Some Greeks

25 March 2012
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Lent 5B (RCL)
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

John’s Gospel is full of seeming non-sequiturs. Someone asks Jesus a question, and he launches into a discourse that doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with the question asked. The device sends the reader of the gospel hunting for connections elsewhere in the gospel to understand what is going on. A classic example is Nicodemus’ remark that no one could do the signs Jesus does unless God were with him. Jesus replies, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, no one will enter the kingdom without being born anew.” No one would blame Nicodemus for saying, “What?!”

So, in the reading for this Sunday, we have another non-sequitur. Andrew and Phillip come to Jesus, and tell him that there are some Greeks looking for him. Jesus replies, “Now the hour has arrived for the son of the human being to be glorified. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone.” What?! These Greeks are problematic. This is the first and last time they show up in the Gospel — very un-Johannine. We should be able to look somewhere else to find them and get help in interpreting this event. But they simply drop out of the narrative altogether. So, we will have to dig deeper to get any interpretive help.

When the Greeks approach Phillip (a Greek name), they say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Andrew was one of the two disciples of John the Baptist who followed Jesus after John said, “See, the lamb of God.” When Jesus turned and saw them, he asked, “What do you seek?” They replied, “Sir, where to you remain?” And he replied, “Come and see.” We have the combined themes of seeing and remaining, both very important in the Gospel.

So, what would Greeks be doing at the Jewish Passover, anyway? They would be observers, interested in the worship of God. The sacrifice (a category Greeks would understand very well) would take place at the Temple. One of Jesus’ first acts was to cleanse the Temple and claim to replace it with his Body. If the Greeks were seeking to know where God remained (after the destruction of the Temple), they would be approaching John’s community.

When Andrew and Phillip tell Jesus that the Greeks are seeking him, he replies that the hour has come — another theme in John’s Gospel. It is not as clear in the English translations as it is in the Greek, that the question from the Greeks signals the arrival of the hour. This is what Jesus has been waiting for (my hour is not yet). He goes on to say that if a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it bears much fruit.

When Jesus encountered the woman at the well, when his disciples came back and tried to offer him something to eat, he pointed to the fields ripe for harvest. The grain imagery is connected to the growth of the community (evangelism, bringing in new members). So, these Greeks are wanting to join the Johannine community, just like the Samaritan villagers did. But then they disappear from the narrative!

It is up to the community to include them, or not. When Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room, he breathes on them and tells them the sins of whoever they release are released, and the sins of whoever they hold on to are held on to. In other words, it is up to the community to include or exclude whom they will. What will become of those Greeks? It is not resolved in the narrative. The community which reads the Gospel must decide.

The passage from Jeremiah speaks of the law written on our hearts, not on stone. The law written on stone became an occasion of drawing distinctions. People were instructing one another “Know the Lord.” But, the day is coming, when we won’t need to instruct one another (imagine the finger shaking), because we will all know the Lord. Whom will we admit, and whom exclude? We have to be ready to allow our cherished identity fall in the ground and die in order to bear much fruit.

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