First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C
John 1:1-18 - link to NRSV text
If you haven't seen it already, I encourage you to check out my reflection for Christmas Day this year, which deals with John 1:1-14 as well as the two passages in Luke for earlier Christmas services.
That earlier entry was in part on the theme that the Incarnation is NOT how a distant god became close to humanity. The prologue to John's gospel, which we read again this Sunday, makes that much clear in saying that the logos or "Word" Jesus incarnated was with God in the beginning and that all things were made through the logos. Indeed, Hebrew scripture -- like the Christian "New Testament" -- has plentiful representations of God as present among and intimate with God's people. Psalm 139 is just one example among a great many.
This week, I want to talk about another misconception I've heard in many a sermon, and that the prologue to John's gospel ought to put to rest. The misconception goes something like this:
God is righteous. Righteousness means not only avoiding all wrongdoing, but avoiding all wrongdoers. Therefore, God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice. The Incarnation solves this problem as God the Son, who wants to have compassion for humanity but knows that only the shedding of human blood will satisfy the Father, becomes human to suffer and die for humanity's sins, after which God can stand to be around humans who accept this blood sacrifice on their behalf.
The above is a particularly crude version of what some call "substitutionary atonement." There are versions out there that are not so crude, and at the very least, any view that Jesus' blood was shed as a full and perfect sacrifice for sin ought to have at least one implication that would be very helpful were we to live into it: namely, that human beings cannot demand blood or even suffering from another as punishment for wrongdoing, since Jesus paid the full price for all human sin, and further suffering from others is neither necessary nor efficacious. Can you imagine a world in which everyone who claimed to be a Christian refused absolutely to participate in any kind of vengeance, punishment, or shedding of human blood? That would be a radical shift.
But our gospel passage for this Sunday asks us to contemplate something far more radical:
"No one has ever seen God. It is God the Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."
In other words, as my dissertation supervisor puts it, God is like Jesus.
That might not sound so radical at first. In many circles in the U.S., we're accustomed to or even fairly jaded with respect to theological language about Jesus. But what I've observed over the years is that our thinking about the Incarnation and what it means tends to run in the opposite direction from what John 1:18 suggests. We start with our ideas about what God is like (those far too often being simply our cultural values writ large), and then assume or project into the New Testament that Jesus is like that.
We believe that family (defined in our usual cultural manner of those closely related to us by blood or marriage) should be a person's chief priority (other than God, perhaps), so we believe that God commanded as much, and therefore Jesus did too. We scratch our heads a little if we come across most of what Jesus said about family in the biological or legal sense, but figure the text couldn't possibly mean what it says and quickly move on.
We inherit a "Protestant work ethic" from our culture; we project that onto God; and then we find ourselves saying things like, "well, didn't Jesus say, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves'?" (That was Ben Franklin, by the way.)
We embrace a kind of individualistic faith that says that God is concerned primarily with the state of our hearts rather than what we do with our money and power, and then invent all kinds of interpretive contortions with texts about the "rich" and the "poor" in the New Testament so we don't have to think that Jesus has any problem with the poor remaining poor and the rich remaining rich.
In a particularly subtle way that's therefore particularly difficult to become aware of, we believe that God is basically a nice guy who made a nice world and then got out of the way, sending Jesus as one of many occasional reminders to humanity that we should also be nice and not do anything really bad to one another -- in other words, that following Jesus will not require anything more than church attendance from someone who's basically a good and respectable guy or gal.
Or we start with a firm idea of what God likes and doesn't like (usually pretty similar to what we like and don't like), and that God wants and needs to punish those who do the latter, and then we assume that Jesus is like that too. But what does John's prologue do to this way of doing theology?
If Jesus is God the Son, close to the Father's heart, who has made our Creator known to us, then we don't start with ideas about what God is doing in the world and project them onto Jesus; we start with what Jesus does in the world and know that this is what God is doing.
That's yet another reason that we can't chart the significance of the Incarnation without talking about what happened between the lines of the creeds -- after "he was made man" and before "he died and was buried." If it is Jesus, the Word made flesh, who makes God our Creator known, then we know what God is like by looking at what Jesus in his life "in the flesh" was like.
Jesus taught and healed. He confronted the powers and the power dynamics that kept some people shut out of the villages as feared demoniacs. When people were hungry, he fed them. Indeed, he broke bread with them, without checking first, second, or later about whether they were the "right sort of person." He broke bread with the person he knew was betraying him to suffering and death. He spoke words of invitation and forgiveness even from the cross on which he died. Those last invitations -- to the thief on the cross in Luke's gospel, for example -- came without precondition; there was no "as long as you don't mess up again," or "as long as you're sincerely sorry for what you've done," or "assuming you don't have any major nasties in your history that I don't know about." He also challenged people -- not just the "sinners," but the respectable people -- to grow into the fullness of discipleship, receiving and caring for all who came to Jesus' table as their own flesh and blood.
Had he just behaved that way, he wouldn't have been particularly threatening to anyone. Some people are completely indiscriminate about the company they keep. Some people treat their enemies in pretty much the same way they treat their friends and family. They won't be elected president any time soon; they're weirdos whose hanging out with those on the margins of society renders them marginal as well. Jesus would have been similarly unimportant if that's all he did.
But he did more. He said that God -- the Creator of the universe -- behaved toward humanity just as he did. He acted with God's power to bring those at the margins in to the center as empowered and beloved children of God. And so John's gospel very aptly says that his glory is "full of grace and truth" -- properties not at all in contradiction in Jesus' ministry, or in the kingdom of God.
All of those who take the Left Behind books as gospel and are therefore expecting Jesus, or the God whom Jesus proclaimed, to undergo some kind of eschatological personality shift to gleefully kick his enemies' butts are going to be disappointed if John is right. Those who worship a god who poses no threat to the empires of this world will be surprised by the God revealed in the life of Jesus, who gathered people to live in a way that threatened Roman rule enough to get him executed for treason against the emperor.
But for those who are attracted to the ways in which Jesus challenges the rulers and embraces the marginalized -- those who glimpse abundant life in Jesus' way of life -- the news that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh who makes the Creator known is Good News indeed -- the best news there is.
Thanks be to God!
Dylan: I believe it was Tony Campolo from whom I first heard the words "God has created humanity in God's image, and we have decided to return the favor" or something similar. We always need a reality check that we haven't taken our eyes off the real Jesus in order to worship a Jesus that looks suspiciously like ourselves...
Posted by: Tom Sramek, Jr. | Dec 30, 2006 8:54:59 PM
I've rarely read a sermon that I agreed with more. Thanks!
However, I should add that I'm not sure we can read too much significance into the fact that Jesus did not say "as long as you don't mess up again," to the theif on the cross. After all what's he gonna do! :-)
Posted by: graham | Jan 5, 2007 8:41:02 PM
If memory serves me right C.S. Lewis is big on Atonement Theology. My dear Bishop, Robert Duncan is very big on your one description (God fundamentally can't stand humanity -- at least as long as humanity is sinful. Indeed, God wants and needs to punish wrongdoers with something worse than the death penalty: death plus eternal suffering. Only blood can satisfy God's sense of justice). Duncan and the many in this diocese truly believes God needed a blood sacrifice in order to again love His/Her wayward creation. The more I read and think about this God who loves us without reservation, loves unconditionally, I can no longer buy into atonement theology.
What's interesting about the opening of John's Gospel is that many believe it to be a tag on. There is no birth narrative so this is a quick lead in. I understand that the text is even (in it's orginal Greek) different (syntax, etc...).
That aside I often wonder if there is a more deeper meaning to the logos statement. Since Jesus speaks the Word could it be that the Word and Jesus existed interchangeably or distinctly??? I'm not sure I'm clear or that I'm even in the ball park.
The word was with God, then the word became man. That the word not necessarily Jesus the man existed in the beginning? It makes me think this Gospel is more Gnostic or metaphorical than the synoptics.
Posted by: BobinWashPa | Jan 5, 2007 9:31:14 PM