Re-starting at the beginning | 29 June 2014


Twelve Scriptures project

Text #2: John 1:1-5;14


When’s the last time you saw a word become flesh?  I’m not sure how I’d answer my own question, but I’m pretty sure I once saw a word become a house, although it was kind of by accident.

During my first year of seminary I took a course on preaching.  Part of the coursework involved a preaching lab in which we delivered sermons to classmates and the professor, receiving and giving constructive criticism.  This was all fairly new stuff for us, and so we proceeded to give what were hopefully the worst sermons of our lives.  I hereby nominate for official sainthood June Alliman Yoder, longtime preaching professor at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, for having to sit through several decades’ worth of Mennonite pastors in training, all the while keeping her groans to a minimum and her criticism constructive.

After one of my sermons, whose point I and everyone have long forgotten, I received the evaluation form back from June.  Along with some other technical comments, she noted that I had told a story about my experience with Habitat for Humanity while in Mennonite Voluntary Service in St. Louis.  Her brief side remark was something to the effect: “Maybe the seminary could build a Habitat house someday.”  Intrigued, I followed up with her about the idea, and, to make a long story short, after getting some likeminded people together, connecting with the local Habitat chapter, talking up the idea on campus, doing some fundraising, and lining up volunteers, the seminary community built a Habitat for Humanity house with a mother and her teenage son, about a year after that fateful and forgettable sermon was preached.  Whether it was the word from the sermon or the word from the evaluation form or any of the words and conversations that followed that was the impetus for it all isn’t important.  What is remarkable is that, despite ourselves, the Word became a house, and dwelled among us.

The Gospel of John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  It was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through it, and without it, not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in it was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Maybe this sounds slightly familiar:  In the beginning.  All things coming into being through the power of the Word.  The creation of life.  Light piercing through the darkness.

If you were here last week, or even if you weren’t here last week, you may quickly recognize the connections between John 1, and Genesis 1, the introduction to the good news of Jesus in the fourth gospel as a strong echo of the introduction to the creation of the cosmos.  In the beginning: God, Word, creation.

One of my favorite exercises with the youth during the catechism class happens when we look at Jesus in the gospels.  I ask them to put themselves in the place of the gospel writers, who have before them this eclectic collection of stories and memories and sayings, trying to draw a picture of who Jesus was and is, what his life meant and how it affects the reader.  Now, here’s the question.  Where do you start?  How do you introduce Jesus?  What do you say in chapter 1 that gets the whole story started, and sets it on the trajectory it needs to go?

The youth split up, each group taking some time to read through the first chapter of one of the gospels.  One of the things I ask them to notice is how far back their gospel writer traces the lineage of Jesus.  Where does he come from and who does he belong to?  We then come back together and talk about what we noticed about how each writer introduces Jesus, going in the order that scholars believe the gospels were written.  So we start with Mark, almost certainly the first gospel written, who traces the coming of Jesus back to the words of the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus emerges out of and belongs to the prophetic tradition.  Scholars aren’t sure whether Matthew or Luke was written next, so we go with Matthew because it makes the exercise turn out the way I want it to.  Matthew opens with a genealogy, tracing Jesus’ lineage all the way back past the prophets to Abraham, the first Jew.  Jesus emerges out of and belongs to all the Jewish people.  Luke also includes a genealogy, which traces Jesus’ lineage back past the prophets, past Abraham, all the way back to Adam.  In the biblical imagination, we all trace our lineage back to Adam, the first human, formed from the earth, and so, Jesus, Son on Man, the Human One, shares a kinship with all humanity.

And then there’s John, believed to be the final of these four gospels to be written, who begins by taking us back before the prophets, before Abraham, even before the first human drew a breath, before creation burst into being: In the beginning was the Word and all things came into being through it.    John peers deeply into the significance of what has transpired through Jesus and says “the whole universe is in there.”  And it’s not that creation gave birth to the Word.  It’s that the Word gave birth to creation.  John is giving a mighty boost to Communication and English majors who may sometimes feel inferior to physics majors.  The Word precedes existence itself.  As I once heard a preacher say: “It was before was was.”  You can’t go back further than that.

What an interesting progression from the first to the last of the four biblical gospels.  The more time the gospel writer had to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ life, the further back they trace it, the deeper the lineage goes.  Ponder Christ long enough, and you never know what you’ll find.

When you put this alongside the other gospels, it can feel like John is out on his own philosophical limb, but he is not pulling all of this Word talk out of thin air.  The air out of which he pulled it was actually rather thick.  The reference to the Genesis 1 creation story reminds us that Elohim created through the spoken word, and all of creation is the speech of God.  Or, as Mary Oliver has put it in one of her poems: “So every day, I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth of the ideas of God, one of which was you.”  The Hebrew word for “word,” dabar, means much more than just a singular piece of language.  Dabar can also be translated as “thing.”  For the Hebrews words have such substantiality, such weight, that the very word for word can also be a thing, an event, an objective reality.  Once it is uttered, it starts taking effect.  So when Jacob tricks his father Isaac into speaking the blessing of the firstborn over him rather than Esau, Isaac can’t take it back even though Esau begs him.  The word has been uttered and the blessing has been established with Jacob.  “I take that back,” would be a foreign idea.

Along with the rich Hebrew notion of the Word, the Greek philosophers had done their own thinking on what they called the logos.  Wes Howard-Brook notes that for Socrates, the logos was the rational element of human behavior.  For Aristotle, the logos was the source of human virtue.  For the Stoics, the logos was the ordered and goal-oriented aspect of the universe.  (Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God, p. 52).  The philosopher Heraclitus wrote that: “all things come to be in accordance with the logos.”  For the Greeks, the logos became that which makes the world intelligible.  The basis of thought itself out of which the world emerges.

John is writing in Greek, standing within the Roman Empire at the confluence of Hebrew and Greek thought, drawing from and speaking into both traditions.  In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.  The logos was God.  Oh yes he did just go there.  The Divine is not only that out of which the Word proceeds, but is also the Word itself.  Theologians have had good job security ever since, now having had centuries, and even millennia to ponder this.  And we’re not even to the punchline yet: And the logos became flesh, and dwelled among us.  Or, as the Message Bible so wonderfully puts it:  The word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

The Word became flesh.  It is somewhat ironic that the Bible is now often referred to as the Word of God.  In the Bible, the Word is portrayed as being much more expansive than just the written words of Scripture.  The Bible is a witness to the Word of God, but the full life of the Word of God can never be contained within a book.  The Word was looking for a body.  The Word found a body in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Word became flesh, moved into the neighborhood, and started messing with all that we thought we knew about how things are supposed to be ordered.

Let’s be honest and admit that John’s way of introducing Jesus is downright abstract and philosophical.  Mennonites have always emphasized the practical aspects of faith, the practicable parts of faith, which is to say that we put a strong emphasis on faith being the way we go about life.  “Faith is as faith does,” to misquote Forest Gump.   We don’t spend an excessive amount of time hammering out the philosophical underpinnings of our faith.  Yet we have chosen John 1 as one of our top twelve scriptures.  There is beauty in the philosophy, in the wondrous thoughts of the Greeks and the earthy stories of the Hebrews.  There is insight in getting all etymological.  The tradition encourages and gives generous space for all these things.  But here’s where it’s headed, and here’s where John takes us in John 1 and in the rest of his gospel:  All things come into being through the Word, and the Word became flesh.

Whenever Jesus encountered another human being who was willing to receive it, there was some kind of new creation.  Whenever Jesus arrived on the scene, whenever he spoke into someone’s life, whenever he touched another body, it was as if creation were happening all over again.  Something new – coming from God knows where – burst into life in the most unlikely of places, in the most unlikely of people:  The Samaritan woman at the well, the loaves and fishes that fed the crowd, the man who was born blind, Lazarus.  The Word comes near to us, clothes itself with skin, and lives among us.  Intention becomes enacted.  We see the Word, Divine intention, incarnated in the life of Jesus and, when we see Jesus, we see what God is like.

Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault has written this: “If you were to imagine the great world religions like the colors of a rainbow, each one witnessing in a particular way to some essential aspect of the divine fullness, Christianity would unquestionably hold down the corner on incarnation – by which I mean the vision of God in full solidarity with the created world, fully at home within the conditions of finitude, so that form itself poses no impediment to divinity.” (The Wisdom Jesus, pp. 93-94)

But since we’re being honest and admitting things, let’s take this one step further.  Let’s confess that flesh isn’t always all that glorious, and that finitude can be downright disappointing.  Let’s confess that the sight of Jesus on the cross is no less perplexing for us than it was for those first disciples, and that it represents the death of many of our expectations of what it means for God to come to us and save us.  Let’s acknowledge that our longing for the new creation is not yet fulfilled, and that the Word, the Word?, and flesh, flesh? can feel inadequate to address the horrors of violence and suffering.

Let’s confess that it can be more fun and easier thinking lofty theological thoughts than actually putting them into practice.

Let’s consider this simple yet radical possibility that Jesus left us with.  The Word is still becoming flesh.  And we who now have flesh, are being summoned by that very Word.  That Divine intention, the logos, is still looking for bodies.  The Word is still fully at home in the conditions of finitude.  Incarnation is not a one time act, but is what the Creator is always doing.

Let’s consider the possibility that Columbus Mennonite Church is a community through which the Word becomes flesh all the time.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.