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What if Jesus had gone to Athens?

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. {24} Very truly, I tell you, 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. - John 12:23-24

Why did the Greeks want to see Jesus? Why did their visit provoke this response? Why to them in particular? Or was he talking to the disciples or to people in general? Why had his hour come? What do you think the Greeks might have said to bring this strange response about glory, death and much fruit? Does it matter to us?

The setting John gives for the puzzling encounter between Jesus and the "the Greeks" is the situation of growing tension with the authorities in which he was attracting a great deal of attention as they were approached Jerusalem for the last time, just after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. He had become immensely popular and the Pharisees had, for the moment, appeared to give up hope of defeating him:

The Greeks came to Jesus as foreigners through the agency of a Greek speaking disciple, Philip:

It is not even clear that the Greeks actually met Jesus, or whether their request was only conveyed indirectly by Philip and Andrew. Whatever it was about, he responded with a strange combination of sayings which must have continued the puzzlement his disciples had experienced ever since he had begun to prepare them for this last visit to Jerusalem. On the one hand he said, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, which might be thought appropriate for a popular leader approaching the capital city. Were they not about to welcome him as the conquering hero, the new king, the long awaited Messiah! Surely he was about to be glorified! But you never knew with Jesus, they might have been saying, just when you think he is about to claim his rightful place in history, he suddenly looks like taking a different direction. So they heard him say, Very truly, I tell you, 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.

What on earth could it mean? - on earth, or in heaven either for that matter? (And we are dealing with a cosmic drama.) He was talking of death and, at the same time, of bearing much fruit. Clearly, he was telling the disciples something, just as he was saying something those Greeks would never understand. Never? Well, who knows when, if they ever would. Certainly they believed in success and recognized here a teacher who might expect some sort of glory, not something you would associate with death. It was difficult to imagine one who might have been the Messiah being put to death. After today's gospel reading we see:

We were thinking of the meaning of this being "lifted up", that is on the cross, last week. Of course we know now, looking back, that when he spoke of a grain of wheat falling to the earth Jesus was talking of his death, which would be followed by his resurrection into a new life of glory far greater than any earthly teacher could ever expect. It is the faith of the church that others too may share in that victory over death, so that his death does indeed bear much fruit. Paul spoke of it in various ways in reference to our sharing in the life of the resurrection, at one point using the same symbol of the grain of wheat which disappears into the soil but appears in a new form of life in the plant which emerges:

Paul also linked baptism into the new life of the body of Christ with our sharing in his death and rising with him:

That may now be seen with the eyes of faith; but what were his hearers then, the disciples and the Greek visitors, to make of it: 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. It is difficult for people who have experienced the fruits of Christ's death and resurrection, even at a great distance through the culture of Christendom, to feel the horror of the idea to both the Jews and the Greeks. We have learned about the seed of the martyrs blood, knowing that their sacrifices were the inspiration of many believers, the many who came thereby to see the merits of the blood of Christ. Those who took up their cross shared in his work, but it was not expected by their oppressors, and least of all by those who killed Jesus. It was contrary to both Jewish and gentile cultures to expect anything of one who was hanged on a gibbet:

... which refers of the law of Moses: for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse (Deuteronomy 21:23).

We discussed the shame of the cross a couple of weeks ago. Again, Paul has a word for it:

What a strange sort of hero to have: one who suffered the death of a criminal. He had not even suffered a glorious death in battle! (Or, had he? If there was a victory in his death it required to eyes of faith to see it.) In the eyes of the world he was a failure. Yet some at least of the more sophisticated people were prepared to think he might have succeeded as a teacher, even if it was not acceptable in their society to say so openly: remember how Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to see him at night. The contrast with what successful people looked like or expected and way that Jesus chose to go is seen in the context of that verse from Paul about the cross being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles:

Again, with the eyes of faith, we can see the truth, even wisdom, of Paul's words. But if you had been one of the Greeks seeking wisdom, perhaps like those who approached him through Philip, how would you have seen his choice of the way of death. Would it have been comprehensible?

Would you like to do a little imagining? It is better done quietly in a time of meditation, using one of the well established techniques of meditation, which takes more time than we have right now, but we can perhaps begin to approach it. Put yourself in the picture. Imagine that you are there when the Greeks, seeking wisdom, as we may suppose, came to see Jesus. Can you imagine what they might have said? Who else is there? Who says what to whom? What do they want? Do you get involved? What does Jesus do? How do you feel? What do you want him to do?

[Leave a time of silence. Then suggest that people discuss with one or two people near them what they imagined happening. See also the dramatized reading of the Gospel in the Order of Service as a possible background for this exercise, which is a weak version of the meditation method of St. Ignatius.]

Seriously, do you think the coming of the Greeks posed a real challenge to Jesus? Might he have chosen the role of a teacher of wisdom in the tradition of the Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle? After all he was a wise man and many thought he had interesting things to say. How do you think they would have received him at the Agora in Athens, where debates of the philosophers still continued at that time? Was it not a great way of spreading his way of thinking? Paul did go there to speak and argue with the Athenians for Christ (Acts 17:15-33). What if Jesus had accepted an invitation to teach in Athens, instead of taking that last fatal step into Jerusalem? Athens or Jerusalem? Was it real choice?

I have no doubt that something like the role of a teacher of wisdom in the Greek tradition was a real option for Jesus. We don't really know what the Greeks said or what they expected, but we do believe according to Christian tradition that Jesus was tempted "in every way as we are". It was not very different from the ways of worldly success that Satan suggested to him in his temptations in the wilderness. To survive and become a great teacher sought out by the wisest of men, and one who was even then willing also to teach women, that must have been a possible future for him, whether the temptation came with those Greeks or otherwise. What would the world be like if he had gone to Athens?

There are people who like to bracket Jesus with the wise men of old, like Socrates or Confucius; and why not, you might say. His teaching was as wise as any and in fact he would have been found to agree with many others in the things that are most important in human life. Perhaps if he had chosen that way Athens might not have been divided from Jerusalem in the way that it is in our culture. By and large Athens takes centre stage in our schools and colleges, and in many educational systems Jerusalem is kept out, either by law or tradition, or through just plain prejudice. What if Jesus had taught in the Agora in Athens instead of going all the way into Jerusalem and being heard for a few days in the Temple before they took him at night and hung him on the cross. Well, we don't know, and it is even possible that they could have killed him in Athens just as quickly as he was killed in Jerusalem. Yet there remains a deep tension between human wisdom and the way of Christ. On the one hand Christian scholars do feel the need to make a reasoned defense of the gospel; and there is nothing wrong with a believer who is able to do so attempting to match wits with greatest thinkers in our universities. Sometimes, from the viewpoint of an academic, I think we are far too timid in that respect. The culture will not be transformed according to the mind of Christ if we do not witness there as in all other institutions. There is a need for an Erasmus or a Newman in the best universities today, but of course if they were to be there as true witnesses they would have to talk about who Jesus was and what he did, not only what he taught. No attempt to reduce Jesus to a mere teacher, however wise or courageous, will be true to him. As much as secular people would like to keep him within the bounds of well known human categories, he cannot be so limited. No matter how hard people try to make him just another wise teacher, he will not fit that role. Believers know why: 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 knew why too, but he had to make a choice and go through with it, and it was not an easy choice:

These are the words with which he shared his struggle immediately after he encountered the Greeks. Whether or not their approach to him gave rise to the tension within himself, it was plainly there and keenly felt, and the outcome was decisive, for us, for all who are joined with him in faith, and for all who share in the fruits of his victory. So we may rejoice that he was able to say The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. {24} Very truly, I tell you, 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.

All praise and glory be to him. Amen.

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