Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
At the time of Jesus, most Jews spoke Greek, and the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in a version called the Septuagint.
“Greeks,” though, is the term the Gospel writers usually use not for non-Jews or residents of Greece, but instead for Greek-speaking (and often non-Palestinian) Jews and also for “God-fearers,” those who were not Jewish but who attended synagogue services and practiced the faith as best as they could.
Stephen the Deacon was a Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking Jew; Cornelius the Roman centurion was a Gentile and probably a God-fearer.
But what do you think these Greeks wanted to see? Who do you think the “God fearers” were looking for?
Paul says that “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” but what Jesus says to the Greeks who come looking sounds foolish.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Jesus first talks about the pattern of his life – the dying and rising, the self-emptying which is central to his ministry. He links that dying and rising to his work of salvation on the cross.
He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” His dying on the cross will accomplish not only his rising to new life, but bear fruit in ours, too.
The pattern of dying and rising doesn’t make any sense. The dying doesn’t fit with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that just happened right before our reading; it doesn’t fit with hailing Jesus as the coming King, the Messiah who “remains forever,” according to the Hebrew Bible.
What do you mean? the crowd asks Jesus.
Jesus answers them with another odd image:
The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.
Several times during his ministry, Jesus has said something like this:
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” – he said that just last night at dinner with Lazarus and Mary. His feet probably still smelled of Mary’s costly perfume as he rode into the city on the back of a donkey.
“While the bridegroom is with them, his friends rejoice” – he said that early in his ministry when he was questioned about why his disciples didn’t properly observe some Sabbath regulations.
While we have Jesus with us, everything is different and the old rules don’t seem to apply anymore.
So Jesus’ dying and rising is the pattern for his life, and his presence makes a difference to his friends.
On Saturday night – after our “way of the cross” has led us with Jesus to supper with his friends and his betrayal by one of them; to his agonized prayer in the garden and to his arrest; and to his crucifixion and his death – on Saturday night the darkness of our church will be split by a single candle flame.
I’ll sing, “The light of Christ!”
And you’ll respond, “Thanks be to God!”
You see, dying and rising is the pattern. Good Friday comes, but so does Easter. Self-sacrificing, daily dying to self, is necessary, but it leads to resurrection life. The darkness comes, we no longer see our friend Jesus, but ultimately the light of Christ prevails.
This is the Gospel message that Stephen and the other Greek-speaking followers of the Way witnessed to, many of them with their lives.
This is the Gospel that Paul carried to the Hellenistic world, to the actual “Greeks” and Romans and other Gentiles, and eventually, down the long centuries to us.
Many centuries before Jesus was born, the people of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon. Though many returned to the land, many more remained in the Diaspora – no longer speaking Hebrew, but speaking Greek like their neighbors.
“It is too light a thing,” said God upon his people’s return, “that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
The restoration, the enlightenment, the resurrection life is not for keeping. It’s for sharing.
And you see, we still “walk while we have the light.”
“The darkness has not overcome it,” says John, and with the Spirit in our midst we always have the light of Christ with us, so the darkness will not overtake us.
Jesus’ dying and rising is the pattern for his life, and his presence makes all the difference to us – his friends.
By our dying and rising, by the pattern of our lives, we walk in the light, witnessing to the light of Christ in us and sharing it with “all the nations.”
May the Greeks who come looking always see Jesus when they encounter us …
An audio version of this sermon can be found at St. Thomas’ YouTube page: