Sermon March 21 – John 12:20-26 Are We Getting Warmer Yet? Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you know what I just realized this week hasn't happened to me in over a year? I haven't been stopped on the street by anyone and asked for directions.
No tourists in Halifax. It's quite different. And in a lot of ways that are a lot more significant than just the fact that it's been well over a year since anyone stopped me on the street to ask for directions.
Which I always found sort of fascinating. Like, how do they know I live here? My husband lived for part of his childhood in Cairo, and he actually had a tee-shirt – saved as a keepsake by his mother – that said on it in English and Arabic "I am not a tourist. I live here."
But if the number of times I normally get stopped and asked for directions is any indication, I apparently don't need this kind of tee-shirt. Even in a sea of tourists in the "Before Times", apparently there's something about me that screams "local".
It would have been quite easy to know exactly who was local and who was a tourist in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. Certainly easier than it would be in Jerusalem today, or on the streets of Halifax, maps or cameras aside.
Because at least amongst the men, in Jesus’ day, the style of dress and even the length of hair or the presence of a beard would have signaled one’s origins and broadcast one’s culture long before any touristy equipment became obvious.
Jewish men like Jesus would have covered their heads and they would have worn their beards long over their clothes, while the Romans in town would mostly have been military, clean-shaven, cropped hair – but everyone else? Probably a tourist.
Especially in Jerusalem and especially during the festival season. Which would have been right now, the spring season, from Purim to Passover. Because thousands and thousands of people flocked to Jerusalem every year for the festival season.
And yes – many of the visitors would have been Jews like Jesus and his followers, but they would hardly have counted going to Jerusalem as being ‘tourists’, since it was a regular practice each year for the Passover if one could travel. But the rest of those thousands and thousands would have been from many other countries in the near East and around the Mediterranean. Just visiting for fun. Seeing the sites and experiencing the culture and enjoying the atmosphere.
Being tourists! And probably, at least some of them, hoping that their trip to Jerusalem might turn out to be more interesting than just visiting a few monuments and enjoying the local cuisine.
Because Jerusalem at Passover could be pretty exciting. There were masses of people, the religious festivals involved all kinds of amazing rituals and gatherings – and not only that, but the time when Jesus was preaching was an extraordinarily rich period for philosophical and spiritual and intellectual conversation and debate. Teachers and prophets and healers and miracle-workers – Jesus was not even remotely the only one at the time -- and for a tourist who was interested in the mystical and magical and spiritual, Jerusalem in those days would have been a wondrous place to visit.
So people did. From all over the place. And if they were interested in such things, they kept their ears to the ground and they found out where to go to hear new teachings, to see great miracles, and generally to be amazed. And to learn something. Or experience something life-changing.
We have no idea how the Greek tourists that turn up on the day that we heard about in our gospel passage just now found out about Jesus. Only that they did.
They may well have been in the courtyard of the temple when he cast out the moneychangers in the one great dramatic fury we ever hear about him getting into. It certainly would have been a notable event and we know it aroused the ire of not only the priests and the Pharisees but also the Romans. So it’s possible that the Greek tourists were there that day, and were intrigued to know more about this Jesus of Nazareth who'd flown into such a rage about turning the temple into a house of vipers instead of a house of prayer...
But it’s equally possible that they’d simply heard of his teachings, and found them compelling enough to search for him. Or his healings, and wanted to see him for themselves. We have no idea why they went looking for him, or how in the end they found him. We only know that they did.
Somewhere along the road in Jerusalem, with a great crowd around him, and his disciples there too, the Greek tourists found Jesus. And then with admirable courtesy, they politely asked one of the men who were clearly his closest disciples if they could see him.
It was Philip they asked. “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Very polite!
And doesn’t it seem like, especially because they were so polite, that Philip should just have said Okay? Or maybe, if the crowd was particularly large that day, he could have asked if there was any reason in particular they wanted to see Jesus, sort of a vetting process, but still -- there are all sorts of other times in the gospels in which someone approaches the disciples and says “I want to see Jesus” and the disciples pretty much say Okay.
So why does it seem like such a big deal this time? Because this time Philip doesn’t just say okay. And he doesn’t even go straight to Jesus to mention them: “Lord, there are some Greeks here who want to see you”. It’s almost like he’s not sure what to do next. And so he winds up going to fellow-disciple Andrew to consult about it for a while. What should we do about these Greeks who want to see Jesus?
And yes, ultimately, of course, they DO go tell Jesus that there are some Greeks who want to see him. But by then it’s not even clear that the Greeks are still there! They completely disappear from the rest of the passage and for all we know they got fed up with waiting for Philip and Andrew to decide if they’d be allowed to see Jesus, and decided to forget about it and go for an early supper.
It’s a very odd passage. And even odder is that the way that Jesus finally responds to Philip and Andrew, when they tell him there are Greeks there to see him, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either the Greeks or – really -- anything about the conversation at all!
Except… except that in a very very roundabout way, it really does. Eventually.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies,” Jesus says to Philip and Andrew and presumably the others around him, “it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. And the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
I have no doubt that Philip and Andrew had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
But we, of course, have Good Friday and Easter on our calendar. So we know exactly what he’s talking about, at least in terms of anticipating how his last weeks will unfold and how the death he knows is imminent will allow the seed of new life to take root.
But what’s even more striking, and maybe was so in retrospect even for Philip and Andrew, is where he goes next.
Because he doesn’t simply stop with the image of the seed that dies in order to allow the flourishing of new life -- the seed that holds within itself, if it stands down and lets itself end, the beginning of a whole new plant –
Instead he takes them straight from there to a second teaching. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, my servant is also.”
Where he is? Prepared like a seed to stand down and let itself end because in that end is the source of new life? Maybe yes, and certainly that’s been the way this passage is often interpreted.
But I think we can’t forget those poor Greeks. Who wanted to see him, and his friends made it into such a huge production – Philip isn’t sure what to do, asks Andrew, Andrew isn’t sure what to do, they consult for a while, finally they actually mention it to Jesus…
I think we can’t forget those poor Greeks. Because this is Jesus’ response in that context. It has to have something to do with those poor Greeks.
And I think what it DOES have to do with is the fact that Philip and Andrew, with all their consulting, have shown in the way they dealt with those poor Greeks that they just don’t understand yet what Jesus is about. Where he “is”, if you will, in terms of the breadth and depth of the meaning and purpose of his presence.
Because if Philip and Andrew were really where Jesus is, they wouldn’t have gotten so worked up about whether or not they could let an “outsider” – a Greek – see him. Because they would understand. If they were fully serving, they’d be fully following, and they’d have followed him to where he is: the place in which there ARE no outsiders. The place in which his Way, his teaching, his welcome, his healing into fulness of life, is for ANYONE who wants to approach him.
Where I am, my servants are also, Jesus says to Philip and Andrew. And to us. And where he IS is truly, madly, deeply NOT in a place that’s limited by all those oh-so-human prejudices or discomforts or unspoken assumptions about who God might love. Like maybe not Greeks, because they’re ‘outsiders’.
Philip and Andrew didn’t understand that, then. The good news, though, is that eventually they did. It was Philip who stopped to share the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch who had so many questions, later on after the resurrection. And Andrew’s later ministry is said to have stretched all the way up to what’s now Russia. So they DID eventually get to where Jesus ‘was’, to that place of real, full, and wholehearted welcome. For everyone.
Which is good news. Because those Greeks? They’re pretty much us. The outsiders beyond Jesus’ own Jewish community to whom that welcome was eventually extended.
Which should mean that for us, getting to that place where Jesus is too, to that place where there ARE no automatic 'outsiders' by virtue of identity -- it really should be instinctive. Fundamental to and inherent in Christian community.
There should be, for Christians, NO ONE declared an 'outsider', 'not quite', at best a tourist welcome to visit but not to stay, not really 'us' – by virtue of their identity. Not by virtue of race or ethnicity, not by virtue of who they are or who they love.
Jesus in his living, in his message, in his words that day to Philip and Andrew – he repudiated the notion of outsiders, tourists, 'not quite', or 'not really us', and his message was clear: "Where I am you should be also".
In this place, in God's house, in Jesus' community, everyone's a local. Everyone belongs.
Fully and completely. Amen.