive nature of what we know of God’s grace and love, hinge on any single individual’s assent?  I hope not.  God’s love either is or it isn’t.  When we start debating who God can love and why; we’ve strayed over a line that was never meant to be crossed.

I’ve said all this to say:  Love precedes belief.  Belief is a response to God’s love.  Our belief in God does not constitute, define, or create God’s love in or for us.  This is what John 3:16 says.  God didn’t need us to believe in God.  God exists beyond our assent, belief, and permission.  God wouldn’t be God if he depended on my mood to conjure his presence up each morning.  God’s self image was doing just fine without our petty machinations.

The remainder of the verse says, “Whoever believes in him won’t perish but have eternal life.”  It’s an unfinished thought.  John 3:16 makes no sense without John 3:17.  The equation does not balance.  You can’t have one without the other.  Our mistake, throughout years of Christian tradition, has been to give the world half a story.

In an effort to frighten people into heaven and out of hell, we’ve ignored the ever present reality of God’s love and placed the cart before the horse.  We’ve told the world that to get God’s love, you’ve got to believe in God first, although the creator in the universe already believes, loves, and cares for all of us, we’ve lied!  We’ve given ourselves the power.  God will only love you if you say yes.

If you emphasize only half the story, rearrange the context, talk real fast, and move your hands like a magician this is what John 3:16 appears to be; is it any wonder this most beloved part of scripture has become little more than a watered down meme, poster, and something to paint under a football players eyes?  John 3:16, when used in spiritual isolation, is little more than a slogan.  It’s become more akin to a magical spell (like something out of a Harry Potter novel) that we utter and expect mysterious things to occur by simply repeating the words in right order at the correct time.  Is there any wonder we keep getting it wrong?  Has our catchphrase lost its punch?

John 3:16 makes no sense without John 3:17.  Verse 17 should be memorized in tandem with verse 16.  If we quote John 3:16, we should also follow it up with 3:17.  Why?  Because it lays waste to the idea of perishing and any notions of Hell and condemnation we build create around the notion of perishing.  News flash:  we’re all going to perish.  Somehow, someway, we’re all going to go.  Perishing isn’t the issue.  Is perishing forever?  Will our belief in God guarantee eternal life?  John 3:16, if you stop there, indicates you need one to get the other.

Look at the next verse.  “God didn’t send his son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  That’s one translation.  Here’s an older, even stronger translation.  “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  That’s a whole new ball game.  Jesus didn’t come here to condemn anyone, set up a litmus test religion, or create more hoops for people to jump through in order to guarantee their place at the pearly gates.  There’s no “if, then” tension in John 3:17.  Through Jesus, everything that is already God’s, i.e. “creation” might be redeemed through one great act of love, despite our sinfulness and disbelief.  Did Jesus die for those who believed in him?  Or did he die for everyone, even those who placed the nails in his hands and lifted him on the cross?  If he didn’t die for everyone, then we might as well pack up and go home.  If the Cross was only for those who already believed and had their ducks in a row; we’re all done.  If it was just for the John 3:16 people, then there is no more to say.

I don’t know if we’ll ever meet the standards of belief set by John 3:16.  The text says, “Believe in him”.   I believe in God but the religious world run by fallible people keeps moving the belief goal post.   Beliefs change depending on whose Pope, President, or Bishop.  John 3:16, when it becomes a man manipulated benchmark, creates an unreachable standard.

But, if what happened on Good Friday was for John 3:16-17 people, an event where love proceeds belief, where condemnation wasn’t the reason for the season, then the Good News still matters to people like you and me.  I can keep going.  There are songs to sing and prayers to pray.  There is hope.   Amen to that.

Richard Lowell Bryant

John (Wesley) 3:16

What does this verse, slogan, meme, and sometime magical spell mean to United Methodists on the edge of a denominational meltdown?  Probably the same as it’s always meant.  Yes, Virginia, unlike any other set of words in the Bible, whether we realize or not, we attribute unexplained powers and possibilities to the mere utterance of John 3:16.  We do this: “Just say it once and you’ll be saved!” Harry Potter could learn a thing or two from we Christians.

For many, it’s a verse believed to have permanent, even ecumenical meaning.  It means the same thing today it meant yesterday and on the day before that.  Its self apparent clarity is unchanging since Nicodemus posed his question and Jesus gave his reply.  Some hold that “God so loved the world” to be a self evident truth on par with Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal”.

For other, it’s like a supernova.  A long time ago, a supernova was a bright, shining star.  By the time the light reaches us (after its collapse), we’re seeing what it eventually thousands of years ago.  In the present, it longer exists.  We have no idea what it means today.  When the supernova exploded in the dark reaches of space, it meant a certain combinations of gases and gravity went dark and collapsed upon itself.  This we know.  It has taken years for us to catch up to something that occurred before Earth existed.  We’re not unpacking something new. (Yes, it’s new to us.) We’re simply trying to understand a past which no longer exists.

John 3:16 was the Big Bang moment which formed our Christian universe.  There are real limitations on how close we can come to seeing, experiencing, and studying this moment. To paraphrase Nicodemus, we can’t go back into the celestial womb.  Once it occurred, through the fragments of space, time, and denominational telescopes we’re only looking at fragments of matter from something that happened so long ago (it might as well have been 400 billion years ago from our limited human perspective) and is no longer reflective of a real time event.  Nicodemus isn’t still with Jesus in a night time meeting where Jesus explains metaphors about rebirth.  The event is over.

However, does this mean God no longer loves the world?  God still loves the world.  Yes, hell yes!  My point is this:  I don’t believe the third chapter of John is the best way to tell the story of God’s ongoing love and grace.  John 3:16 is confusing, tired, and getting a bit old.  In fact, I don’t think we’re paying attention to it.  We’ve used and abused this passage to such a degree that it’s lost any meaning, beauty, or hope it once offered.  It’s a punch line.  Jesus was never a punching bag.  Besides, there are better passages “to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

John 3:16 sets up a litmus test.  “So that everyone who believes in him won’t perish,” that’s how the verse goes.  God believes in me on days when I am a struggling theist.  United Methodism can’t evolve into a litmus test faith.  Litmus tests leave good people behind.

I will never be convinced that God offers us love and grace with a catch.  I never really saw Jesus as big on making people jump through hoops.  I believe God helps us through our belief and unbelief.  I see this when I sit across a kitchen table with a widow who’s just lost her husband of 67 years.  She’s angry at God, unbelieving at the loss she’s experiencing, and yet praying to God to join her on her painful journey.  Nothing about John 3:16 brings help, hope, or love to that kitchen table.

I told her God loves her in her anger, doubt, sadness, and disbelief.  It doesn’t matter what John 3:16 says.  God loves you, no strings attached.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Some Pastoral Reflections on Grief

1) Grief is an intensely personal experience. No matter how much we try to make it a communal experience; grief remains a personal journey. There are moments where we will travel with others. Yet, we will still be alone. Respect the person and the journey.  If someone asks for privacy, respect their wishes.   Love and grace aren’t pushy.  They are ready.

2) Grief is not bounded by the concepts of linear space and time with which we measure our lives. Grief knows no day or night, hour or minute, or physical boundaries.

3) Unchecked, grief may live forever. Yet those who grieve may learn to create limits around their grief. No one else can do this for them.

4) Sadness, depression, and loneliness are not grief. These may be symptoms of grief. Grief, especially after the death of someone you love, is an emptiness that is too hard to define in clinical terms.

5) Love is not the antidote to grief. Instead, love is a way to respond to those who are grieving.  The church accompanies the grieving on their journey in love.  Love should be offered with kindness and respect. Grief does not need an antidote.  At the right time, grace needs to be ready.  Whether in the form of meals, hugs, notes, or a ministry of presence; be there when needed.  Re-read number 1 if needed.

Richard Lowell Bryant