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August 10, 2003

Entering the Text
Preaching the Text
Connecting Text, Sermon, and Culture

PREACHING THE TEXT: Mark 6:30-44; 15:33-39

My Big Fat Greek Bible

A couple of weeks ago Betsy and I finally saw the hit movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It's a wonderfully entertaining movie about a Greek immigrant family and their daughter, Toula. Although they live in the suburbs of Chicago, own a Greek restaurant and have pursued the American dream, they still cling to some Old World family values. For example, Toula's parents love to say to her: "Toula, you need to marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everyone!"

As the movie unfolds, Toula meets a handsome young man, falls in love and decides to marry. The trouble is her fiancé is not Greek as her parents might wish. He's a WASP, a White Anglo Saxon Protestant, whose parents belong to the country club. When these two families meet—one of them first-generation immigrants from Greece and the other blue-blooded Protestants whose ancestors probably came over on the Mayflower—a clash of cultures ensues. It's part of what makes the movie so funny and so memorable.

My favorite character in the movie is Toula's father, Gus. He's a bit rough around the edges and a bit eccentric as well, but he exudes a fierce pride in his Greek ancestry. "Give me a word, give me any word," says Gus, "and I will show you how the root of that word is Greek." After meeting Toula's fiancé, Ian, Gus makes clear his disappointment that Ian is not Greek. On one occasion he even mutters under his breath (in Greek, so that Ian can't understand), "My people were writing philosophy when your people were still swinging in trees."

As I thought about Gus and his fierce pride, I began to recall some of the things that the Greeks gave to civilization. I recalled:

 philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates,

 poets and playwrights like Homer, Sophocles and Euripides,

 awesome architecture like you'll find on the acropolis in Athens.

 early forms of democracy, especially under the leadership of Pericles,

 famous city-states like Athens and Sparta.

 great military leaders like Philip of Macedonia and his son, Alexander the Great, and how they spread Greek culture and civilization across much of the known world.

Indeed, Greek influence spread so far and wide—especially during the time the historians call Hellenism—that their language remained the preferred language of international commerce for years. Long after the Greeks fell from their pinnacle of worldly influence and the Romans conquered the world, people were still speaking Greek. Just as people today speak English in many countries around the world, so in ancient times throughout the Mediterranean world people spoke Greek.

As a result, when the early Christians put in print the story of Jesus and the first century church, they wrote in Greek, because it was the international language of their day. Thus, among the many other contributions that the Greeks gave to civilization, they also gave us the language in which the New Testament was first written.

Just as Toula's father, Gus, looks with pride upon his Greek heritage, we Christians can look with pride upon the Greek Bible. Lately, I've been thinking about my big fat Greek Bible and wondering which of its words best tell the Christian story. Now, I need to confess that I was a pretty poor student of Greek in seminary. About the only thing I remember for sure is how merciful the teacher was! But I have a number of friends who are excellent students of Greek, so I decided to ask them. "In your opinion," I asked, "what are the three or four most important words in the Greek New Testament?" They made some thirty-three suggestions, but I've narrowed the suggestions to four! It's certainly not a perfect list and, clearly, it's open to debate. But in my judgment, these are four of the most important words in the New Testament, four Greek words about which we Christians can be very proud.

The first of these words may come as a surprise because it occurs just two times in the entire New Testament, both of them in the Gospel of Mark. Mark uses this word at the very beginning of Jesus' public ministry and then again at the time of his Jesus' death. Schizo—it's a violent word which means to be torn apart, the word from which we get words like "schism." Let's consider the second example first. According to Mark, immediately following Jesus' crucifixion, the curtain in the Temple in Jerusalem was "torn in two from top to bottom" (Mk 15:38). Not from bottom to top, as if some mere human had taken a pair of scissors and cut it in two, but from top to bottom as if by some unseen divine hand.

Biblical scholars tell us that the massive curtain hung in front of the Mercy Seat in the innermost court of the Temple. According to James Stewart, the great Scottish minister, the curtain was there to fulfill a double function:

On the one hand, it was there to keep mortals out—a warning to sinful humanity to stay away, to keep a respectful distance from all of the mystery surrounding God. On the other hand, it was there to shut God in. For behind that curtain, there was silence deep as death and darkness black as night even when the Syrian sun was blazing down outside.1

Stewart also describes how the people were fearful of whatever lay behind the curtain. In fact, whenever the High Priest entered that sacred area, they would tie a rope around his waist. This was in case he died while standing in the presence of God, so they could pull him out. In effect, "what the curtain seemed to say was, `Stand back, keep your distance, God is not for you.'"2

I'm sure you get the sense of the kind of God that curtain was supposed to conceal. And maybe you also sense the kind of God the ripping of the curtain reveals, especially since it occurs immediately after the crucifixion of God's own Son. Not only that, but the other time Mark uses the word also supports the same idea. It's at the time of Jesus' baptism way back in the first chapter of Mark's gospel. There, Mark tells us that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart. Clearly, the language is symbolic, but through it, Marks seems to suggest that there is something about this Jesus—his baptism, his life, his teachings, his miracles, and, yes, especially his crucifixion—which gives us a glimpse of what God is really like. In other words, if you want to probe and ponder the ultimate mystery of the unseen God, creator of heaven and earth, then look at Jesus.

Sometimes people ask, "What contribution does the Christian faith make to the religions of the world?" To answer, you can tell them of the time when the heavens were torn apart and when the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom, events that peel back the layers and reveal to us what God is really like.

Here's another word for you to consider. It's the word that describes Jesus' reaction to the hungry crowd of people who have come out into the desert for something to eat. "As Jesus went ashore," says Mark the gospel writer, "he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd" (Mk 6:34). He had compassion for them—that's the word I want to lift up. Actually, it's not the best way to translate the Greek word. It's too tame, too gentle. He had compassion for them. He felt pity for them. He felt sorry for them. While all of that may be true, that's not what the gospel writer intends. What he really means, quite literally, is that Jesus felt for them so strongly, it was as if his guts were torn apart in anguish. It's powerful. It's violent and dramatic. It's visceral.3

Nor is this the only time the word occurs in the New Testament:

 When a leper approaches Jesus and begs for healing, Jesus has compassion on him. (Mark 1:41)

 When two blind men sitting by the roadside learn that Jesus is passing, they beg for mercy and Jesus has compassion on them and restores their sight. (Matthew 20:34)

 Whenever he encounters hungry people in the wilderness he has compassion on them. (Matthew 14:14, 15:32 and parallels)

 When Jesus travels to the town of Nain, he meets a woman who is filled with grief. Not only is she a widow, but now she is burying her only son. And when Jesus sees her, he has compassion on her and tells her not to weep. Then he touches the son, raising him to new life. (Luke 7:11-15)

 When a father with an epileptic son sees Jesus coming, he pleads with Jesus to have compassion on the boy and of course Jesus does. (Mark 9:22)

 Even the two parables for which Jesus is best known—the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son use the word. According to Jesus, when the Good Samaritan saw the man in the ditch, he had compassion for him, bandaged his wounds and took him to the inn to care for him. (Luke 10:33)

 And in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when the father saw his wayward son returning home, he had compassion for him. (Luke 15:20)

Can you understand the implications of this? Whether you are a social outcast like a lepers were, whether you are blind and need to see the world in a new way, or whether you are hungry or grieving or ill, Jesus has compassion for you. He cares from the depth of his gut and wants nothing more than to make you whole. And because he shows compassion, he invites us as his followers to show compassion as well, wherever we encounter people in need. As he reminds us with the closing words of the parable of the Good Samaritan, "Go and do likewise." (Lk 10:37)

The third word I want to suggest is the word salvation. It's what Jesus came to earth to offer to us. Do you remember what the Advent angel said to Joseph in a dream? "[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). In fact, the name Jesus comes from the Hebrew name Joshua and literally means, "God saves." Of course, most of us think that salvation is what happens after we die. While that's true, it's not the whole truth. Salvation is not just about the great hereafter, it's also about the here and now. According to Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, Jesus' most basic intention is not to save us from life, to whisk us away to some otherworldly paradise. Rather, it is to save us for life, abundant life, as we try to live it right here, right now, in this world day by day.4 Maybe that's why Jesus, wherever he went, was offering people the gift of salvation, which literally means health, healing, wholeness.

 To the woman with the flow of blood who came up and touched the hem of his robe, Jesus said, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; (your faith has saved you) go in peace, and be healed of your disease." (Mark 5:34)

 And do you remember Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector who promised to pay back anyone he had defrauded? Jesus said to him, "Today, salvation has come to your house." (Luke 19:9) Not some future day, you notice, but today, this very day.

 When a woman overcome by sin and guilt came into the house and bathed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, Jesus said to her, "Woman, your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:50)

 When that one Samaritan leper, healed of his disease, returned to Jesus, fell at his feet and said, "Thank you!" Jesus said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well" (your faith has saved you). (Luke 17:19)

Time and again, you see, Jesus offered to people the gift of salvation, which literally means health, healing and wholeness, and by doing so he gave them the chance to turn over a new leaf, to start over again, to begin to live the abundant life he so graciously offers.

There's one more word I want to suggest this morning. It's a word that summarizes all I've been trying to say. It's the word gospel or good news. As the gospel of Mark puts it in its opening verse, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1:1). And what is this good news? It is…

 that Jesus came to earth to reveal to us the mysterious nature of the unseen God,

 that he cares for us intensely with gut-wrenching compassion,

 and that he offers to us the gift of salvation, which literally means health, healing and wholeness, and not just for some future life, but for this life, today, tomorrow and all the days that follow.

This is the gospel. This is the good news. And this, at least in part, is what the Greek New Testament would have us know.

Albert G. Butzer, III

Providence Presbyterian Church

Fairfax, Virginia

Notes

1. James S. Stewart, "The Rending of the Veil," preached at Union Theological Seminary, New York City (April 11, 1952), part of audio-tape series 52 great sermons from 250 years of American Protestant preaching, 1740-1990 (Richmond, VA: Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1990).

2. Ibid.

3. Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 102.

4. Douglas John Hall, Why Christian?: For Those on the Edge of Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), pp. 41-42.

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