December 26, 2016
The Word was God
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. 6There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ” 16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. John 1:1-18 NIV1
This morning John invites us to walk into the unknown. Unlike the other gospel accounts, John begins his testimony by introducing us to extraordinary and wondrous ideas about the divine nature of Jesus Christ. The writers of John demand that we view our relationship with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit literally and figuratively in a new light. In John 1:9-12:9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
1 (Bruce M. Metzer and Roland E. Murphy, Eds. 1991, 125, NT)
It has been well said that the Gospel of John is shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in. If this is so, John’s authors begin their witness by throwing readers into the proverbial deep end of the pool. Welcome to the Prologue and the Johannine vision of Jesus.
In John: The Maverick Gospel, Robert Kysar points to the Prologue as the foundation for logos Christology, calling the first eighteen verses in chapter one “the most significant of the entire New Testament.”2 This is a bold proclamation. However, Kysar warns that these lyrical verses inspire and confound, with symbolism, metaphors, and layers of meaning beyond the understanding of casual readers. Like other Johannine scholars, Kysar also cautions that readers should attend to the text carefully, as composition, structure, language, and voice impact the interpretation. John’s Gospel is a rich literary composition, but you will have to work to get the full impact of their story.
Why was the Prologue written? What purpose does it serve? Kysar believes, “the Word of God seems to have functioned as the bridge between the transcendent God of Hebraic thought and the human world.”3 Simply put, the Prologue is the bridge that links our earthly existence to God, through the divine incarnation of his son Jesus. All of us can quote from memory, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”4 When we speak these words, we are making theological claims that shape our understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
In his book A Love Supreme author Allen Dwight Callahan proposes the idea that the Book of John was not authored by a single man but is the collaboration of several writers, “the New Testament Epistles 1, 2, and 3 John and the Gospel of John are the literary footprints that mark the path of an ancient community. Across time and space, the writers of that community share vocabulary, stylistic features, and the preoccupation with a notion of love that they called agape—or the greatest of all loves.”5 Callahan calls these Johannine writers a beloved community.
Traditional scholars argue that John the Elder wrote the Book of John, the Epistles and Revelations. Others claim the book was written by the Apostle John. Historical and literary criticism suggest otherwise, pointing to multiple authors. Prior to his death,
Johannine scholar, Raymond E. Brown concluded that there were three primary stages of authorship in the Gospel of John. In stage one, the eye-witness stage, “the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ (was) witnessed by a disciple.” Shifts in time and voice mark the second stage, as “the Beloved Discipline,” not one of the twelve Disciples, contributed to a “structured literary creation probably written after several decades of the oral tradition of storytelling.”6 Finally, in the third stage, a person known as the Evangelist and another person called the Redactor, shaped the Gospel into the text we experience today. Both latter contributors used considerable literary skill to creatively produce a “coherent theologically-motivated story, containing signs, miracles, discourses, and narratives.” 7 In Brown’s view, the Redactor was responsible for adding the Prologue. If we accept Brown’s conclusion then the Prologue was written long after the body of the Gospel was completed.
If we are to truly understand the Prologue we should appreciate and acknowledge the impact of Hellenism philosophy, especially Stoicism, on the Gospel. Other influences, to varying degrees, can also be discerned from Gnosticism, Judaism, and the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. All of these influences combined to shape John’s remarkable view of God’s power and presence in the world. They also lead to complexity. There are numerous redactions and endless interpretations to judge. We could spend months dissecting layers of meaning, but to what end? Though all these issues are important and relevant on differing levels, they obscure our ability to hear our stillspeaking God.
So what did John and his followers want us to know? Why did they write this hymn of praise that later became known as the Prologue? What story about the existence of Jesus Christ did they want to share with the world? As you read the Gospel of John, even just the first few verses, you notice that John is different. Unlike Matthew and Luke, John does not begin with the birth of Jesus. It would seem that the authors of John weren’t overly concerned with the Davidic line of succession or Jesus’ fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Nor is John’s Gospel concerned with the Immaculate Conception. In fact, John doesn’t seem interested in Jesus’ early life at all.
Instead, our unknown writers have a broader vision to reveal. Their truth about Jesus Christ begins long before the Star of Bethlehem, the journey of the Magi, or the birth of the Messiah in a manger. The truth that John and the Beloved Community of followers longed to share with us is as old as time itself.
From the first word, John forces us to think about the purpose and ministry of Christ in ways that Matthew, Mark and Luke do not address as completely. According to Gail O’Day, “In order to understand John’s approach to the story of Jesus, the reader must recognize the centrality of the incarnation of the Gospel.” The Gospel of John begins with his declaration that “Jesus is the incarnate Word of God.” O’Day offers that “No other New Testament witness places the incarnation at the center of its theological world in quite the same way John does. For John, Jesus provides unique and unprecedented access to God because Jesus shares in God’s character and identity and it is the Word made flesh that Jesus brings God fully into the world.”
Christ is a paradox. As D. Moody Smith comments, “Jesus is on one hand the son of Joseph of Nazareth, a town noted for nothing and no one, but he is also on the other, the logos, the Son of God.”9 It is through John that we come to see that “the same Word that was with God in the beginning “became flesh and lived among us.”10 Therefore, Jesus Christ is fully and completely God, but also completely human. God chose a course of action unlike any other recorded in the Bible. The incarnation of Jesus Christ in human form meant that God voluntarily allowed his incalculable, essence to be limited by time, space, and even gender.
The incarnation is not only about self-limitation: it is also about disclosure. It is a revelation. Unquestionably, Jesus’ birth is a profound act of love—a living offering to us from our Creator. I believe that despite repeated interactions and interventions into human affairs, followers of Yahweh continue to lose their way. Rather than relying on prophets, oracles, kings, or natural phenomenon to carry his message of love and grace to the world, God offers himself in the form of a vulnerable baby. In doing this, the Word became flesh and the glory of God is made known. Yahweh is no longer a distant, aloof god. He is no longer a philosophical idea or a mental construct. Our God now walks with us.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters proclaim, “The Word reveals the Mystery of the Triune God. Eternally spoken by God the Father through the love of the Holy Spirit, the Word carries on a dialogue which expresses communion and leads a person into the depths of the divine life of the Most Blessed Trinity.” That is a beautiful sentiment but today, the idea of the Trinity is out of favor. For a variety of reasons, like Advent, it is falling on hard times. Regardless of your position on the Trinity, in only a few verses John’s Prologue opens up new horizons to us, horizons that reshape everything we know and believe about Jesus Christ. He does this without ever using the word Trinity. Instead of rigid theology, the writers of John introduce us to a God of infinite possibility—a God of endless creativity.
Thinking about the incarnation of God is like gazing into a bottomless pool of water. Rather than getting lost in the theological depths, or sidetracked by the controversies that the text presents, I would like for us to consider the love and grace that John and his beloved community fought so hard to share with us. They saw Jesus Christ in a way unlike all other believers.
Their hymn, the Prologue, is a gateway—it is an opportunity to broaden our vision of Jesus Christ. It is an invitation to step into the unknown, into an ever expanding view of God’s presence in the world. It is an invitation to live and worship in the mystery of God.
The question before us is not whether we can envision a larger and more powerful God. We can. There is no one in this sanctuary that has not witnessed the extraordinary power of God in their life. The question for us is what do we do with this power? What are we to do with the power of God that flows in and through us? When people meet us will they be able to see immediately the power of the Holy Spirit in us? Will we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in all that you do? These are difficult questions.
John opens the door, but it is our job to walk across the threshold. I hope that we will walk this part of the journey together, as we envision and re-imagine our living God. I have been deeply touched by the faith of this congregation. I have been awed by your strength and your resiliency. I have been moved by your love and compassion for each other and the community. In many ways I think of this congregation as a beloved community. You have persevered where others would have failed. Clearly, God is among us here in this place.
But God calls us to do more than to minister to each other. How will we share the presence and power of Jesus Christ outside of these church walls? What will be our testimony? What truth do we know about God that must be shared with the rest of the world? If we were to sit down and write our Prologue about God, what words would we use? What truths would be revealed? Will the light of God that shines within us be strong enough to light the way for others as they search to find their way out of the darkness? I pray that it is so.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen