This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.
Where are you from? It may seem polite conversation, or an extraneous identifier, but it matters. In politics, it matters a lot. In the ongoing Republican quest for a nomination in the presidential race, certain candidates have made it clear that what matters are the delegates—and winning the states that secure the most delegates. If you’re not from one of those states, at least in this matter, your vote carries less weight. Similarly, as a registered democrat in a strong Republican county, my vote in the presidential race if I vote party line, is unlikely to actually change the dispersion of my state’s votes in the electoral college. And even more locally, when I moved to a small town in Western Pennsylvania, a dear friend who had lived in that town for more than 30 years, worked there, retired there, and raised her family there, advised me, “Don’t worry about being new to town; everyone here is welcoming, but after thirty years, I’m still not ‘from here.’” She was right. Where you’re from matters.
And, in a lot of ways, that is what this week’s gospel reading is all about. The scene, of course, is set in Jerusalem in Judea. Jerusalem had been the capitol city for the Davidic dynasty and is, of course, the home of the temple. It is the only place acceptable to bring one’s offerings (as made clear by the destruction of high places recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah). And it is the preferred place to celebrate the Passover. Consequently, it is a location of extreme political power.
But the story opens with some guests at the Passover—they are from Greece. While the ancient Greece that we learn about in history is often celebrated for its high points of military and culture, this is a different time and place. Greece was in a decline, long past the height of such great minds like Plato and Socrates; and, at any rate, the story does not occur in Greece. These Greeks are out of place—they are sojourners, foreigners, not ‘from’ Palestine or its surrounding areas.
As such, these Greeks approach Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, hoping to gain an audience with Jesus. Philip, we are reminded, is from Bethsaida in Galilee. Galilee is located in a part of Palestine that would have been the Northern Kingdom during the Davidic monarchy. In the first century, it is separated from Judea by Samaria and is considered by many to have been what might best be compared as the Israelite equivalent of the backwoods during that time. Consequently, Philip too is far from home, but not as far as the Greeks themselves. He is still from Israel. At any rate, Philip approaches Andrew, a fellow disciple also from Bethsaida in Galilee (John 1:35-50). Together these two Galileans approach Jesus. In John’s Gospel Jesus is not said to have been born in Bethlehem of Judea, and while the sign on his cross reads, “Jesus of Nazareth” (John 19:19), which is in Galilee, John makes it clear that Jesus is not ‘from’ there either. For John writes,
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14).
Jesus is not from Greece or Galilee, or even Judea. Jesus is from God. Where you’re from matters. And the politics of this periscope play upon this. The Greeks, the foreigners, don’t feel they’re worthy enough to approach Jesus who is from God. And so, instead, they approach his followers, and even then they address these ‘backwoods’ Galileans, these ‘country bumpkins’ if you will, not as pals or fellow worshipers, but as lords (which is the better translation of the Greek word kurios, rendered by the NRSV as ‘sirs’). “Lord,” they implore Philip, “We wish to see Jesus.”
And here comes in the second power play. Because the reader of John would, of course, know that Philip is not Lord. Hearkening back to the first chapter of the gospel again, he like John the baptizer, ought easily to be considered not even worthy to untie the Lord’s sandals. And yet, we are not told that Philip corrects these pilgrims. Perhaps it is no wonder that he does not then go directly to Jesus, who surely would and does remind him of his place.
“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus reminds Philip and Andrew (John 12:26).
But the power doesn’t simply stop at Jesus—“Father, glorify your name.” Jesus finishes (John 12:28). And God does so. There is one Lord, who is from God the Father Almighty. With the divine voice sounding as a crackle of thunder, in anticipation of the crucifixion narrative and the power play between Pilate and the Sanhedrin to follow, this text makes overwhelmingly clear who that Lord is. And, of course, where the true power resides.
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.