"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Insiders Outside, and the other way around

The Gospel reading for tonight was the center portion of John 12, after Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and a couple of Greeks approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. There is so much situation, culture, emotion and personality here. Philip, who had previously invited the Jewish Nathaniel to come and see Jesus now has no idea what to do with a couple of Greeks, gentiles, "goyim"... They're outside the elect, strangers whose access to God is questionable at best. There are no promises of a place at the table.

I find these unnamed Greeks remarkable, because they've already made a trip from their home to Jerusalem, knowing they'd come as outsiders, not expecting a place at the table. These are people with no spiritual home, seeking after the one God, and all the while literally walking away from the gods of their fathers, their lands, their family and neighbors. And all the while there is no promise that the one God will accept them. They travel miles in first century conditions, and when they arrive they still cannot enter the Temple past the court of the gentiles. Surely there is deep humility in their request, "Sir, we would see Jesus."

Philip knows there's no guarantee. How can he speak of the promises of God to these people, who are by definition outside the promise? How can he offer the Jewish messiah to these non-Jews? What does he have to offer to Samaria and the ends of the earth? A moment in time, a consult with Andrew, and together they approach Jesus.
I was struck today by the cryptic nature of Jesus answer. "The hour has now come..." Leave it to Jesus to not just offer a simple yes or no answer. There's much ado about glorification and the Son of Man being lifted up, but what about those Greeks. I took a moment to look up the passage in the InterVarsity commentary on John for a little extra help. There, Rod Whitacre notes:
Philip does not go straight to Jesus with the Greeks' request, but rather to Andrew, who was from Philip's town (1:44). This may bear witness to Philip's humility, but more likely it shows how unusual the situation was. Jesus has had contact with non-Jews (cf., probably, 4:43-53), but very rarely. He has taught much about the universal scope of God's love, but the full implications of this were not grasped by his followers until later. The nationalism stirred up during Jesus' entry into Jerusalem might make the disciples uncertain about such a request, though these Greeks were proselytes. It seems Philip simply needs some encouragement to approach the Lord when faced with this new and stretching situation. He goes to Andrew, who seems to have been a trusting person who was willing to speak up even when it seemed foolish (6:8-9). If we are stymied by a situation, it helps to have a friend with whom to go to the Lord, not to demand of the Lord but simply to lay before him the situation.
Quite often Jesus has responded to questions and situations with cryptic sayings, and this is no exception. When Andrew and Philip announce the coming of the Greeks something wondrous happens. It triggers the moment the reader has been anticipating since the story began: Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (v. 23). As with all his cryptic sayings, this response addresses the issue, but it does so in ways incomprehensible at the time. He does not speak directly to the Greeks, but he speaks of their place in his community in the future. For he reveals that it is time for his death to take place, through which a great crop will be produced (v. 24) as he draws all men to himself (v. 32). Thus, verse 24 answers the Greeks indirectly, for through his death he "will become accessible for them as the exalted Lord"
Of course we all know that the Greeks are welcome to see Jesus, but if that is the only answer why is Jesus so harsh at first with the SyroPhonecian woman? The answer may be that the time hadn't come. Everything up through the triumphal entry was one phase, and now things are shifting. God became incarnate for the Jews, and now the whole system is about to crack wide open. It reminds me of Aslan on the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the deeper magic is that the table, the old system, the Law itself is cracked in two and the lion gets up from the scene of his slaughter.  In my imagination, between the cracks in the cold stone, new life emerges, like a tree growing up from the rubble.
The contrast in the text though is with the locals. Those who have had access to Jesus all along, so many still don't understand. Even when God speaks directly, audibly, many just hear thunder. And yet, for those who seek him, of all nations, this is the "light to enlighten the gentiles" of whom Simeon spoke. But not only a light to the nations, but also the glory of God's people, Israel. Here is not only the King of Israel, but the very crown of the nation.
I think we are a little like Philip sometimes, when someone outside our own sense of the "chosen" people wants to see Jesus. Philip has no ill will, he just doesn't know what to do with the situation. I wonder how we can pray for people to come to Jesus if we aren't even sure we can comfortably introduce such as these to our Lord if given the chance. As Jesus shifts his ministry toward the cross, he also shifts his presence outside the boundaries of the "chosen" people, and sometimes it is hard for us disciples to catch up with where he's going. How willing are we to introduce to Jesus the stranger, the outsider, even the enemy and oppressor?

And at the same time we hear stories of Christians, in every generation and on every continent, who are able to pray for their persecutors. We sit here comfortably and think that our minor losses are persecutions, while we have yet to begin to suffer. And we can't pray for our enemies. But our brothers and sisters who risk life and limb on a daily basis shine like beacons to the grace of God. They are the Andrew to our well-meaning but (in this case) somewhat ineffective Philip

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