A Reflection on the first chapter of John’s Gospel
The Divine Blueprint
We’ve spent the last five weeks leading up to Christmas, including all four Sundays in the season of Advent and Christmas Eve, anticipating the birth of Jesus, the coming of a savior into the world, the arrival of a particular person in a particular place in a particular time two thousand years ago. At the same time though, there has been another anticipation running underneath this one, one that is more cosmic, more universal, one that is still coming, one that is already and not yet. In the stories about Mary and Joseph, Shepherds and angels, Jesus, and eventually wise-men from the east, we have encountered these particular characters, but now, in this first week of the Christmas season, we hear a new perspective from the author of John’s Gospel, one that takes this particular birth story of these particular people, and makes it universal, cosmic, eternal, and brings it right into our midst here and now. Matthew and Luke showed us what was in the beginning for Jesus of Nazareth, John shows us what was in the beginning for the Word.
This Word, logos in Greek, was a term used in Greek philosophy to describe the organizing principle of the universe. The thing that under-girded all of creation, that kept everything in order, made everything make sense. As Richard Rohr describes it, it was the divine “blueprint,” the principle intelligence and wisdom through which all of creation is made, ordered, and sustained. The author of the Gospel according to John, writing some 60 years after Jesus’ death, is incorporating this divine principle of wisdom and intelligence into a theological understanding of Jesus’ life, not just his 30 years on earth, but the cosmic significance of his identity as “the Christ.
This idea that the Word, the logos, the organizing wisdom of the universe became flesh would have been inconceivable and scandalous to first century ears. In a worldview where spirit was the greatest good and flesh was the sinful thing which needed to be overcome in order to achieve the highest good of the spiritual life, the idea that this Word would become flesh would challenge even the most open minded of 1st century thinkers.
In these first 18 verses of John’s gospel, the author is reorienting us to our understanding of God, of humanity, and of creation itself. As we have been anticipating for so many weeks, a savior has been born to us, and what John shows us today is that that savior does not save us by removing us from creation or from our humanity, but by dwelling in it. The savior does not save by removing suffering from creation, but by dwelling in that very suffering, and by suffering with us.
But the implications continue for how we understand this Christ, this Word, this creation. As John says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, NRSV)
This word, this organizing principle of the universe, this infinite wisdom of relationship between all things, is the very thing that we call God.
“And this word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14, NRSV)
Not only does this Word becoming flesh tell us something important about creation, but now we can see that since this Word is a life, a life that we can observe, then this life can tell us something about the Word, about the organizing principle that under-girds all of creation. In this particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, the Word dwells, and through the life of Jesus we can see the truth of all creation.
So, what is this truth? We need only look at the truth of Jesus’ life. The blueprint of all creation, of everything that is, and through which all has been made, including all of us, is life, suffering, death, and resurrection. The pattern of Jesus life, the Word made flesh, is the pattern of everything. Each and every part of creation and each and every one of us. Life, suffering, death and resurrection. As John describes the Word in the beginning of the Gospel, we get a glimpse of the depth to which this is true.
“What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:3b-5, NRSV)
We think that the darkness is synonymous with evil, with ignorance, with sin and death. But where would the light be without the darkness? There is a way of understanding the darkness that does not dispel its necessity and does not overcome it any more than the light does. John makes it clear that the darkness does not overcome the light, but it also seems clear that the light does not overcome the darkness either.
In the Beginning…
This first chapter of John is meant to bring us back to the first chapter of Genesis, the first “In the beginning….” Where God, speaking the Word of creation, hovers over the face of the formless deep, the great unknown, and in the first creative act utters the Word, “Let There Be Light,” and there is light. And then we are told that God’s next act was to separate the light from the darkness. But what does this mean that God “separates” the light from the darkness? It means that the light and darkness were in some form of coexistence. And then God separated them to make the night and the day, the necessary balance of our biological ecological rhythms, but at the end of this first day is the only time in the creation story that the author does not end the day by saying that it is good. Why is it not good that the light and the darkness were separated?To deny the darkness its due, to deny that it is in itself a place where God dwells and from which new life is created is to deny the Word, the pattern of the universe, that operates in us and in all things.
We are called to live into our darkness, the mysterious, infinite depth of our identity as human beings, and, as Jesus reveals to us in the incarnation, the season we now celebrate, the indwelling of God in those very human depths. It is on the edge of darkness and light that we are called to be. Fully in the dark and we have no direction, we cannot see where we are to move next, but standing completely in the light we are blinded by our own sense of knowing. It is on the edge of the light, at the precipice of the darkness, that things are revealed, that we, and creation, and God come into being.
God (Suffering) With Us
We have in many ways been tricked into thinking that light is the good and darkness is the bad, and John’s gospel contains these seeming dualities throughout as common themes, but to think of them as opposites, as dualities, is to misunderstand their relationship. John, like so much of scripture, is drawing us into the darkness, into the mystery, away from clear black and white dualism, away from the distinction between flesh and spirit, between the Word and God, between human and divine, between light and darkness. There is no light supremacy in John, there is only the divine interplay between co-equal parts of creation, light and darkness.
And it is our job, with God’s help to hold these two together, as they were in the beginning, and let their coexistence in us create new things that have never been before; from life, suffering, from suffering, death, from death, new life, and over and over again the pattern proceeds throughout our lives and throughout creation. The trees blossom and bloom and change colors and drop their leaves and die and are resurrected in the spring and it all happens again. A prairie grows and is burned to the ground and rises from the ashes with all the nutrients that never would have been there without the destruction of the fire. Jesus lives and heals and teaches, suffers with the suffering, and dies, and in three days is resurrected into something both continuous and new, with open wounds that give birth to faith and healing. A seed must die, buried deep in the ground, in the darkness, to bear forth new life.
All of us know this pattern at some level in our lives, and John is calling us through the Word, through creation, to reorient ourselves to this flow of life within us. We all suffer, and in this Christmas season, are invited again to remember that in that suffering God suffers with us, Immanuel, and that the life which is the light, at the edge of the mysterious newness of darkness, is the pattern of death and resurrection through that suffering.
It seems out of place to talk about death and suffering in this season of joy, but we have also been misled to believe that this season is only about happiness and not about suffering. In fact, in this season where we celebrate the incarnation of the Word, we are invited to celebrate not the absence of suffering in our lives, but the presence of God in our suffering.
Can you see God dwelling in suffering in your life? Can you feel this current of all creation flowing in your humanity? How, in this season of Christmas, are you being invited deeper into your human experience, where God is already dwelling?
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