It is with amazement that I look back on the past six months and realize that I have composed and delivered over thirty sermons. There have been a number of randomly inspired seasonal sermons, and, of course, the recently completed Advent series, but most of those thirty messages have comprised a survey of the sayings of Jesus, in roughly chronological order, as quoted in the first two thirds of the three synoptic gospels (a term, by the way, that I had not even heard of, before I took on this Sunday morning task).
About September, I began to wonder what I would do next, and I sort of knew that I would be taking a look at John; John as a separate entity. It is well understood that the writings of John stand apart, from the rest of the New Testament documents, as the loftiest and most mystical of all. I have always known that John was special, but I didn't know quite how; and now, as I face the challenge of dealing intelligently with John, the whole project feels not only daunting, but presumptuous--how can I, a mere layman, a musician untrained in the subtleties of biblical sophistications, hope to present anything relevant about this towering gospel?
The good news is that I have plenty of help: John is written about, a lot more than any of the other gospels, so I have a lot more to choose from, as I assemble my background material for quotation here; for instance, the opening "In the beginning was the Word," two lines of text, has yielded enough commentary for two sermons, maybe three.
As you may or may not know, I write these sermons in the following way:
1. I decide on a topic or a Bible verse to talk about.
2. I assemble a batch of quotations from the internet.
3. Then I have the computer talk this stuff onto a CD and I listen to the CD in the car rides to Valdez and Anchorage.
As I listened to the following material this weekend I began to fear that, far from having too little to say about John, I have quite possibly too much. We'll see. Anyway, here we go with John.
John 1:1-2 is one of the most famous lines in the Bible:
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2The same was in the beginning with God.
The following discussions center on the various interpretive meanings that can be derived from that text. To me, the most important issue to contemplate is the vast significance of the Infinite made Finite in the flesh, the mind-boggling idea that the timeless eternity of the God Consciousness might articulate Itself in some limited form. Limited by definition. The Word cannot be infinite because a word refers to something--something other than itself. Thus, with His Word God divides Himself into two (at least) distinguishable entities; by creating the Word, God is choosing a single attribute out of an infinity of attributes into which to focus His divine intelligence.
In That Hideous Strength C. S. Lewis comments on the Infinite invoking finite creations out of infinite possibilities:
"To those high creatures whose activity builds what we call nature, nothing is "natural." From their stations the essential arbitrariness (so to call it) of every actual creation is ceaselessly visible; for them there are no basic assumptions: all springs with the willful beauty of a jest or a tune from that miraculous moment of self-limitation wherein the Infinite, rejecting a myriad possibilities, throws out of Himself the positive elected invention."
Let us spend the next few minutes thinking about Divine Mind squeezing itself into the limiting confines of the human mind.
The first chapter of the Gospel of John can be divided in two parts:
"The first part (v. 1-18) is an introduction to the Gospel as a whole, stating that the Logos is "God" (divine, god-like, a god according to other translations) and acts as the mouthpiece (Word) of God "made flesh", i.e. sent to the world in order to be able to intercede for man and forgive him his sins (The Good News of the Gospel). This portion of John's gospel is of central significance to the development of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. Comparisons can easily be drawn from this part to Genesis 1 where the same phrase In the beginning first occurs along with the emphasis on the difference between the darkness (such as the earth was formless and void, Genesis 1:2) vs light (the ability to see things not understood/hidden by the darkness, John 1:5). The summation of this comparison occurs in the statement, the law given through Moses... grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Here John successfully bridges the gap for the reader – including Jewish readers well-versed in the Torah – from the Law to the One who would fulfill the Law, Jesus. . . .
In Christology, the conception that the Christ is the Logos (Λόγος, the Greek for "word", "discourse" or "reason") has been important in establishing the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ and his position as God the Son in the Trinity as set forth in the Chalcedonian Creed.""The Confession of Chalcedon (also Definition or Creed of Chalcedon), also known as the Doctrine of the Hypostatic Union or the Two-Nature Doctrine, was adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in Asia Minor. That Council of Chalcedon is one of the first seven Ecumenical Councils accepted by Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and many Protestant Christian churches. It is the first Council not recognized by any of the Oriental Orthodox churches.
The Definition defines that Christ is 'acknowledged in two natures', which 'come together into one person and hypostasis'. The formal definition of 'two natures' in Christ was understood by the critics of the council at the time, and is understood by many historians and theologians today, to side with western and Antiochene Christology and to diverge from the teaching of Cyril of Alexandria, who always stressed that Christ is 'one'. However, the best modern analysis of the sources of the creed (by A. de Halleux, in Revue Theologique de Louvain 7, 1976) and a reading of the acts, or proceedings, of the council (recently translated into English) show that the bishops considered Cyril the great authority and that even the language of 'two natures' derives from him."
"The conception derives from the opening of the Gospel of John, commonly translated into English as: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In the original Greek, Logos (λόγος) is used for "Word," and in theological discourse, this is often left untranslated.
Logos in Hellenistic Judaism
Word and related terms in earlier Jewish tradition prepared the way for its use here to denote Jesus as revealer of the unseen God (see Wisdom 9:1-4, 9, 17-18; Ecclesiasticus 24:1-12). The Jewish-Alexandrian theologian and philosopher Philo wrote extensively about the Logos in ways that are reminiscent of New Testament theology. For instance, his teaching that “the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated” resembles Colossians 1:17.
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.]
Christ as the logos
Christians, who profess belief in the Trinity, often consider John 1:1 to be a central text in their belief that Jesus is God, in connection with the idea that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are equals. Though only in this verse is Jesus referred to as the Word of God, the theme transposed throughout the Gospel of John with variations. Theologian N.T. Wright characterizes "Word" (logos) as being incomprehensible in human language. He claims that through belief the Logos will transform people with its judgment and mercy. According to Wright, John's view of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh, strikes at the very root of what he terms "the liberal denial...of the idea of God becoming human...." His assessment is that when the "enfleshment" and speaking Word is removed from the center of Christian theology, all that is left is "a relativism whose only moral principle is that there are no moral principles, no words of judgment (because nothing is really wrong, except saying that things are wrong), no words of mercy (because you're all right as you are, so all you need is affirmation)."
Theologian Stephen L. Harris claims the author of John adapted Philo's concept of the Logos, identifying Jesus as an incarnation of the divine Logos that formed the universe (cf. Proverbs 8:22-36).
"22 The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. 23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, 26 before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. 27 When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, 31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.
32 “And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways. 33 Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. 34 Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. 35 For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD, 36 but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.”
• Jews. To the rabbis who spoke of the Torah (Law) as preexistent, as God's instrument in creation, and is the source of light and life, John replied that these claims apply rather to the Logos.
• Gnostics. To the Gnostics who would deny a real incarnation, John's answer was most emphatic: "the Word became flesh."
• Followers of John the Baptist. To those who stopped with John the Baptist, he made it clear that John was not the Light but only witness to the Light.
Although the term Logos is not retained as a title beyond the prologue, the whole book of John presses these basic claims. As the Logos, Jesus Christ is God in self-revelation (Light) and redemption (Life). He is God to the extent that he can be present to man and knowable to man. The Logos is God, and the risen Christ is worshiped by Thomas, who fell at his feet saying, "My Lord and my God." Yet the Logos is in some sense distinguishable from God, for "the Logos was with God." God and the Logos are not two beings, and yet they are also not simply identical. In contrast to the Logos, God can be conceived (in principle at least) also apart from his revelatory action─although we must not forget that the Bible speaks of God only in his revelatory action. The paradox that the Logos is God and yet it is in some sense distinguishable from God is maintained in the body of the Gospel. That God as he acts and as he is revealed does not "exhaust" God as he is, is reflected in sayings attributed to Jesus: I and the Father are one" and also, "the Father is greater than I." The Logos is God active in creation, revelation, and redemption. Jesus Christ not only gives God's Word to us humans; he is the Word. He is the true word─ultimate reality revealed in a Person. The Logos is God, distinguishable in thought yet not separable in fact."
Joseph Tkach: Speaking of Life
"The Gospel of John does not begin the story of Jesus in the same way as the other three Gospels. Instead of starting with the story of Jesus’ birth like Matthew and Luke do, or with Jesus’ baptism like Mark does, John begins by taking us back in time to what he calls "the beginning."
John 1:1-5In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John opens his Gospel by talking about a Word who existed in the beginning with God, and this Word was God. This was not a created being, but rather the One through whom God did all the creating.
In verse 14, we find the identity of this Word:“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."
This “Word” was none other than the One who became flesh, Jesus, the Son of God. He is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit as the second Person of the triune God, and he is one with us, fully human and fully God, representing us and substituting for us in his perfect union and communion with the Father.
By using the term “Word” to describe Jesus, John was using a term that had rich meaning to Greek and Jewish philosophers. They believed that God had created everything through his “word,” or “wisdom.” They thought of the “Word” as the rationality and creativity behind the universe.
John used this idea to explain who Jesus is: the Word become flesh. John wanted his readers to know that Jesus did not just bring a message from God and about God—he himself was the message. Jesus showed us up close, in the flesh, what the Father is like.
Shortly before Jesus was killed, Philip asked him,"Lord, show us the Father" (14:8). And Jesus answered: "Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (v. 9).
If you want to know what God is like, then study Jesus."
Reverend William Edward Flippin, Jr., Pastor
John 1:1-14 -- The Word that Walked Around
"When we recognize that the Word that walked around as we celebrate the Season of Advent will transform our circumstances because the Word walks through our market-places, our homes and the systems around which we organize life. We are called to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us. Our thanks is displayed in our openness which will allow us to let God work within us and make us whole for the coming of the Lord Jesus who is truly the Word Made Flesh-a word that walked around."
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary
"The plainest reason why the Son of God is called the Word, seems to be, that as our words explain our minds to others, so was the Son of God sent in order to reveal his Father's mind to the world. What the evangelist says of Christ proves that he is God. He asserts, His existence in the beginning; His coexistence with the Father. The Word was with God. All things were made by him, and not as an instrument. Without him was not any thing made that was made, from the highest angel to the meanest worm. This shows how well qualified he was for the work of our redemption and salvation. The light of reason, as well as the life of sense, is derived from him, and depends upon him. This eternal Word, this true Light shines, but the darkness comprehends it not. Let us pray without ceasing, that our eyes may be opened to behold this Light, that we may walk in it; and thus be made wise unto salvation, by faith in Jesus Christ.
The following quote from Rudolf Steiner suggests a connection between the truth of the Word, and the impetus behind all creation. It may be that the self-limiting character of the Word is that same self-limiting character that defines the material world in general--that the Word IS the material world. Sprung from a seed of Divine Intelligence planted in some corner of the Mind of God, the Word has generated the universe as we know it, every part of which rejoices in the knowing, and yet seeks NOT to know it--to return to the infinite space from which it banged its way to earth.
Rudolf Steiner: The Gospel of St. John
LECTURE I Cassel, St. John's Day, 1909
"You all know the opening words of the Gospel of St. John: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God. The same was in the beginning with God.’ The Word or Logos was in the beginning with God, and the Light, it is further said, shone in the darkness but the darkness comprehended it not. This Light was in the world and among men, but of those only a small number were capable of comprehending it. Then there appeared the Word made Flesh as a Man — in a Man whose forerunner was the Baptist, John. And now we see how they who had to some extent grasped the significance of this appearance of Christ upon earth are at pains to explain the real nature of Christ. The author of the Gospel of St. John definitely indicates that the deepest Being enfolded in Jesus of Nazareth was naught else than the Being out of which all beings proceeded; that it was the living spirit, the living Word, the Logos Himself."
The following sermon of Martin Luther is of interest for its crafty delving into the subtle nuances of meaning in the text. It is more a study in linguistics than it is a commentary on spiritual matters. However, it should not be surprising that a study of the Word should lead to a minutely critical examination of words. Getting your mind made up, deciding what group of arbitrarily chosen words make you the most comfortable, is part of the process of aligning your human mind with the Mind of God; that is to say: if you get all the lines of intelligent electromagnetic energy flowing in one direction, that one direction, whichever way it is, always leads to God, because God is always found at the boundary between Himself and the Word.
Sermon for the Principal Christmas Service; John 1:1-14
A sermon by Martin Luther from his Church Postil, 1521-1522
"I. CHRIST'S FIRST TITLE OF HONOR AND ATTRIBUTE: HE IS THE WORD.
3. That this Gospel may be clearer and more easily understood, we must go back to the passages in the Old Testament upon which it is founded, namely, the beginning of the first chapter of Genesis. There we read, Gen. 1, 1-3: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light," etc. Moses continues how all things were created in like manner as the light, namely, by speaking of the Word of God. Thus: "And God said, Let there be a firmament." And again: "God said, Let there be sun, moon, stars," etc.
4. From these words of Moses it is clearly proved that God has a Word, through which or by means of which he spoke, before anything was created; and this Word does not and cannot be anything that was created, since all things were created through this divine utterance, as the text of Moses clearly and forcibly expresses it, when it says: "God said, Let there be light, and there was light." The Word must therefore have preceded the light, since light came by the Word; consequently it was also before all other creatures, which also came by the Word, as Moses writes.
5. But let us go farther. If the Word preceded all creatures, and all creatures came by the Word and were created through it, the Word must be a different being than a creature, and was not made or created like a creature. It must therefore be eternal and without beginning. For when all things began it was already there, and cannot be confined in time nor in creation, but is above time and creation; yea, time and creation are made and have their beginning through it. Thus it follows that whatever is not temporal must be eternal; and that which has no beginning cannot be temporal; and that which is not a creature must be God. For besides God and his creatures there is nothing. Hence we learn from this text of Moses, that the Word of God, which was in the beginning and through which all things were made and spoken, must be God eternal and not a creature.
6. Again, the Word and he that speaks it, are not one person; for it is not possible that the speaker is himself the Word. What sort of speaker would he be who is himself the Word? He must needs be a mute, or the word must needs sound of itself without the speaker. But Scripture here speaks in strong and lucid words: "God said." And thus God and His Word must be two distinct things.
If Moses had written: "There was an utterance," it would not be so evident that there were two, the Word and the Speaker. But when he says: "God said," and names the speaker and his word, he forcibly states that there are two: that the speaker is not the word, and the word is not the speaker, but that the word comes from the speaker, and has its existence not of itself but from the speaker. But the speaker does not come from the word, nor does he have his existence from it, but from himself. Thus, the words of Moses point conclusively to the fact that there are two persons in the Godhead from eternity, before all creatures, that the one has its existence from the other, and the first has its existence from nothing but itself.
7. Again, the Scriptures firmly and everlastingly maintain that there is only one God, as Moses begins, saying: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." And Deut. 6, 4, "Hear, 0 Israel; Jehovah our God is one God." Thus the Scriptures proceed in simple, comprehensible words, and teach such exalted things so plainly that every one may well understand them, and so forcibly that no one can gainsay them. Who is there that cannot here understand from these words of Moses, that there must be two persons in the Godhead, and yet but one God, unless he wishes to deny the plain Scriptures?
8. Again, who is there so subtle as to be able to contradict this doctrine? He must distinguish or keep apart the Word from God, the speaker; and he must confess that it was before all creatures, and that the creatures were made by it. Consequently he must surely admit it to be God, for besides the creatures there is nothing but God; he must also admit that there is only one God. Thus the Scriptures forcibly conclude that these two persons are one perfect God, and that each one is the only true, real, and perfect God, who has created all things; that the Speaker has his being not from the Word, but that the Word has its being from the Speaker, yet he has his being eternally and from eternity, and outside of all creation."
"He has his being eternally and from eternity, and outside of all creation."
Let me repeat a sentence of mine from above:
God is always found at the boundary between Himself and the Word.
I think it must be apparent that the boundary between the Finite and the Infinite is a place, as Luther says, "outside creation", because for every outside there must be an inside.
I here insert a section from a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes, 1611. I came by this piece in connection with a T. S. Eliot poem which we will discuss next week. We may come back to it, or not, but it works as a interesting counterpoint to the preceding Luther sermon. It is a charming example of the kind of reasoning that was typical of renaissance Christian dogmatists. In particular, notice the emphasis on the "flesh" aspect of the incarnation of the word:
Lancelot Andrewes Works, Sermons, Volume One
SERMONS OF THE NATIVITY. PREACHED UPON CHRISTMAS-DAY, 1611. Preached before King James, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. 1611.
Transcribed by Dr Marianne Dorman AD 2001
"The Son though He be consubstantial, yet the Person of His Father may have a being long before Him. The Word makes amends for that. For the mind's conceiving and the mind cannot be severed a moment; if one be eternal, both are. So then as the Son He is consubstantial, as the Word He is coeternal.
But He begins with the Word. His care being first to tell us of the pureness of His generation before of His generation itself; but after, by little and little unfoldeth Himself and tells, He is so the Word as the Son also. Indeed, it was best beginning with the Word. That term the heathen wise men, the philosophers, would never stumble at, but brook it well enough; as indeed they did not with approbation only but with high admiration, read and magnify the beginning of this Gospel. It was to conform to their reason, Quod Deus abterno intelligit, the conceiving of the mind, and the mind must needs be coeternal, the mind never without it.
As the Word and the Only-begotten refer to One, so does caro and in nobis, flesh and in us; that is such flesh as is in us, human flesh. 1.To express the union fully, a better word could not be chosen. It is a part for the whole, and the worser part for the whole of purpose. For in this case our nature is best set out by the worser part. For this we know; if the worse be taken, the better will not be left behind. If He abhor not the flesh, of the spirit there will be no question. More forcible it is to say, "He was made flesh", than "He was made man", though both be true. He vouchsafed to become man, nothing so much as to become flesh, the very lowest and basest part of man.
Besides, from the flesh, as from Eve, came the beginning of transgression, longing after the forbidden fruit, refused the Word quite; so, of all other, least likely to be taken. The Word not refusing it, the rest have good hope.
But there is a kind of necessity to use the term flesh. If He had said man, man might be taken for a person. He took no person, but our nature He took. Flesh is no person but nature only, and so best expresseth it. And if soul, it might have been taken, as if He took not the flesh but mediante anima; but so He did not but as immediately and as soon the flesh as the soul, in one instant both.
Yet one more. It will not be amiss to tell you; the word that is Hebrew for flesh the same is also Hebrew for good tidings - as we call it, the Gospel; sure, not without the Holy Spirit so dispensing it. There could be no other meaning but that some incarnation, or making flesh, should be generally good news for the whole world. To let us know this good tidings is come to pass He tells us, the Word is now become flesh.
Thus why flesh; why the Word, flesh. Caro Verbum was our bane. Flesh would be the Word; nay, wiser than the Word, and know what was evil better than it. If caro Verbum, our bane, then Verbum caro our remedy.
Surely, if the Word would become flesh, it were so most kindly. The Word was Pars sa, the Party that was most offended. If He would undertake it, if He against Whom the offence was would be Author of the reconciliation, there were none to that. It were so most proper."
To Andrewes, to be of the flesh is actually to OFFEND God; and yet to reconcile with God because being created FROM God, this lower form is to be accepted with love.
Oops! that word Love just sprang out of the wall didn't it? God is Love. God is the Word. Hmmm. Does that mean the Word is Love? Does that mean that Love is the Word? Let's think about that this week: are all our created works, words AND deeds, leading us toward the Glory of our ultimate reunification with God, or do we let material concerns create material fascinations. Do we fall under the spell (a spell made possible because we are flesh, and flesh is weak) of the deceiving allure of Maya, wavering on the edge of consciousness? Do we let Satan whisper in our ear all about what is so important about our worldly doings? Do we get distracted from the true course by a rabble of dumb stuff?
Let us pray: Jesus, lend us your power. We have felt it many times, and cherish it and crave it. Lend us your power, so that we can keep our lines straight. Give us the right word at the right time, so that all our doings may be illuminated with light flowing down into them from the other side. Amen.