Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 2nd January 2011, Second Sunday after Christmas
It is perhaps fitting to start the year with one of the most profound and baffling Biblical passages in the New Testament, especially when it starts with the words: “In the beginning”. It is also one of my all time favorites. If there was a holy of holies of Biblical texts, this would be it. I also love preaching about the Word made flesh, because I am passionate about bridging the gap between the spiritual world and the material world, and exposing this dualism farce that almost derailed Christianity in the last two centuries. It’s perhaps more of an obsession now, than a passion.
But this challenge of Christianity is nothing new, of course. The reason I thought last week’s passage was so important in reminding us that Jesus was Jewish, is that we often tend to look at Christianity through Greco-Roman lens, rather than through Jewish lens. This was a major problem in the first few centuries of the Early Church.
I was watching a documentary the other day about the forbidden texts which were kept out of the Biblical canon. What struck me in that documentary was that it showed how Christianity in the first few centuries was very far from being a monochrome movement in which everyone agreed about everything. The theological diversity among Christians was astounding. There was never one direction, one way of understanding faith, one vision of Jesus and his significance for life.
Disagreements among Christians were just as sharp then as they are today, and in some points, they were even sharper. We should not think that today’s diversity of opinion regarding Christianity, and the resulting diversity of denominations is somehow a new development, or even worse, a sign of its demise. Christianity has always been diverse.
One of the major disagreements in the first few centuries was around the two natures of Jesus. Was Jesus human, or was he divine? Was he a mere human being, or was he God? There were diverse groups of Christians who were polarized around this dispute.
Now you could stop me at this point and ask me what the big deal is? Why does this dispute matter today and why should we be concerned with it? After all, is this not just intellectual speculation that has little to do with real life? It is baffling for us today to learn that people used to fight to the death over these issues.
For many people it does actually matter if they are asked to follow someone who was a mere human being, even if he was a very special human being, or if they are asked to follow someone who was the Son of God. For today’s intellectually minded person, for whom reason is paramount, these could prove to be issues that determine the choice to either be a part of the church or to leave it all behind.
For this reason I think it is important that we realize that these are not new questions. From its very beginning the church wrestled with them and came up with a variety of answers.
From the very first century, there were groups who claimed that Jesus was a human being, but that he was not divine, because that would go against the Jewish belief that there was only one God. On the other end, rival groups claimed that Jesus was not actually human, but divine. There were also many groups anywhere in between these two extremes.
But for the writer of our Gospel passage, Jesus was both human AND divine. That was a radical idea then, and it is a radical idea now.
For many people it is very difficult to wrap their minds around the thought that Jesus could be both human and divine at the same time. It is difficult to imagine how this can actually work, since we tend to see the two concepts as radically opposed to each other.
This is mostly true because we are heavily influenced by a certain way of thinking about reality which separated the spiritual from the material world. On the whole, the Western mind was shaped by neo-Platonic thinking, in which the spiritual world, the world of ideas is superior, while the material world is inferior. This developed into a split thinking in which everything spiritual was good, superior, eternal, while everything material was bad, inferior, and temporal.
If we look at the dispute between the two natures of Jesus from this perspective, it is not difficult to see how the two simply cannot coexist. But this, at least for me, is only a problem if we accept this dualistic thinking.
Again, this is why it is so important to look at Jesus from a Jewish perspective, because this split did not exist in the Jewish mind. Many Jews, of course, such as Philo of Alexandria for instance, were influenced by Greek philosophy, but traditional Judaism did not know this way of separating reality between the spiritual and the material.
In the Jewish mind, for instance, there was no distinction between a spiritual blessing and a material blessing. A blessing was a blessing. Period. This may be difficult for us to even imagine today, because we’ve been so radically influenced by this divide. We have to seriously exercise our imaginations in order to escape this ideological strait-jacket.
Perhaps the best way of attempting to escape this prison is to look at it from a poet’s point of view. For that we need to use our imagination. What if this material world we live in, with all the sounds, smells and textures is not in fact inferior or bad – something to escape from – but rather it is an expression of the very nature of God – a necessary, or rather inevitable expression of his nature? John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. This term used by John here is ‘logos’ in Greek. It is a term very rich in meaning. It should never be reduced to the written Word, namely the Bible. There’s no indication in the context that it refers to the Bible at all.
In the literature of the time the word ‘logos’ referred mostly to the creative energy of God. Others interpreted it as the unspoken thoughts of God, as well as the thoughts of God expressed into action. Jesus is seen by John as the revelation of the creative mind of God into human flesh. Like I said in the beginning of this sermon, this is the territory of theological holy of holies. For John, God, by his very creative nature, is revealed and encountered in the human Jesus.
As I was saying in a sermon on the same passage last year, God could have revealed himself by speaking holy words from heaven. Instead, the creative power of God “became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us”. For John this is not philosophical speculation, but rather a mystical vision in which he uses words that are limited to express a reality which exceeds the capacity of words to express.
This idea of the creative energy of God which is expressed through the logos makes me think of a powerful image of God as an Artist. But not just any artist, who creates things and then releases them, separating himself from them. Rather God invests his very existence into his creation, he identifies with it so much that this energy takes the very form of that creation.
Another image of God as an artist is the Potter. That’s a nice image too, but from my point of view it is an inferior view of God. Many have used this image to say that since God is the Potter, he has the right to smash up the pots. In Jesus we have the opposite image of God.
The image that John presents of God is not that of a Potter who can choose to smash up his creation, but rather one who in a sense becomes one with his creation. If we imagine humanity as God’s creation, in Jesus we have the ultimate model of humanity. But instead of God creating the ideal masterpiece from afar, he embodies humanity, with all its limitations, even with the risk of his creation rejecting this offer of self-giving.
It is said that a great artist not only creates beautiful things by using her skill, but becomes so closely identified with her creation that onlookers can clearly identify the artist by just looking at her creation.
It is the same with God, only God takes this merging between artist and creation to the ultimate level. That makes God the ultimate artist. In the person of Jesus the world of God and the world of humanity become mystically intertwined. This is a good way, I think, of understanding the poetic theology of John.
This perspective reveals to us a God who is closer to us than we can ever imagine. From this perspective we simply cannot separate the spiritual world from the material world. The Bible gives us a vision of Christ’s return when God will finally make a home with humanity, and be recognized by all as the giver and sustainer of life. We don’t know what that means with any degree of certainty, but in Jesus we have a vision which helps us to at least begin to imagine what is ahead for us.