The setting for today’s Gospel narrative is the Feast of Passover where people have come to the city from many parts of the world. The surprise here is the appearance of the Greeks. They are gentiles but they are curious. Hearing stories about Jesus was not enough. They needed more, so they boldly approached Philip with their request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We learn nothing more about them. The Greeks come and go almost without notice but their entry into the story reveals something to Jesus: the hour has come.
The twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel contains most of what Jesus had to say about his suffering and death. Jesus could have stopped preaching against the evil, hypocritical religious authorities. He could have saved his hide by just toning down his message and not reaching out so daringly to the poor and the marginalized. Jesus chose, instead, to speak and model his message of forgiveness, reconciliation, love and inclusion, the result of which would be his death on a cross, the punishment prescribed for the worst of criminals. From that death would come resurrection and from resurrection a new community would form in his name; the grain of wheat would die and bear fruit and the proof of it all is that we are here today.
The coming of the Greeks, as insignificant as it may seem, marks a turning point for Jesus. The term “Greeks” is meant to include all non-Jewish foreigners. Their arrival is the sign that his ministry would cast a wide net and be extended to everyone. The hour had come to launch that. The mention of the Greeks reminds of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Toula Portokalos is a thirty-something single, dowdy reception hostess at the family-owned Greek diner, Dancing Zorba’s. “Nice Greek girls are supposed to do three things in life,” her father, Gus, tells her: “Marry a nice Greek boy, make babies, and feed everyone till the day we die.”
One day a handsome, sensitive, guy named Ian Miller walks into the restaurant and Toula falls in love. Big problem. He is not a nice Greek boy and, for her father, “Mr. Right” becomes “Mr. Wrong”—“ξεινος” (which in Greek means “stranger” or “outsider”), from which we get our word “zenophobic.” For Gus Portokolos, there are two kinds of people—Greeks, and everyone who wishes they were Greek.
A turning point in movie occurs when Ian Miller demonstrates the depth of his love for Tula by taking instructions in the Orthodox Church and is baptized, which to her family translates into his becoming one of them. At the church, Tula watches as Ian, dressed in swim trunks is immersed three times in a large pool of water that covers him from head to toe, and with fragrant anointing oil trickling down his brow, the priest chanting in a language Ian cannot understand, and she turns to her brother Nick and says, “Any second now he's gonna look at me and say, ‘You're so not worth this.’ "
Why is the appearance of the Greeks on this last week before Jesus would die on a cross significant? Because in that moment something connects deeply and passionately within Jesus. It is the arrival of foreigners, of strangers that identifies the crucial hour for him. It was these Greeks who moved Jesus to proclaim the purpose of his entire mission—to draw all people, to attract everyone, no matter who they were, no matter what their lineage, and gather them around him.
The desire of the Greeks to see him elicits a profound reaction: “This is the hour of my glorification. The grain of wheat will burst into a harvest of all people—Jews and Greeks and every kind of stranger whom you must welcome in my name as your sisters and brothers. I will soon be lifted up on the cross for you—all of you—because you are so worth it.”
You know, in one way or another, we’re all foreigners and one might also say that in some way we’re all a little strange. What is part of the fabric of all our lives, what we have in common with one another, is the ultimate human desire to be lifted up. We long to be lifted up from the darkness, the sadness, the drudgery, the disappointments and heartbreaks, the failures, the violence, the chaos, the grief in our lives, in our world.
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest, author, and theologian whose interests were rooted in psychology, spirituality, social justice and community, wrote: “When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps, I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within me and around me.”
Next week we will see Jesus entering Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosannas,” washing the feet of his disciples, betrayed by a friend, scourged and spit upon, denied by Peter, brutally nailed to a cross—and lifted up. No matter what our age, or gender, or race, or sexual orientation, or our faith or our doubts, or anything else that makes us who we are, don’t we all just want to be lifted up and drawn into the arms of the One who is Love? And, as we see Jesus giving up his life for us, what he wants us most to know is that we are so worth it.