Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Tonight’s Gospel reading might have intrigued you given that today is Transfiguration Sunday. You might have wondered at its particular connection to the Transfiguration related in Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8 and Luke 9:28–36. As you will recall, those other three gospels referred to a divine and supernatural encounter of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on top of a high mountain. That event is not recorded in John’s gospel.

Simply summarising tonight’s reading, it consists of two parts – firstly an encounter with some Greeks visiting Jerusalem at the Festival of Passover; and secondly, a transcendent moment involving  Jesus that was witnessed not only by the disciples but by a larger crowd.

The encounter with the Greek tourists is a little more interesting than might at first reading seem to be the case. Consider not so much what may have transpired but what was actually recorded by John. Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Festival of the Passover asked Philip if they could see Jesus; we can presumably take this to have been a request to meet with Jesus rather than just observe him. Philip talked to Andrew about the request, and then the two of them told Jesus about it. While there might seem nothing particularly exceptional about all this, I ask you to consider why the Gospel writer chose to put it this way. Why didn’t he simply write that some Greeks wanted to meet Jesus and asked to do so? Why intersperse that the request was handled in a two stage way – first with Philip, then with Philip talking to Andrew? Surely, the process of handling the request of the Greeks was inconsequential? And in a Gospel where the writer finished by stating that if everything Jesus did ‘were written down, suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written’ [John 21:25], why did John choose to leave out some deeds of Jesus, yet insert this seemingly inconsequential matter involving two disciples discussing how to deal with the request of the Greeks? I suggest to you that this elaboration on the incident by John was not unintentional, that it was intended to have significance to the reader.

In considering that potential significance, let’s reflect on two things: firstly, who were these Greeks and, secondly, what was the religious milieu from which they came? These two things then combine in two questions: why had they come to Jerusalem and why had they asked to see Jesus?

When we encounter Greeks in the New Testament, there are two possibilities. The first is that they might have been what has also been referred to as ‘Hellenised Jews’; these were Jews who, some centuries earlier, had so adapted to Greek culture that they had also adopted the Greek language in place of Hebrew in their worship. Interestingly, descendants of this group still exist today in the small Greek town of Ioannina. The second possibility, is that they were non-Jewish Greeks. The Greek language reference to those referred to in our Gospel reading indicates that this group were of the latter category, namely   Hellēnes (Ἕλληνές) rather than the former exellinisméni Evraíoi (εξελληνισμένη Εβραίοι). So these Greeks were Gentiles, not Jews.


And what of the religious milieu from which they came? When we think about the religious tapestry of the first century Mediterranean world, it is too easy to create three homogenous categories – Jews, Christians, and pagans. The problem with that simplification is that each of the categories over-generalises. Regarding the Jews, we actually know that they were divided, at the very least, into the Sadducees (who didn’t believe in resurrection of the dead), Pharisees (who did) and Essenes (who were on mystical journeyings of their own). While the early Christians of the first century were on the cusp of a division between the Judaeo-Christian group and that of the Gentiles each with their own distinctive theological interpretations.

For their part, the pagans were none the less heterogeneous. Recollections from our high school studies about the ancient Greeks were that they worshipped Zeus and a pantheon of gods all related to him, but this belied the fact that there was as wide a diversity of religious belief and unbelief in the first century Greek community as there is in our world today. There were institutional pagans amongst them, who venerated idols as representations of the gods of Olympus; there were also others whose faith was more philosophical and would, in the following centuries, grow into the early humanism that has often been called neo-Platonism. But there were also others who, in today’s parlance, we might refer to as spiritualists or seekers – people who felt there was something more than both the idols of the temple and the rationalism of incipient humanism. Like many Romans, there were Greeks of the time who explored eastern spirituality and so the cults of Mithraism and Zoroastrianism gained many adherents, in addition to other exotic faiths from other regions.  Amongst this group of seekers, there were those who, in seeking some deeper spiritual meaning to life, were attracted to Judaism. Apparently this group, not just  Greeks but also  others from across the eastern Mediterranean (vide the Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles), felt that some divine power emanated both from the writings and the worshippings of the people called the Jews. And so they would pilgrimage to Jerusalem at special times such as Passover.

The numbers of these proselytes, as they were called, must have been significant, for we know from other sources that the Temple of Jerusalem contained a special courtyard before the entrance of its sacred inner sanctum that became known as the Court of the Gentiles. In this court, the proselytes could show reverence to the God of the Jews without actually converting to Judaism themselves. It would have been in this space that the Greeks of our gospel reading tonight would have encountered Philip; and we may assume that their request to him to see Jesus was another way of asking that Jesus come out from the inner courts of the Temple that were closed to them.

Philip may well have been on his way through to the inner courts; whatever the case, upon receiving the request he felt the need to ask a colleague, Andrew, whether they should ask Jesus to meet with these Greek seekers. But why ask Andrew? Did Philip foresee a problem in letting them see Jesus?

Was he worried that they were no more profound in their faith than just to be spiritual tourists seeking the exotic where the difference not the substance was what was important to them? Or did he fear that they were spiritual children to be chased away from the presence of the spiritual maturity of Jesus? Or he may simply have been concerned not to interrupt Jesus whilst in his own act of worship. We certainly know from Jesus’ eventual response to Philip and Andrew, that he was more in a state of spiritual reverie than of thinking about worldly matters for, instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, he said:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified … [and, later] … Now my soul is troubled.

Whatever the cause of his uncertainty, Andrew’s counsel on the matter encouraged Philip to take the request to Jesus. And so they did.

What was Jesus’ response? Rather than give a clear answer to a seemingly simple question, Jesus plunged right into deep matters of faith. What did he say? I have already mentioned that he started with:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified …

He then followed this with a mini-parable about a grain of wheat; the metaphorical meaning being that a new and fuller life required first that the grain die. From this he went on to talk about the triviality of this life in the face of an eternal life, implicitly posing the question to the listeners – what will your choice be? And are you prepared for the consequence?

Then, so that his listeners might understand the full import of what he had been saying, Jesus  went into what we might refer to as rhetorical questioning , questioning that was primarily intended to edify a third party rather than the party to which it was supposedly addressed. Here Jesus admitted to having a troubled spirit but asked his listeners the question:

And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’?

The gospel doesn’t record whether Jesus left a pause in his monologue to let his listeners consider what the answer from God should be to the question. Whatever the case, Jesus provided the answer:

No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name.

Whilst Jesus spoke this as a rhetorical question addressed to a party from whom he was not expecting an answer – namely God – an answer did indeed come forth. God spoke. This was one of three occasions reported in the Gospels where God spoke audibly to mortals. The first was the occasion of the baptism of Jesus, the second, the Transfiguration as recorded in the other three gospels and then this instance.

God answered:

I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.

In response to which Jesus confirms the rhetorical nature of the questioning:

The voice has come for your sake, not for mine.

But then came something even more unexpected. The price asked for this glory; the cost of defeating the brokenness of this world in favour of the promise of eternal life. The price, the cost – crucifixion. John noted that Jesus said:

When I am lifted up from the earth …

And indicated that this meant the kind of death Jesus was going to die. But I am certain Jesus intended more than that; I believe that the ‘lifting up’ referred to here was both the crucifixion and the resurrection, when he would be raised from the dead. For Jesus followed his reference to being lifted up with:

(then I) will draw all people to myself.

As I mentioned at the start of this sermon, today is Transfiguration Sunday – an occasion when we focus on the significant event in Jesus’ life on earth that is referred to in three of the gospels – but not the fourth – John’s gospel which we have looked at this evening.  There are some similarities and differences between the Transfiguration event of the three canonical gospels and the incident reported in our reading tonight. For example, God speaks audibly in both. But there is a key difference between the two. The Transfiguration witnessed on the mountain was in the presence of only three disciples; the incident in our gospel reading tonight was in front of a crowd which included our aforementioned Greeks.

A second significant difference was that, in the Transfiguration, the disciples were told not to report the events until after the Resurrection. In this incident at the Temple, Jesus foretold both his crucifixion and resurrection in front of all who would hear him. Listen again:

… but if [the grain] dies, it bears much fruit … [and]  when I am lifted up from the earth … He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Despite these differences, John, who was silent about the Transfiguration on the mountain with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, nevertheless offered an interpretation of transfiguration in his reporting of the incident with the Greeks and Jesus’ response. Jesus had foretold his crucifixion and resurrection not just in front of Jews, but also of Gentiles. By so doing, there occurred the transfiguration from the divine of the Jews – God and messiah – to a divinity of God eternal and incarnate for all humanity.

In the Acts of the Apostles we read how the disciples argued about the way in which the Good News might be shared with the Gentiles. Yet here in this reading from John, we heard Jesus preach it right then and there to Jew and Gentile alike. Philip, who had at first been unsure, and hence consulted Andrew, certainly would have had a lesson in the universalism of Christ’s message through what happened that day. We can be sure of that, for it would be Philip, in Acts 8, who became the first disciple to reach out to a non-Jew to explain the gospel by responding to a request from the Ethiopian eunuch.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit had spoken to ‘both Jews and converts to Judaism’ [Acts 2:11]; on the road to Gaza from Jerusalem, through Philip, the Holy Spirit spoke to a proselyte.  And as he did so that day, he may well have recalled the request of those Greeks at the time of the Feast of the Passover. He may have recalled how then he had hesitated; but on this day, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, he had not hesitated, he had no need to check with anyone else. For now Philip knew what Jesus meant when he said:


And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.