The Mystery of the Word

While we are locked down for pandemic safety, Knox has Podcast Services. For those who can’t access these we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my sermon notes into text.

The Mystery of the Word

Scripture: John 1:1-18

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν,

καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

That phrase sticks in my memory: John’s gospel was the book we used in my New Testament Greek class to practice translation and that was the first verse we learned. Our professor explained that many used Mark’s gospel to practice but he felt that since Mark’s Greek was poor quality, he would start us with John.

What this also meant was that he was throwing us in at the deep end when it came to struggling with early Christian theology about some of the foundational principles of our faith.

Today’s lesson is included as a Christmas reading, not because it tells us anything about Jesus being born, but because it gives us a theological framework to understand who Jesus was and why he came.

John’s gospel represents a branch of Christianity that sees Jesus as much more than a human, more than a prophet, more than a visionary and healer, but as someone so closely connected to God and God’s work that the gospel writer basically calls him a part of God.

In this opening section of John’s gospel we have a lot of powerful material that sets out a profound understanding. But to understand that we also have to examine the kind of thinking that was going on in those days.

Jesus was Jewish. Matthew’s gospel reflects this aspect of his life best. Luke was a Gentile gospel writer but he tried to make his readers understand the Jewish context of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In John we find a re-statement of Jesus’ life and work in very Greek terms, for a Greek audience, and in terms that would challenge some popular teachings that were influencing Christianity and other faiths as well.

The Gnostic way of thinking was quite strong in those days. They had decided that the Spiritual realm was pure and good and that the Material realm was inherently bad: sinful and fallen. They encouraged people to seek a higher spiritual life and turn away from the material world.

We still live with some of that understanding today: just ask the Material Girl, living in the Material World. We associate materialism with spiritual shallowness.

Two thousand years ago the split was extreme: many had decided that physical existence itself was sinful, which meant that whoever had created the world had done a great evil deed. They denounced the God we read about in the Hebrew scriptures as an evil being they called the Demiurge.

I have met many people in the United Church who have said that they would like to throw out the Hebrew scriptures because their vision of God looks so harsh. Clearly that Gnostic influence hasn’t disappeared.

The Gnostics saw in Jesus the intervention of God; the true, pure, spiritual God sending Jesus in to save the miserable prisoners of this material plane.

They also believed that Jesus was pure spirit. He had to be, to remain untainted by the sin of material existence, which sounds very reminiscent of the theology of original sin, the idea that we are born sinful. So, any physical appearance Jesus had, the Gnostics believed was illusion. They even had a story about someone, possibly Simon of Cyrene, dying on the cross in Jesus’ place.

John fights this dichotomy right from the beginning of his gospel. He uses the same language as the Gnostics: the logos, the word, is what they called Jesus. And John agrees with that, but then he subverts it by declaring that this Word was the Word of Creation: “Let there be light” and that the creation of the material world was a good thing.

John’s gospel is written as a spiritual document that tries to address the spiritual concerns of his age. Some of those have come down to us over the millennia, but a great many of the concerns of those ancient Greeks have become irrelevant to us in the 21st century.

What would it be like if we were to try do to the same job John did, but today, addressing 21st century concerns?

Today there is less question about whether creation is inherently evil. Most people believe that the world is a good place, at least in its natural form, and that we have to try to save it from the ravages of materialistic greed that have produced rampaging climate change.

Sadly, some of the people who consider the world to be a disposable commodity call themselves Christian, and consider the end of the world to be part of God’s plan. They say that we have a moral duty to extract and consume all the resources God gave us, before Jesus returns.

So a new gospel would have to address that particular blasphemy. We would also have to re-cast the image of creation in terms that dealt with modern scientific ideas about the formation of the universe. The Bible’s creation stories come from a time when everyone knew the earth was a bubble in a vast sea, with land underfoot below a firmament like an inverted bowl, which kept the waters above and below us from crushing us. That image just made sense in those days.

Now we have a new picture: more complex, better informed by physical observations. And again, very loud self-proclaimed Christians

take issue with the new understanding and proclaim a seven-day creation as literal truth. Our new gospel would have to address this conflict too.

At the core of our new gospel would be the question of the nature of Jesus: What does he mean for us today? What role do we understand for Jesus in the 21st century world?

I would hope it would reject the dichotomy of spiritual vs. material,

and say that Jesus demonstrated a healthy balance of both, as an example of what we could do in our lives. John saw in Jesus a connection to the divine that was available to anyone and everyone. I would hope for no less.

I would hope that Jesus’ teachings would be at the core: the words that reveal to us spiritual truths that can make a material difference in everyone’s lives.

We could start with the Beatitudes. If we had taken those power-inverting words seriously, we wouldn’t have to try to reconcile now with our indigenous neighbours. We would have recognized in their teachings something to inspire a new conversation instead of something to be suppressed.

John’s gospel represents the Jewish identity of early Christianity coming to terms with a different and challenging world view: the world of the Greeks. We could have tried to do the same thing with every new culture we met but instead we insisted on the triumph of orthodoxy – not even original orthodoxy, but whatever was the flavour of the empire of the day.

So now we have to try for healing; for a new conversation to see what we missed when we came to this land we stand on. And at the same time, for our own benefit we have to have a conversation with this new culture that is, in fact, our own culture as it has changed over the past sixty years.

These dialogues will not be simple; they will require us to take seriously the question of what is central to our faith, of what really matters, and what is simply baggage from past assumptions.

But this is a New Year, with a chance for new ideas and new perspectives, and since we are stuck inside again for a while, we have the chance for some deep pondering.

So let’s ask ourselves: if we had to write a new gospel for the 21st century, what should it say?


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