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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas 01/03/2016

Today’s gospel is the same one that is read on Christmas Day. This year, Terry preached on Christmas Day so I thought I was off the hook until I remembered that in years where there is a Second Sunday of Christmas, John 1 comes up again; so I didn’t avoid it after all. Don’t get me wrong, it is one of the most beautiful passages in the entire Bible, but it’s one of those where it seems like the best thing to do is to read it and then get out of the way.

Back when I was in seminary, I remember that one of the questions on the final exam for the Gospels class was to speculate on who wrote John’s gospel. Now that might sound like a silly question along the lines of “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” or “What jungle animal are the Detroit Lions named after?” but as is the case with all the gospels, while the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are assigned to them, we don’t really know who wrote them. So the intention of the exam question wasn’t to have us identify an individual but to speculate on the kind of person who wrote the gospel and what kind of community he or she was part of. What were the circumstances surrounding it all? There’s no right or wrong answer because no one knows; the idea I suppose was to make us think.

I don’t remember what I wrote. I’m pretty sure I have it upstairs in a file but I didn’t feel like looking for it for fear that I would be embarrassed by what drivel I might have written at the time. Twenty some years later though, I hope I have some thoughts that are of more value.

John is different from the other gospel writers in how he approaches things. For example, Luke’s gospel starts with the claim that it is an attempt to write an orderly account of the events around Jesus; I don’t think the author of John had any such notion of trying to be orderly, in fact you don’t have to read very much to become somewhat frustrated by the lack of order and logical sequence if that’s what you’re looking for. So for a long time I mostly thought of the author as being more of a theologian than a story teller. That’s not just my opinion; that tends to be the general consensus, in fact the tradition identifies him as St. John the Theologian as much of what became accepted Christian theology comes from this gospel. So what he writes is theological…but, spending time with John’s gospel over the years, more and more I see the poetic nature of it. There is theology to be sure, but it’s not systematic theology in any sense. There’s very little in the way of explanation because what John mostly does is to use words to create images. That’s what poets do.

The words and images do convey theological ideas, but as poetry those words and images aren’t intended to provide conclusive answers. They’re intended to inspire imaginative interpretation because the images and ideas are open ended. Despite it’s open ended, poetic nature though, this gospel has been used extensively in developing Christian theology. It has been figured out as it were, in order to provide answers and they are good answers. But I think it’s fair to ask if that’s what the author intended. Did he expect the early Christian community to settle on one answer, or is dwelling in the mystery OK?

In any case, coming back to the question of who wrote the gospel, I would speculate that the author of John was a poet, an inspired poet to be sure and today’s reading, the prologue to John’s gospel is particularly inspired. One commentator has gone so far as to say that it is “beyond the power of human beings to speak as John does in the prologue.”

You perhaps know that John was written significantly later than the other gospels, most likely at least twenty years later. For that reason I think it’s most likely that this author, this poet was part of an established Christian community and that he (and in that culture it was most likely a he) that he was very committed in his faith in Jesus. He’s convinced and deeply believes that Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh and he wants to convey that to belief to others.

One of the questions that’s often raised is “Did the author of John know about or have access to Matthew, Mark and Luke?” All you can really say is that if he did know about them he didn’t pay much attention apart from ending with a lengthy Passion story similar to the other three. Other than that, the structure of John is quite different and for the most part the events that he writes about are not the same as those recorded in the other gospels; there’s some overlap, but not much.

That makes me think that whoever wrote it quite intentionally set out to do something different, to provide another avenue for people to come to faith in Jesus, perhaps thinking that for those looking for a more straightforward narrative, there were already three versions available, so let’s do something different. John is more of a meditation than a story, less a linear recital of events than a reflective consideration of the deeper meaning of those events. So…the best way to approach John is not just to sit down and read it like a novel, but to approach it as a meditation, to go slowly, and that is especially true of today’s verses.

This prologue as it’s called, can be seen as another creation account beginning as it does with “In the beginning…” the same words that begin the book of Genesis. John however, places Jesus, the Word, in the beginning with God and right there, there is much on which to meditate. Jesus as preexistent with the Father became accepted Christian theology, but for the author of John to even speculate about that marked a radical theological departure, but it reflects his deep faith in Jesus and in what Jesus represents. For any of us it’s an idea worthy of reflection.

You could do worse than to take these eighteen verses one at a time, one day at a time and just take time and sit with a word, a phrase, an image. I don’t think it’s a reach to say that the author of John would say that would be a good way to approach his gospel.

I’m not going to do that with you this morning, I’m not going to go phrase by phrase or verse by verse, but I do want to highlight a couple of things. In this poem or hymn, John speculates on who he believes Jesus to be, but connected to that is speculation on who we are, specifically that we are “children of God.” “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” What that means is Jesus isn’t alone in the word made flesh business; as children of God, we join him.

Child of God is our baptismal identity, we hear those words spoken any time someone is baptized and then probably don’t think too much about it, we don’t think about the fact that those words were spoken to us. Again though, there’s a phrase that is worthy of meditation: children of God. Would life be different if we took this identity seriously for ourselves and for others?

Then there’s the word grace, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” The word grace only appears eight times in the gospels, four of the eight in John, all four in these verses. It’s another case where John offers speculation about Jesus describing him as full of grace and truth but then, there again is a connection to us as recipients of that grace upon grace. Having used the word four times in four verses though, John never uses it again, but there are plenty of examples of grace included in the rest of the gospel; rather than make the connections for us though, John invites us to make the connections.

Grace is something with which we want to make connections; it is such a central part of our theology but as Peter Marty says in the latest issue of The Lutheran magazine, as familiar as the idea is, we struggle with it because it works contrary to reason, against the grain of common sense that says you earn your way and you get what you deserve. Grace says otherwise; grace says that God knows everything about you but there’s no keeping score; regardless of what the score might be, God still loves and accepts you. The author of John invites us to consider this gift of grace upon grace and what it means for us.

This gospel text is a beautiful one and it is interesting to speculate on the kind of person who might have written it. What I have said may be right or it may be wrong, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. What matters are the words and the images as they invite us into a deeper relationship with Jesus, the Word made flesh.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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