The Prologue (1/5/03)
Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Through the Christmas season, sermons tend to get a bit more theological than usual. And when January finally arrives, I think most of us who spend a significant portion of our lives crafting sermons sort of sit back, take a deep breath, and decide it’s time to delve into more practical matters for a while.
By the time the New Year rolls around people are ready for some good practical advice. And so many of us set the Bible aside for a few weeks and pull out the self-help books. You can always find sermon material in self-help books, because they contain practical wisdom about keeping life simple and not letting the little things get you down.
And theology is such a strange subject, anyway! Consider the word itself: theology. That word actually means God-talk. Theo—God; logy from the Greek logos—talk, or words. God-talk. The really crazy thing about theology is that any theologian worth his salt will say that the minute you say words about God, you have taken a step away from God. Every religion says that in one way or another. Christian and Jewish theologians would say, “The God that can be spoken of is not God.” In Taoism the famous words go, “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.”
Many think that Guatama Buddha did not believe in God. And that’s not really true. Guatama Buddha did not believe in trying to talk about God. He said that for a human being to try to talk about God would be like a tiny unborn chick, as it first starts pecking on the inside of its shell, making grand statements about the nature of the universe.
So theology, to say the least, is a complicated subject. It is dedicated to talking about that which cannot be talked about. At Christmas time, those of us who embrace the Christian faith do a lot of talking about God. And we are pretty much divided into three camps. First, there are those who insist that they understand everything there is to know about God because God and Jesus of Nazareth are the exact same thing. And if you don’t believe that, God have mercy on your hell-bound soul.
Second, there are those who are so upset by the claims made by the first group that they simply treat Christianity as a sort of social club. Jesus probably lived, they say, and he was quite a guy. Meanwhile, let’s not worry about things of the spirit because the world throws enough problems our way without thinking too hard about how or why we’re here in the first place.
Third, there are those who reject the thinking of both those first two groups and say, “I don’t know about God, because I don’t have the information. But my faith tells me there is something of God’s nature reflected in Jesus of Nazareth.”
While I fall into the latter group, it doesn’t really matter to me which of those three groups a person identifies with, although for those in the first group I do hope they can keep their faith from becoming judgmental. Some of the theologians I admire most are those who say there is only one path to heaven—through Jesus Christ—but that everybody is on that path. Jesus’ work on the cross was performed once and for all, for everybody who ever has or ever will live. Still, I like to say that the “original sin” of Christianity is its claim of exclusivity—the claim of many Christians that only those who worship as they do are in God’s grace. To them, I simply suggest that God and Jesus are not in competition with one another over souls.
And even if you believe that God and Jesus are the exact same thing, then when a person is surrendered to God, that person is by your definition, surrendered to Jesus. So follow your path with devotion, but don’t look back at those on other paths and throw stones, or you have violated the one rule that Jesus was pretty clear on: judge not.
Well, this probably sounds like a lot of talk about theology for somebody who was determined to stay away from the subject for a few weeks. But something happened that forced me to stay on the subject for this one extra week. My daily readings from the Bible usually follow the Revised Common Lectionary. I like that, because it means that every morning I am reading the same passages that ministers all over the world are reading.
And this week, one of the lectionary passages is the Prologue to the Gospel of John. I love the Prologue to the Gospel of John. I hope you will all read the complete prologue to John’s gospel, which is found in John, chapter 1, verses 1 through 18. I choose now to read only verses 1-5, and 14 and 18, which contain the heart of the message.
From the Gospel of John: 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 is life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 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.
No doubt about it—John’s gospel raises Jesus Christ to unparalleled heights. Mark’s gospel begins with an adult Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River. Matthew and Luke move the story back to the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit of God, and then tell their wonderful birth stories. But John! John takes us all the way back—back to the beginning of time. “In the beginning,” he says. “In the beginning was the word.” We soon realize that in John’s theology, “the word” is the wisdom and love God used to create the universe.
And then John makes one of the most outrageous statements in human history. The wisdom and love that is inseparable from God, and through which God created everything that is, became enfleshed in a human being. That wisdom and love, for a time, walked among us in the person of Jesus Christ.
This is very, very different from, the other gospels. Oh, each of the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—in one way or another makes the claim that Jesus is the Son of God. But in those three gospels Jesus spends all his time talking about the poor, and the oppressed, and the corrupting powers that always seem to rule this world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus continually does something he does not do in any of the other gospels. He talks about himself.
The other three gospels are filled with short sayings, parables, and moral teachings. The Gospel of John has almost none of that. While the Synoptic Gospels indicate that Jesus spoke almost exclusively in short parables, John’s gospel has Jesus speaking in long and tedious discourses which last, in one case, almost four chapters without a break.
The basic message of Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke can be summarized with the Great Commandment of Jesus: Love God with your heart, soul and mind; and your neighbor as yourself. The basic message of Jesus in John can be summarized like this: I, Jesus Christ, am the one and only Son of God, and through me you may attain eternal life.
I am one of the few theologically liberal ministers whose favorite gospel is the Gospel of John. And it drives me crazy when fundamentalists use John’s words to attack people of other faiths. But they do it all the time. If you want proof positive that the one and only way to achieve salvation is through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior, the Gospel of John can be read in that way.
Here is the basic problem. People who read the Bible with unquestioning literalism miss the whole point of John’s gospel. John’s gospel is not a history of Jesus of Nazareth; it is a theological dissertation regarding the redemptive love of God. It is written by a person of great faith who combines elements of Greek philosophy, Jewish culture, and his own very personal experience of God through Jesus Christ. It is not about the human being—Jesus of Nazareth—who lived two thousand years ago. It is about the Spirit he embodied. It is not about the things Jesus said and did. It is about the meaning and purpose that come from embracing the Spirit of Christ which Jesus so perfectly reflected.
To put it another way, the Gospel of John can be thought of as the Spirit of the Risen Christ speaking through a person of faith, and reinterpreting the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is impossible to capture the awe of this gospel unless you consider it in this way. The Gospel of John can be thought of as the Spirit of the Eternal Christ speaking through a person of faith—John—who reinterprets the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Looking at John’s prologue, John clearly equates Jesus Christ with the “Word of God.” But when he says that the word was with God before God created the universe, he surely is not saying that the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth was there before creation. What was there with God was the wisdom and love Jesus would one day embody. And the reason the Prologue is so important to me is that it forms the basis for my entire theology. It explains the way I think about God and the universe.
It is my conviction that we are all created beings. We do not call ourselves into being, and we are not biological accidents. We are created. The power that creates us I call God, although that word—God—has so much baggage with it I sometimes wish we had another word.
God is more than I can ever get my mind around. God is, as every theologian knows, unknowable. But I have faith that God is good. And I believe, along with the Prologue to John’s gospel, that the universe is called into being with wisdom and love. I really believe that. While anything we say about God takes us a step away from God, wisdom and love are attributes that I believe at least point us in the right direction.
And like the author of the Gospel of John, I find the best example of God’s wisdom and love in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Look at the way John ends his Prologue: No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Okay, I’m three-quarters of the way through this sermon, and there has not been that first bit of practical advice. But maybe we can draw something out of John’s prologue that will help us in the day-to-day living of our lives.
A prologue, according the dictionary, is an introductory speech, discourse or proceeding. I guess we could say we are living in the prologue of 2003 at this very moment. And just as John sets forth a grand overview of all creation with the prologue to his gospel, perhaps we should take a few moments to set forth a grand scheme for our lives over the next year.
I would not want to call the elements of our grand scheme New Year’s resolutions, because I am yet to ever keep one of those darn things. What if I tried to narrow down, to a single sentence, all the things I hope for myself and for all of you in this new year? What if I came up with a one-sentence prologue for 2003? What would that sentence be?
How about this: I hope we each live the year 2003 without a single regret. That’s not asking too much, is it? To live the entire year without a single regret? Okay, that’s a pretty tall order. But the best way to live up to that rather weighty prologue is to look back at the past year, and consider some of our past regrets that we could perhaps avoid in the future.
I know that some of my personal regrets will register with many of you, and I know that like me, each of you has regrets that are too personal to share. But here are a few of the regrets I hope I can avoid reliving at this time next year.
I regret the times I lost my temper.
I regret every time I laughed not with someone, but at someone.
I regret my propensity for sarcastic remarks.
I regret the hours I spent watching television when there were more important things to do.
I regret every time I said something about somebody, that I would not want that person to hear me say.
I regret every time I saw a person in need, and looked the other way.
I regret the times I saw injustice and did not speak.
I regret the times I found it more important to go along with the crowd, and not to make waves, than to speak out when I saw injustice, or believed in my heart the world was moving away from the teachings of Christ.
I regret that I did not spend more time in prayer.
Wow! This is getting to be a pretty long list. And I’m not sure we should spend too much time adding up our past regrets. Oh, if it helps us move forward into a better future that’s great. But I’m starting to get depressed. I think it would be better if we use that overview of regrets as background, and instead of counting our regrets, we count our blessings. And dear friends, we are blessed indeed. When I think of the things I have to be thankful for over this past year, those regrets don’t seem so bad.
I’m thankful that people forgave me every time I lost my temper.
I’m thankful that my laughter was received with understanding and not resentment.
I’m thankful my sarcastic streak is tempered by what common sense the Good Lord has seen fit to give me.
I’m thankful that the hours I spent watching the boob-tube were not all wasted, since most were spent in the company of people I love.
I’m thankful that for every person in need there are those who compassionately reach out with unselfish love.
I’m thankful that I live in a nation where, even if I lack the courage, I still have the right to speak out when I see injustice, even at those times when I think the nation itself is in the wrong.
I am thankful for a family that makes my life joyful.
I am thankful for friends who manage to overlook my weaknesses and see the best in me.
I am thankful for this place—this amazing church—where my life finds meaning and purpose, and where I have found more love than I knew existed in the whole world.
And most of all, I am thankful for the God who speaks to us through the Gospel of John; the God who says: “I wanted you to know who I am, so I sent Jesus to you. And now I know what it’s like to be human, to live in a world full of questions, to hurt, to suffer, to face death, yes, even to die. I know what it is like to live in the world you live in. And now, you know me. I created you, and I love you with every breath you take.”
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Amen.