Wednesday, December 29, 2010

John's Prologue

The following is a very slightly edited version of the homily preached on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 26, 2010. There were plenty of available seats (unlike two days earlier!)

The first chapter of John's Gospel is referred to by Biblical scholars as “the Prologue.”

Luke gives us the "screenplay" for the familiar tableau that we re-enacted again on Friday night: the pageant that includes angels and shepherds, baby Jesus in his swaddling cloths, the manger, and all the rest. (Although I should point out that there is no mention of donkeys that I can find in Luke.)

Matthew’s birth narrative is different: his focus is not on the simple, humble shepherds who come to see Jesus but on those wise men from the east, those goyim who bring highly symbolic gifts. Intertwined with their visit, of course, is a drama of political intrigue that resembles an old Jewish story: the story of the Exodus. It is in Matthew that we meet another Joseph, also a dreamer; who leads his family into and then out of Egypt. It is Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, who chooses a lens from the prophet Isaiah through which to interpret the Christmas story: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

We are tempted to blend the two narratives together, but there is wisdom in letting each speak to us in its own voice. Mark tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus at all.

And then there is John… In John’s gospel there are no angels, shepherds, or magi. Yet it is, I think, in the first chapter of John that we discover the true meaning of Christmas: a concise and powerful summary of the Incarnation—literally the “en-flesh-ment” of God. Luke and Matthew, together, give us the experience; but John is focused telling us what it means and why it matters to our lives.

What it means, John says, is that God has dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals for us (and not just for us but the whole world) the image of God—very God of very God. We are no longer left to speculate about God’s love: we can consider a person who loves us. We can pay attention to who he was and what he said and how he behaved—how he challenged both his disciples and those who opposed him. (And how he loved both groups.) We can learn what he taught and bear witness to how he died. We can do all of this because the faith of the Church is that God is not confined in the heavens: the meaning of this event we call Christmas is that God dwells among us.

In Jesus’ life, we see not only a mirror of the divine life, but of our own lives as well; of what a fully human life might look like. Of course that is God’s desire for each and every one of us: to be alive, to be human, to be real. John insists that:

• The Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ.
• The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
• We have beheld his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

In the Eastern branches of Christianity—among the Orthodox of various flavors (Greek, Armenian, Russian) — the Incarnation is summarized in this way: God became human, that humans might become divine. To our Western ears that claim sounds almost scandalous and maybe even a little heretical. But it is actually a teaching of the Church Fathers, of the holy catholic and apostolic Church that we claim to be a part of.

We are changed by the Incarnation.
We are restored to what God intended for all people when He formed Adam and Eve from the earth. We are new creation, a holy people after God’s own heart.

We don’t say it quite as strongly but this message of John’s comes through most clearly, I think, when we celebrate Holy Baptism. It is always sad to me how the Doctrine of Original Sin has tainted and warped our understanding of Holy Baptism; because the whole point is that whatever we say about Original Sin, the point is that in Baptism Original Grace and Blessing is restored. We are given the same name that Jesus was given at his Baptism: beloved of God. We are called by our true names.

Yet we carry around with us, each of us, so many old names. Names perhaps from the schoolyard, perhaps even from our homes. “Stupid.” “Fatso.” “Ugly.” “Faggot.” You know the names…and probably if I stopped for a minute you could add the ones that most hurt you, the ones that you carry around inside of you even if on the outside you’ve long since moved past them. You may have become a beautiful swan at fifteen, but if you were called “ugly duckling” at twelve it may very well be a name you not yet let go of. Bullying may be in the news of late but it’s not a new phenomena. And those names unfortunately stick.

At Baptism, however, we are sealed and marked and claimed by the living God: as God’s own beloved children. When the priest makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads in oil, we are being claimed as a royal priesthood—kings and queens who are esteemed of God, partners with God in mission. As St. Paul told the Galatian Christians in today’s epistle, so it is with us as well: we are adopted as part of God’s family. We are heirs of God. Like Jesus, we, too, cry “Abba, Father.”

That claim is not primarily about gender, but relationship. I don’t want to minimize the challenges of sorting through the hard questions of inclusive language and images. But as I hear “Abba,” it is not a claim that God is more like an earthly father than an earthly mother. It is that God is not distant. God is like the parent (mom or dad) who changes our messy diapers or sits by our bedside when we are sick. God is like the parent who teaches us to drive, or picks us up at the police station when we take stupid pills. God is like the father, or mother, who welcomes us home with open arms and cooks up veal piccata for everyone, even when we have lost our way in the world. Beloved child of God. Not only is that our “new name,” but it is our truest name. We are a holy people. God became human so that we might become divine.

Now at some level that is a rather terrifying thought. It’s easier in some ways to be stupid, or ugly, or useless than it is to be esteemed, beloved, important, given a purpose. It is the work of the Christian life to live more fully into that which God already calls us: to live into the meaning and purpose of our Baptismal identities. The process of sanctification is never a smooth process that can be graphed as a steadily upward incline. But that’s the direction we are called to move in, even if we do so by “fits and starts,” even if it’s a step forward and one to the side and a half-step back. Because that’s who we really are, who we truly are. The journey of faith is about living into the name that is given to us by the One who knows us best.

That may sound a bit like an “I’m ok/you’re ok” message, like something you’d find in the self-help section of a bookstore. But it’s really not that at all. My concern about new-age spirituality is that it doesn’t seem to have an adequate grasp of Sin. But the life of Jesus, especially his death, make it all too clear to us that Sin is real. Sin is so real there seems to be a propensity among us to destroy the good that comes as gift from God and to ignore the good that is within us. The Christian faith, in both East and West, recognizes that Sin abounds. But we also insist that grace abounds all the more, and that God keeps inviting us to become more fully our true selves, as people created in God’s own image.

In Jesus, the divine became human, that human beings might become divine. Or if that sounds too radical to you, if it rocks your Calvinistic Protestant world too much, then how about this: we are invited, by the grace of God, to participate in the divine life. Not just someday, but today. Right here. Right now. We come to the Table to eat what God already claims that we are: members of Christ’s own body, heirs of the promise, a holy and beloved people.

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