John 1:1- 18
In the name of God, eternally reborn. Amen.
The presents have been opened, Santa and the reindeer are back at the North Pole, the snow arrived on schedule, but almost nothing else has been usual about this Christmas with Covid. Some are risking their lives to see those they love, one in four Americans is “food insecure,” Nashville is a war zone today; and there’s no room at the inn that is the ICU.
As millions who have lost their livelihood from the pandemic wait anxiously for help which Congress has approved, the president has gone silent, seemingly disregarding the desperate cries for immediate relief, and in terrifying symmetry, military killers are being pardoned while prisoners on Death Row are being executed.
I spent Christmas Eve zooming with my family which was surprisingly wonderful, eating dinner with them at my desk though miles away from their tables. Later I watched online church which was beautiful — visually and musically. It was touching to hear Jered’s words about the meaning of home, grounding to hear the ancient Scripture read again, and for me, emotional to see the inside of beloved St. John’s and feel the memories.
This year the elements of Christmas were transmitted electronically to our own homes, enabling Christmas to happen in an unprecedented way. Let’s take note of that miracle.
So on this Third Day of Christmas, let me tell you another story, a cosmic Christmas story, channeling Star Trek.
Once upon a time the starship Enterprise came to a planet which combined first-century Rome and modern America. One of the emissaries of Caesar presses the crew — Captain Kirk, McCoy and the pointy-eared Spock — into service as gladiators in the coliseum.
As the crowd roars and after the usual number of close calls, the officers of the Enterprise are saved (at the cost of his life) by a huge, gentle gladiator named Flavius who talked about universal brotherhood and seemed to worship the sun.
When they have ’beamed back’ to their starship, the men determine that Flavius does not worship the sun, but the Son. Spock muses, “Christ and Caesar—they have them here, even as earth did, and Christ is triumphing over Caesar, just as he did on earth. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to watch it again?”
The Gospel of John explodes onto the Christmas scene today, blasting past the domesticated sweetness of farm animals and curious shepherds that is presented in what are called the “synoptic” or similar Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. John accelerates beyond the confines of planet Earth into the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
If the synoptic Gospels are the equivalent of Dickens and Christmas carols, John is “Black Panther” and John Cage or Kendrick Lamar.
John is imagination, not explanation
John is poetry, not prose.
John is hard.
John is worth it.
I suggest to you that, among other things, today’s reading from John’s Gospel revolves around a single word, a word that has assumed new emphasis in America this year but is more ancient than Genesis. The word is inclusion. But we are more interested in the word’s opposite: the word “only,” as in “whites only, cardmembers only, couples only, men only, Catholics only, English speakers only.
Many of our troublesome religious questions revolve around the word “only”. These are questions we rarely ask out loud, although we think about them. Consider these three, and see if they line up with your own questions:
- Did God the Creator act only in first-century Palestine to reveal who he is?
- Is belief in Jesus the only way to heaven?
- Is being Christian only about believing in Jesus? Only about being a good person?
John can help us with all of these questions, about Creation. About Jesus. About identity.
But before we get to that, notice that John’s first three words are the same as the first three words of Genesis: “In the beginning….” In Genesis, God reveals who she is by speaking things into being, by creating the natural world — oceans and trees and dolphins and roses and lady bugs — and finally humans. Thomas Aquinas said that the first Bible is nature, and the second Bible is our Holy Scriptures.
John is gutsy, you have to say that! He writes a whole new story about beginnings. And in John’s beginning, God is revealed not through nature but through a presence, a “Word” that has been with God all along and that is inseparable from God himself. Of course, a word is tied to specific times and places and the same word means different things to different people. This is not at all a problem for John.
So now we approach the three questions about Creation, Jesus, and identity, and about the dangers of the word “only.”
First, is what we call “Christmas” a one-time thing? The only time God stepped into history and showed who she was?
Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John’s story is not set in the time of Herod in the little town of Bethlehem. It’s set in the cosmos, in space, where God has no beginning and no end.
We wonder, then, considering the billions of years before Jesus arrived, if God is some “johnny come lately” who did nothing substantial before Bethlehem? Or afterward? Theologian Richard Rohr writes, “Were the first millennia of human beings (Mayans or Celts or Aboriginals) just trial runs and throwaways for a very inefficient God? That cannot be! God did not just start talking and loving only 2,000 years ago. Infinite Love would never operate that way. The mystery of Christ proclaims that there is universal and equal access to God for all who have ever wanted love and union since the primal birth of humanity.” So Bethlehem was an important stop, but not the only one.
The second question: Is belief in Jesus the only way to heaven or salvation?
To “prove” that it is, many cite the words of Jesus in John 14:6: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Except this is also the same Gospel in which Jesus proclaims, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.” (12:44) Jesus points, not to himself, but to God.
Jesus is God’s Word as it landed in our own time and place. Jesus was a real person who grew up in Nazareth and was murdered outside of Jerusalem. “Christ” is not the last name of Jesus but a term that is bigger than Jesus. The Christ did appear in Jesus, where Rohr writes, “This eternal presence took on form in someone we could “hear, see, and touch” (1 John 1:1), “making God easier to love.”
A sidebar here: I looked up the Word “Christ” in Webster’s dictionary. The first definition was: “Jesus, messiah, anointed one”. But the second definition astounded me: “Christ: an oath used to express irritation, dismay, or surprise. ‘Oh Christ,’ he moaned under his breath.’” I think we used to call that “taking the name of God in vain” but now it’s business as usual in prime time.
Belief in Jesus (whatever belief means) is clearly not the only way to God or heaven or salvation. Christ is described as ‘the Light” by John, and Christianity is the light viewed through the pane of glass that is Jesus of Nazareth.
The last question: What does it mean to call yourself “Christian”? Here is the answer of Barbara Brown Taylor where in her newest book she says that to be Christian is to become the very body of Jesus, the Christ: “It is our turn now to put our breath behind God’s Word so that it lands in our own time and place. Light from light. Fullness from which we have all received, grace upon grace. Christmas every day.”
Addressing our questions does not negate faith – it only helps to remove the roadblocks where we can spend so much time, with those troubling questions that can seduce us into believing that reason and science and quantifiable “proof” are the only reality. So many of my lovely, brilliant friends — scholars all — just can’t give religion a chance because it could feel like compromising their intellectual integrity.
So now that we have opened the camera to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, we move in for the closest of close-ups. We go to Bethlehem, to Joseph and Mary and the baby, that baby — the Incarnation of the Divine who makes God “easier to love.”
While there is tremendous comfort in the idea of a universal God that is bigger than any specific faith, there is also the need for a personal God that we know and understand. A rabbi I once studied with told the story of the five-year-old boy who was at the State Fair and got separated from his family. He stood in the middle of the Midway and tearfully called, “Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!” When his mother ran up to him, she put her arms around him and asked, “I’m surprised you didn’t call for ‘mommy!’”
“I don’t want any mommy,” he said. “I want mine!” While I honor the visions of the world’s great religions, I don’t want any religion, I want mine. I have come to accept Christianity as my heritage, my tradition, and I claim it as my own. I have put it through every intellectual test I can think of, read hundreds of books, begged patient clergy and others to please explain things “just one more time,” left church for ten years, came back, debated with myself why I was ever called to the pulpit…. Yet, to quote my earliest mentor Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
Ultimately, we are left, even a after a lifetime of study and reflection, skeptics and scholars alike, to silence our devices, set down our books, put aside our questions, quiet our frantic hearts, and bow before the mystery. To behold the Christ who is eternally reborn throughout the galaxies, from whom we receive grace upon grace, and to look at Jesus, the One who makes God accessible and “easier to love,” the face of God, turned in our direction.
Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John” Working Preacher, October 2013
David Lose “In the Meantime, Dec. 21, 2019.
Barbara Mraz, Sacred Strands: Sermons by Minnesota Women: Lone Oak Press, 1991.
Richard Rohr “On Creation and Incarnation,” Global Catholic Climate Movement, February 23, 2019.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Divine Evolution, in Always a Guest, 2020.