Sunday January2 2011
Gospel: John 1:1-18
The Prologue to the Gospel of John is one of the most sublime and yet difficult pieces of the New Testament. I considered calling this commentary "The Opaque Clarity of John." In some ways my words are a continuation of last year's comment, which may also be worth reading.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 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.15(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.” ’)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
At a meeting of Fleurieu Presbytery three pretty girls led us in charismatic-chorus-renditions of John Wesley’s hymns. Steve Thompson expressed the disquiet I could not articulate. In the pause for breath after an emotive verse of And can it be... he asked us in the back row, “Does anyone have the least idea what that verse we just sang actually means?”
Such is the tension of John chapter one. Raymond Brown* has 17 pages of notes for these first 18 verses of the Gospel; close spaced small font text mostly discussing correct translation. There are then a further 18 pages of comment. The eyes glaze over. Who can ever know what these verses actually mean? Yet like a Wesley hymn which we may have sung since childhood, these verses can carry the Word to us, despite all the ancient language and now sometimes impenetrable concepts of a previous age.
The secret is to find the balance between singing John 1 as a joyous hymn and gabbling John 1 as meaningless mantra. Steve’s seemingly irreverent comment- our laughter received a glare from the Chair- contained a deadly serious question, and a sharp critique of the worship that night. It is a fearful thing to pause and look at the words and discover we have no idea what we are talking about, that there is no substance beyond the guitars and the soothing voice at the front, and discover that despite all the words we have been singing over and over, there is no Word.
How do we find a way in to understanding a sublime text?
I suspect the reading is in the lectionary because we’ve just celebrated Christmas. This is like the Christmas story of John. As in Matthew and Luke, the Prologue in John is a later overture to the gospel. One way to proceed is to read the rest of the gospel in the light of this hymn.
But John goes further with his Christmas. Perhaps it is a corrective to our sentimentalising of Jesus’ birth. Brown says the “preface” in Luke and Matthew “move[s] the story of Jesus back to his conception, but John’s poetic opening takes it back before creation.” The word always Was, so to speak. Jesus is not some afterthought or Plan B. Sometimes as we pray we say, “In the fullness of time you sent your only Son...” as though the Incarnation was some last resort rather than the fullness of time.
And although sent by God, he is so much more than we might think from Luke or Matthew.
In the beginning was the Word... Genesis starts like this... In the beginning God.... This is John’s Genesis, the beginning and “before.” The Word was “there” and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh that lived among us. The unspeakable that was before there was a was, is now. Is with us. Is like us.
This Jesus is even more than Moses. The law indeed was given through Moses; he brought us the knowledge of God, itself a grace; but even more that such a gift, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Moses is a man from God, like John the Baptist. Jesus is God.
There are overlays of history and doctrine confusing our view here. We need to ignore them for a while. John informs them, they do not interpret John. John is centuries before the doctrine of the Trinity. There “...is not the slightest indication of interest in metaphysical speculations about relationships within God...” (Brown 23) This is the language of worship, language from the heart, reaching and striving to describe its experience. And the experience is simply that Jesus is somehow God. Later the church will refine this, but for now the heart sings.
The world did not understand this. (10) The most fundamental giving of God was opaque to the people of God. Except that somehow those who were open were able to see... and found themselves in a new relationship with the Divine... something beyond human crafting and creating. This was not an idea or a concept that was developed. It was a relationship that Was.
Remember this is the overture of the gospel: Nicodemus will meet this same mystery, a birth of a way of living that goes beyond his intellect and is mysterious gift of God. We will hear the echoes of the overture throughout the gospel. Yet even these more developed echoes retain mystery. John is adamant about the fleshiness of Jesus, but his being and doing is transcendent. It is glory, (14) “a visible manifestation” of God. (Brown 34)
But it is not all mystery. Unlike the mystery faced by Moses on Sinai- no one has ever seen God- we have seen his glory- because the Word became flesh and lived among us. God’s son is close to the Father’s heart, and probably closer than we think. In all this mystery of impossible immiscible mixing of human and Divine, tainted by later ideas of Trinity and right doctrine, I suspect this one Son is much closer to his Father than most. If you have seen me you have seen the Father (14:7)
And the final grounding of the ineffable, the dragging of the inexpressible into our reality is that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. He is not only flesh. He dies. There is more than death; the darkness did not overcome it.
As you can see, I cannot write about John chapter one in detached prose. Poetry is inevitable. Pointers to the poem’s background and notes on its allusions, all help a person find their way into the poem. But beyond that, the poem is read as poem and sung as hymn, or it is analysed and destroyed. It is turned into 25 pages of notes; close spaced small font text.
But if I give myself to singing, how will I protect myself from one day facing the unanswerable question: “Does anyone have the least idea what that verse we just sang actually means?” People walk away from God bereft, because they find no substance, despite all their longing. How much analysis is just enough to allow me appreciate the beauty?
I think the answer comes from how I look at these verses. If I look at them primarily as a source of doctrine, there will be no poetry and much frustration. Brown says the sublime nature of the words does not “remove the fact that the eighteen verses of the Prologue contain for the exegete a number of bewildering textual, critical, and interpretive problems.” ( Brown 18) He is right.
If, however, I will give myself to the hymn and sing it, there is enough grounding that exegesis and detailed study is barely needed. The poetry will speak for itself. The poetry will be my poetry if I am singing from the experience of living out of the Gospel. John writes his prologue last. He uses it as introduction, but it is the summary of his gospel; the summation of his living and reflection upon the Gospel. Only then can he take the hymn and attach it to his gospel.
If I read John (or any of the gospels, but especially John) and especially the Prologue, without living the costly gospel, I am simply reading words. I may do all the exegesis, all the study and learning, and even make learned dissertations. But if I am not living the gospel, then the words will not be my words. They will be words I have learned by rote but not understood in the heart- Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? (3:9) I will live life unprepared for the question, “Does anyone have the least idea what that verse we just sang actually means?” I cannot sing, without living.
Perhaps the Prologue waits to judge me. If I come to it, and am not moved and seized by it in some way, what gospel have I been living? If there is not something in it which resonates with my heart, despite all the unknowns, have I really been living the life of the pioneer of our faith? (Heb 12:2) Like Nicodemus in chapter 3, I am being challenged to listen to the Spirit all over again.
*The Gospel According to John 1-12, Raymond E Brown Doubleday 1966
Andrew Prior Dec 2010
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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