A sermon by James F. McGrath
Preached at Crooked Creek Baptist Church, Indianapolis
June 7th 2009
The Gospel of John has been compared to a magic pool in which small children can wade up to their ankles, while at the same time large elephants can dive right into it. Its language is plain and familiar: light and darkness, love, world, Word – and of course glory, which will be a focus in today’s sermon. Yet if we dig beneath the surface, to see if anything lies beneath that first appearance of simplicity, we find the ‘rabbit hole’ winds down, with paths stretching out of sight. The first 18 verses of John’s Gospel are usually referred to as its prologue. They provide both a summary of the Gospel’s main themes and emphases, and the lens through which we are expected to read all that follows.
Before we turn our attention to John 1:1-18, let’s begin (as we’ve become accustomed to) with a story. When I think of the ways in which there can be different views of what is valuable, of what “glory” is, of how one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, I find myself thinking about a true story about the discovery of one of our oldest manuscripts of the New Testament. In the 19th century, there was a German New Testament scholar named Lobegott Friedrich Constantine von Tischendorf. His career aim was, by carefully studying and comparing manuscripts, to recover the original form of the New Testament. On a journey to Egypt, he came across a manuscript that would come to be known as Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth century edition of scripture that represents one of the earliest complete copies of the Greek Bible in existence. Tischendorf describes his discovery as follows:
“It was on the foot of Mount Sinai, in the Convent of St Catherine, that I discovered the pearl of all my researches. In visiting the monastery in the month of May 1844, I perceived in the middle of the great hall a large and wide basket full of old parchments; and the librarian who was a man of information told me that two heaps of papers like these, moldered by time, had been already committed to the flames. What was my surprise to find amid this heap of papers a considerable number of sheets of a copy of the Old Testament in Greek, which seemed to me to be one of the most ancient that I had ever seen. The authorities of the monastery allowed me to possess myself of a third of the parchments, or about forty three sheets, all the more readily as they were designated for the fire. But I could not get them to yield up possession of the remainder. The too lively satisfaction which I had displayed aroused their suspicions as to the value of the manuscript. I transcribed a page of the text of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and enjoined on the monks to take religious care of all such remains that might fall their way.”
Tischendorf did eventually obtain the manuscript, though 15 years would pass before he managed to. What is most striking (and, particularly to someone like me who works in the field of New Testament, most horrifying) is that this particularly important manuscript of the New Testament was almost used to light fires and lost to us. For Tischendorf, as for other New Testament scholars, finding the earliest possible manuscripts was a key step in figuring out what the New Testament originally looked like. We don’t have the originals, and so the earlier copies we can find, the closer we get to the originals. If some of you have read the King James version, and then read a more recent translation, and noticed that there are differences in places, with words or even whole phrases added or omitted, this is the reason: because earlier manuscripts have been found since the time when the King James translation was made. But the thinking of many in Tischendorf’s time was that copies should follow the official version that had been approved by the Emperor Constantine a millennium and a half earlier. And so there was no value in keeping old, deteriorating manuscripts – especially ones that differed from the approved version – when the monks themselves had made plenty of newer ones that were in better shape. But what to some was merely old and deteriorating material that would be useful for kindling, to others was valuable evidence about the early forms of the New Testament and the history of its copying. Today when you read the Gospel of John, the translators have taken into account the evidence of this important manuscript.
I share this story with you, because it illustrates so clearly how, as the saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. The TV show Antique Roadshow exists precisely because people find items at yard sales and are astounded to find they are valuable, while others preserve family heirlooms that turn out to be worth very little – in monetary terms, at least; they often have sentimental value. And thinking about this is relevant to the prologue or introduction to the Gospel of John, because we read, soon after the mention of the incarnation, when “the Word became flesh”, that “we beheld his glory”. But what is this glory? Does it consist of the sorts of things that human beings are generally inclined to consider glorious? Or does seeing God’s glory in the life of Jesus require us to rethink what glory is? Is God’s treasure our trash, and vice versa?
But let us not jump ahead. The Gospel of John begins “in the beginning” with an echo of Genesis 1. It then immediately introduces a concept familiar in the time when this Gospel was written, but which cries out for explanation for today’s readers. Why call that which John is referring to here the “Word”? Why not use some other term? How can the Word be both God and “with God”? Perhaps most importantly, why doesn’t the Gospel of John ask, much less answer, such questions? If we can figure that out, it will help us to understand better what it means to say that “the Word became flesh” – and what the significance is from our perspective that “the flesh has become words”, that we encounter the Word become flesh through written words, like those we are reading and thinking about together today.
The English word “Word” doesn’t precisely correspond to the Greek word used here in John’s Gospel. The Greek word in question is logos (from which we get not only the English word ‘logic’ but also the ‘-logy’ in words like theology and biology). It meant not only the spoken or written word, but also the word as thought, as reason, existing in the mind. The Greek philosophical school known as the Stoics used the term to denote the ‘world soul’, the underlying principle that was thought to account for the order in the universe. From them, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus’, borrowed the term in order to explain how a God who is perfect, transcendent and ultimately beyond human knowledge and comprehension, could nonetheless have become known and revealed to the creation. This was a term that already had a long history of use and a rich depth of meaning. And so, when the Gospel of John said that the Word became flesh in and as the human life of Jesus, it meant what the Gospel’s author and his contemporaries would have understood: Jesus is the expression in a human life of the meaning of existence, and of God’s own revelation.
Something similar occurs when God’s Word becomes flesh, and when Jesus’ flesh becomes words, reaching us through the medium of the stories and teachings in the Gospels. God does not simply speak his own language, as it were. God does not bring God’s pure essence before humanity and say “Understand if you can” – as though we ever could. God reaches out to creation through creation. This ‘incarnational principle’ becomes a guiding force of Christianity, as the early Christians focused not on preserving the very words Jesus spoke in his own native language (Aramaic), but focused on translating the message into other languages so that more people could understand (and hence the New Testament documents were written in Greek, and translated quite early into other languages such as Latin and Syriac – and much later into English). Any time you translate, meaning is lost and new meaning is created. Yet Christianity never claims that there is a divine language that people must learn if they wish to hear what God is saying. Rather it claims that God can and indeed must be encountered in a human life, and through human words.
The famous Christian author on missions, Leslie Newbiggin, once wrote: “The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion. It is, in fact, an abandonment of the gospel, for the gospel is about the word made flesh…. Yet the gospel, which is from the beginning to end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied” (Foolishness to the Greeks, p.4).
And so any form of Christianity that seems focused solely and exclusively on preserving past meaning, on conserving old forms, is missing the incarnational and translational impetus that has not only been the driving force behind the Christian mission, and the rationale behind the composition of the Gospels in Greek and their translation into still other languages like English, but is also central to the understanding of Jesus found in this Gospel.
There is a great deal more – perhaps infinitely more – that we could say about this passage in John’s Gospel, than we’ll have time to get into today. Indeed, at the other end of the Gospel, its author will acknowledge that one could potentially fill all the books of the world with words about Jesus. This tells us something else important about God’s self-revelation as this Gospel presents it. There is infinitely more to God than can be expressed in the years of Jesus’ life, just as there is more to the life of Jesus than can be expressed in this book, or the other three written about him that were included in the New Testament, or the countless more written since. John’s Gospel acknowledges this twice here in the prologue. We are told that the Word gives light to every human being. We also have the Word depicted as coming repeatedly into the world – even prior to the incarnation, which is only brought into the picture in verse 14. When the Gospel’s author spoke of the Word being in the world and yet being rejected, he had in mind the activity of the Word throughout human history, and not just in Jesus. For the author of this Gospel, as for Christians more generally, we see in Jesus the ultimate revelation of God, but by no means the only revelation of God. Ironically, the fact that some Christians fail to understand this point simply illustrates the risk God takes, the risk the Gospel authors take, the risk inherent in the attempt to communicate with others. The gospel message does not remain in its first century context and language, where such a misunderstanding was less likely, where the author’s willingness to draw on terminology developed within other traditions of thought in order to articulate his own faith was plain to see.
These considerations bring us to the heart of the matter, in the heart of John’s prologue: what does it mean to ‘behold his glory’? Some readers, under the influence of their understanding of the prologue, have gotten the impression that Jesus as depicted in this Gospel is scarcely human, striding an inch above the ground, emitting a glowing halo like in so many paintings.
Yet sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said. There is one story, included in the other three Gospels, in which Jesus is depicted on a mountain like (and with!) Moses, glowing and visibly transfigured. But the Gospel of John includes no such story. This would seem surprising, if John meant to say that he “beheld his glory” in the sense of seeing Jesus literally shine.
Towards the end of the Gospel of John, the purpose of its writing is expressed in terms of believing that Jesus is the Christ. As in the case of the Logos or Word, so too there was an already-existing idea of what the glory of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, ought to look like. Anointing with oil was used to symbolize the setting apart of the nation’s king or high priest for their role of leadership. When Jews spoke of a single anointed one, they usually had the king in mind. The expectation that God would restore a descendant of David to the throne was not merely a religious hope. If we take the closest parallel in our own context, most people don’t hope a particular candidate will be elected president merely so that their chosen person or party wins. They expect their president to lead them into economic prosperity and, when appropriate, military victory. The glory of the expected Messiah had to be all that and more.
It is only by making such comparisons, however inadequate, that we can get a sense of just how bizarre the early Christians’ talk of Jesus as Messiah would have seemed to people in that time. Imagine a group who claimed that the president was not the person elected in the most recent election, but rather a person who had recently been executed as a criminal. That isn’t what we usually think of when we speak of “glory”. And so, while much that John said of the Word up until this point could have been said by various philosophers of that time, his association of the glory of the Word with flesh in v.14 was startling. Flesh, both in Judaism and various strands of Greek thought, had connotations of weakness, of something distant from divine perfection. And when we know that he had in mind the flesh of a crucified man, the shocking character of what John wrote becomes clearer still.
We may recall at this point the words of another New Testament author. The apostle Paul talks about God’s treasure being placed in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7) – in clay pots – and of God’s strength being made perfect in weakness. When Paul talks about the Christian life in these terms, it is closely connected with the centrality of Jesus as the paradoxical crucified Messiah. But is this true even of the Gospel of John, in which we hear so much about glory, about light, about exaltation?
Yes, and the latter instance is yet another example of the paradoxical and counterintuitive character of glory in the Gospel of John. Three times in this Gospel we are told that “the Son of Man must be lifted up”, and being lifted up can mean being exalted. But in Aramaic, the same word could also be used in reference to crucifixion – to being physically lifted up, like being hoisted up on the gallows. And so, while most early Christians spoke of Jesus’ crucifixion and his subsequent exaltation, the Gospel of John finds a way of combining the two in a single phrase. This serves to highlight the paradox of Jesus’ glorification by means of the cross.
Why is it important for us to understand that Jesus’ glory of which this Gospel speaks was not a visible halo that surrounded him, or a reference to his clear success? Because unless we understand this, we have never truly been confronted with the challenge of the cross, with the scandal of a suffering Messiah.
The challenge is not something limited to our time, to those viewing Jesus from our distant standpoint in history. Sometimes we may be tempted to think that, if we had a time machine, and could go back to the first century and watch Jesus’ ministry for ourselves, then we would never have any doubts any longer. All our questions would be answered, all our uncertainties would disappear.
But to think this way ignores the fact that there were people who themselves saw Jesus’ public (and in some cases private) actions with their own eyes, heard him speak with their own ears, and did not believe. As is so often the case, those who knew him best (at least on one level), those who knew him when he was growing up, did not see the glory. The folk in his home town scoffed, and his family even thought he had gone out of his mind. Seeing Jesus’ glory is something very different than just seeing Jesus. And it seems that seeing his glory did not mean being overwhelmed by miracles, being confronted with events and realities so inexplicable that there was no choice but to believe. Whatever Jesus’ childhood was like, it wasn’t as depicted in some of the stories that were written in the era after the New Testament, to fill in the so-called “missing years” from Jesus’ childhood with accounts of increasing numbers of increasingly-astounding miracles. It was Jesus’ ordinariness in so many respects that made it hard for some to see in him that which was truly extraordinary.
There is a Michael Card song that talks about this aspect of Jesus’ life and how it confronts us when we are challenged to follow him. The song is called “God’s Own Fool”. Here are some of the lyrics:
Seems I’ve imagined Him all of my life
As the wisest of all of mankind
But if God’s Holy wisdom is foolish to men
He must have seemed out of His mind
For even His family said He was mad
And the priests said a demon’s to blame
But God in the form of this angry young man
Could not have seemed perfectly sane
When we in our foolishness thought we were wise
He played the fool and He opened our eyes
When we in our weakness believed we were strong
He became helpless to show we were wrong
And so we follow God’s own fool
For only the foolish can tell-
Believe the unbelievable
And come be a fool as well
If we travelled back to the first century, to see with our own eyes, we would see a human being. We might find as we listened to him that he speaks the words of eternal life. But there would be no unearthly glow singling him out from the crowd, no visible halo about his head.
And so the challenging question is this: if I beheld him in the flesh, would I have perceived glory, or not? Would I have been among those who demanded a sign, or would I have said, like Peter, even though I didn’t really grasp what Jesus was saying, that I have nowhere better to go, recognizing that he has the words of eternal life?
The biggest hurdle to perceiving his glory is the fact that what we as human beings regard as glorious is not necessarily what God’s glory is like. As Paul wrote, God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. So also God’s shame, as it were, God’s abasement, God’s humility is more splendid than our glory. But it is different from our glory, not merely further along the same spectrum. And so, if we are not to undermine the Gospel message and its challenge, we must make sure we do not try to make Jesus, or the Christian message, more glorious, more impressive, by human standards. It is good to remember that those things we expect to be praised for, those things we consider our greatest accomplishments, may not be viewed that way from a heavenly perspective, as it were.
The prologue of John’s Gospel is focused on the Word made flesh as Jesus. In Paul’s letters, we read of the same Spirit that was in Christ dwelling in us, and of ourselves being knit together and indwelt as the body of Christ. And so the challenge of John’s Gospel does not only relate to our understanding of who Jesus is, but who God is, and what we ought to expect God to be doing in and through us. For the need continues for people to behold his glory, in what little glimpses of it they may see in your life and mine. And the temptation we continue to face is to try to be spectacular and impressive in ways that the world will appreciate, so that they might come to believe. But truly believing in Jesus and following him is not about being impressed by his worldly success, as though he did all the things that people expected the Messiah to do, but choosing to follow one whom the world rejected, and to see God’s glory revealed precisely there. This understanding should shape our understanding of Jesus, of our mission, and of ourselves.
The challenge of allowing God’s glory to be seen in our lives is the same challenge of seeing it in Jesus. It is not a challenge to somehow step out of our human weakness, outside of our own limitations, and to be truly impressive. It is to allow God to be revealed precisely in and through our weakness, in and through our flesh. When we do that, amazing things can happen, as people behold his glory present and working in and through us.
 From http://todayinchurchhistory.blogspot.com/2006/05/may-24-1844-codex-sinaiticus.html quoting Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus.
 For a story illustrating this point, see http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2009/05/great-theologian-parable-based-on-true.html
 As one theologian recently put it, “It is the Spirit’s work to draw what might otherwise be a cacophonic disunity into symphony. The Spirit worked to transcribe God’s music for playing on the human instrument of Jesus of Nazareth; the Spirit now works to orchestrate that theme for an ensemble of billions” (Mike Higton, Christian Doctrine, (SCM 2008), 161).