John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
Is it Christmas again? That’s a not unreasonable response when we’re suddenly faced with of one of the most well known passages in the whole of the New Testament, a passage we associate with Christmas.
The compliers of the lectionary ask us in the time in between Christmas and Lent to think backwards about the sublime and astonishing fact of the Incarnation, so that looking ahead we can the more fully accept the awesome truth that it was God made one of us who was crucified, and who defeated death in the cross and the resurrection.
All this is contained in hints and allusions in these opening verses. But to begin with John takes us right back to the start:
In the beginning
He deliberately starting his gospel with words that echo the very first words of the Bible. Hear the echo? In the beginning; in the beginning God; in the beginning God created.
But this isn’t all about creation. It’s about what caused creation:
In the beginning was the Word
For those brought up with the Hebrew Bible this immediately speaks about an active God, a God who is not remote and hidden, but engaged with his creation. It is through a word, Genesis tells us, that God calls creation into being. Here is something fundamental about God, and God’s relation to creation and to human beings. God speaks a word and creation springs into being. The word has an inherent power of its own, a creative power, because it is of God.
But John, brilliant theologian that he is, captures another audience, the world of Greek speakers, infused with the philosophies of the time, for whom Word (the Greek Logos rather than the Hebrew Dabar) has connotations of not only of thought and reason - the logos as the rational principle by which the world is sustained - but also of a divine wisdom, the animating Spirit of God pervading the universe.
But then John shocks us, rocking the system for both Hebrews and Greeks:
He was in the beginning with God
OK, we can cope with the close identification of Word and God. But what’s all this about He and Him? For God is literally unimaginable. Certainly to the Hebrew mind, there’s no way you can have an image of God. And yet here John calls the Word He. The Word suddenly becomes personal. We are so familiar with the passage that we lose the shock. The un-image-able God suddenly takes on personhood, an image. And the God of Greek philosophers couldn’t be thought of in this way either.
Something radical is going on.
John then takes us back to the Word/creation link:
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
With the exception of the personalization of the Word, all this is pretty acceptable.
As is the next clause:
What has come into being in him was life,
And then John takes us into new territory altogether:
and the life was the light of all people.
Actually what John is doing here is anticipating what he’s not quite got round to saying yet. But he’s also flagging up two of the key themes of his Gospel.
- Life - I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly
- and Light - I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.
But he also recognises the struggle that is involved, as well as the ultimate triumph.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Again these are themes that recur in this gospel. And in our lives too. For this is not just about something that happened then, It is deep inside us too.
After this there’s something that seems like a little detour into John the Baptist, which we might think has slipped in inadvertently. Yet it is by no means irrelevant, because it draws our attention again to the light.
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.
And that’s because:
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
Then there are some really quite hard words:
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.
John’s gospel is open to the charge of anti-Semitism, and it is easy to read it in a way that doesn’t set the Jews in a good light. Probably that reflects the situations and conflicts of his day. But it is also a challenge to us. Because it is not just the Jews who are ‘his own’. We are all ‘his own’. What chance that we will not accept him? We can be as set in our ways as all those who did not accept him in his day. And being set in our ways, comfortable with our lives and our religious observances, we can fail to notice where the true light’s shining, in what direction it’s pointing, what path it’s picking out for us. If Christ were to come to his church today, would we recognize him, receive him?
When I was working with people preparing for authorised ministry, I used to take cards of fifty or so artistic representations of Christ from different churches of the world and some modern artists, spread them over the floor of a chapel, and ask students to choose two, one they feel really spoke to them, and one they really disliked. It’s more demanding than you may think. And revealing. Because sometimes there is such a violent reaction against one of the pictures, that it’s as though someone is almost rejecting the Christ they see there.
Who do we see? Who do we accept? Who do we receive? Who do we reject?
But John also encourages:
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.
Then the climax. All that John has written so far, all that he has anticipated, gets concentrated into five words (in both the Greek and the English):
And the Word became flesh
Suddenly it all becomes clear. The Word of God is not just personal. The Word becomes a person.
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.
What a sentence that is! ‘Lived’ among us gets us nowhere near the Greek which carries with it associations of God in that first great saving act the Exodus going through the wilderness with the people in a tent – a tabernacle. And the Exodus lies at the heart of the Feast of Passover against which the passion and death of the Word made Flesh are played out, but in glory rather than darkness.
In the Word:
- God radically identifies with God’s creation
- God shines in the darkness
- God lives among us in glory, giving us grace and truth.
This is a compelling story. A word of life and light for our time as much as for any other. Live it. And be light and life so that others may be drawn to life and light as well.