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.

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