John 1: 1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
If you were told today that tomorrow there would be no Bibles left in the world, what scripture would you want to memorize? Is it John 3:16, short and sweet but clear in what it tells us about Christ? Or perhaps Matthew 25, less salvific, but more definite in explaining what is expected of us as Christians. There are plenty of good Psalms, maybe even the ten commandments, but how can we ever choose what we would want to save if all of scripture were to disappear tomorrow?
That question is probably more daunting than any of us are prepared to face. However, if we think of it from the opposite direction, we can see what life was like in the early Church. Jesus was born between six and four BCE, his ministry spanned from somewhere between twenty-seven and thirty-three CE. The letters of Paul were written not long after this, but the earliest Gospel would not be written until the year sixty-five or seventy – thirty years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. While some pre-Gospel texts probably existed, the bulk of correspondence among Christians would be word of mouth, small snippets memorized and recited or sung together.
The opening of John is one of these early fragments that was likely passed among the early Church. The community which gives us John, the Johannine epistles, and Revelation is markedly different from the other New Testament communities. They were mystical Christians, focusing as much on God’s mission on this earth as they did God’s divinity in Heaven. It is this community that gives us the first concrete understandings of the Trinity which is only hinted at in other Gospels and Epistles. Likewise, John is the one to wrestle with Christ’s dual nature – human and God all at once. This deeply reflective tradition is reflected in this hymn which we read a moment ago.
The opening question I gave you, which scripture you would choose to memorize if you had no Bible, is important to consider when you see something like today’s scripture. As long as this passage may seem to us to read all at once, it would not take much to memorize. From learning it, a person would be able to quickly state some of the essential points of the Christian faith. The eternal Word of God, who is God, came to be with humanity, taking on flesh and bringing light into the dark world. Though this arrival was heralded by a prophet, this God was rejected by the people he had created, cast away. Yet, those who did accept this God were given a new life, one that made them part of the household of God.
That’s not bad for a page or so of memorization. You may not be able to write a systematic theology with it, but it will get the Gospel out and ultimately that is better than any ten-cent word we might chase after otherwise. John gives us, as an introduction to his Gospel, a summary statement of what we can expect to find within it. More than that, his audience probably knew the hymn even if they had not heard any other part of this gospel. By opening his telling of Jesus’s life in this way, those who heard it would be more familiar with what followed. Think of how much better engaged we all have been since the worship team has steered me away from unknown opening hymns – when we come into worship with something familiar, we are better prepared to see the details within.
The key focus of this passage is that God became human. Throughout all the Johannine writings there is a constant return to the reality of Jesus’s humanity. While we today tend to accept Jesus as fully God and fully human, that was not always the case. Some people denied Jesus’s divinity, saying that he was God’s best creation, but not God in himself. Others denied Jesus’s humanity, the most extreme among them, the Docetists, insisting Jesus was a Spiritual presence rather than a physical one. A Holy Ghost pretending to be a human.
John may have been primarily concerned with letting people know that God really had become human in the person of Jesus, but he was equally concerned in letting people know that Jesus was not a distinct being from God. The riddle that opens the Gospel is something which carries the weight of all our faith. In the beginning, before anything had been created, there was the Word. The Word was with God, standing face to face with God. And that Word was, somehow simultaneously distinct and united, also the same God. The Greek of this passage is one of the first things which is used to teach new Biblical Language students how to differentiate parts of Grammar, and it is a handy verse to memorize for parties. (Ἐν αρχη ἠν ὁ Λογος και ὁ Λογος ἠν προς τον Θεον και Θεος ἠν ὁ Λογος. “In arche ain ha Logos kai ha Logos ain pros ton Theon kai ha Theos ain ha Logos”)
To identify the Word as being God would mean nothing without the further development of the chapter, namely that that word dwelled among us, taking on full humanity. This God was not someone who just stood on high and cast a judgmental eye of the fallen world, but was willing to be rejected if it meant giving us another chance. Even though the incarnate Word had made all things, nothing accepted their participation in the world. Even the disciples, close as they were to God’s presence on earth, ran away when the going got rough – all but a single, devoted follower.
In the close of this opening hymn, we are given the final bit of information we need to understand what this Gospel is all about. This incarnate Word had a name, had a personality, had a person that could be met and talked to – Jesus Christ, the only Son, who has made God known to the world. As abstract as John sometimes can be, and as philosophical as this opening passage may seem, it all ties into a single earthly reality – Jesus walked this earth and Jesus was the image of the invisible God made manifest in our lives.
For the early Church, recitation of this hymn allowed them to keep the essentials close at hand. It isn’t very different from humming your favorite hymn or sing it when you want to engage with the truth of God directly. The prayer which I most frequently pray, and which I have brought up a few times since coming here is another example of this kind of rehearsing God’s truth. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” As short a prayer as that is, it hits the same points that John 1 does. Jesus is the Christ, the Lord of all. Jesus is the son of God, divine from before creation. Jesus is a savior, and I am in need of salvation.
The simplicity of our salvation is that there is no need for long complex explanations. They can come in handy, and when we get down into the particulars of any given issue we are bound to have more and more to talk about. Yet, even for long winded people like myself, the more we stray from the essential claims of our faith the more we open ourselves up to blunder into something we do not intend. I love a complex theological conundrum, I love to wax poetic about incarnational theology, but at the end of all things my love of making things complicated cannot get in the way of the simple truths of God.
The opening of John is poetry, perhaps to help it be more easily remembered, perhaps to simply attest to the beauty of God’s entrance into human life. The metaphorical and artistic aspects of this story are often treated as obfuscating of some of the plain truths of Jesus’s presence on earth, but I think the opposite is true. Art is how we engage with the plainest parts of our life. If you think to any part of your life, one of the key things that you’re going to think of alongside anything that happened is the songs you listened to while it happened. The movies we love, the paintings that speak to us, we engage with the world around us through art. How fitting then that John’s summary of the Gospel is a song sung for thousands of years.
As we continue on in the Christmas season, twelve days which spans two Sundays this year, we remember the fullness of God which chose to dwelt among us. The simple truth of our faith, expressed in just about a page, is that we do not worship someone who is far off and away from us, but up close and personal. Jesus could have stayed up in Heaven, or maybe even have come to earth as a king living among nobility. Instead, Jesus chose a normal life, more than that a hard life among the poor and downtrodden. God became human, and God became a poor human at that.
We carry with us the simple truth of Jesus’s presence on the earth. We do not need long complicated formulations to understand what it means for God to have come to us, we only need to acknowledge that God made that trip down to us. Why would God do this? To bring us closer to the divine presence we long ago threw away. We were no one’s family, but now God has made us part of God’s own family. That transformation, that unity which we are all invited to, that is the essence of our faith. When we acknowledge that God is with us, that God is here to save us, then the rest finds its way bit by bit.
This does not mean we cannot be intellectual, or that we cannot study hard both the scriptures and the world around us. It simply means that we do not need to complicate the world as we do so. We are not saved by the mental tap dances we put together, but simply by faith in Christ. As we enter a New Year, let us commit ourselves to love and service, to study of scripture and prayer in the Spirit. Let us proclaim the Gospel, accepting that we are not only qualified for the job, but perfect for the job. The truth is simple, God is here to save us, let us all tell that story simply, well, and often. – Amen.