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Christmas Day, Set III (Year B), St Mark’s, 25.12.02
Isaiah 52.7-10: How beautiful upon the mountains ... see the salvation of our God
Ps 98: He comes to judge in righteousness and equity
Hebrews 1.1-4, (5-12) - whole reading - note use of scripture
John 1.1-14: Logos/Sophia structure. - original text (later anti-docetically redacted)
Summary: At Christmas” we celebrate that in Jesus we have met the one who has made known the Father as the God who is Love.
Today we are celebrating the birth of Jesus.
How do we assess him? Or, to put it in a phrase from the gospels, “What think ye of Christ?”
Our reading from Hebrews, probably written about 85 AD, is concerned to refute those who thought that Jesus was some kind of angel, that is a messenger from God, but not much more than that. And so the author piles on one scriptural text after another to argue that Jesus is much more than an angel. He is the Son of God and the agent of all creation. In our reading he quotes from Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, Isaiah and five different psalms to make his case. He has very carefully picked passages from what we call the Old Testament that will support the understanding of Jesus that he and other Christians have in his day. We are left in no doubt of his answer to the question, “What think ye of Christ?”
We have just had for our gospel the first fourteen verses of the Gospel according to St John, verses which use the term “Logos” , which means “Word”. In these verses this term is used in a way that is like nothing else in the whole gospel. These verses are often called the Prologue.
As I have told you before, St John’s Gospel went through at least four stages of writing. This Christmas Day I would like to show you this morning’s gospel in what was probably its original form. The reason I want to share this with you is that I believe it will help you to understand how one thing led to another, so to speak, in the evolving Christian confession of who Jesus is for us.
The opening of John’s gospel is a hymn about Wisdom. Wisdom in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha is at God’s side and stands for God’s will and way. It is through Wisdom that God has created all things. In Jewish understanding, God’s Wisdom came to dwell in Israel as the Torah. It is from this base that the beginning of John’s Gospel was penned, substituting for the term “Wisdom” a term more easily identified by Greeks, namely, “Logos” or “Word”.
We shall look at the prologue in four parts, verses 1 and 2, verses 3 to5 plus 10, verses 11 and 12, and finally verse 14.
The first two verses assert that Wisdom - stroke -Logos was with God from the beginning and everything in Wisdom is of God.
We omit verses 6 to 9 about John the Baptist, because they are a later insertion.
This leaves us with verses 3 to five plus 10, which assert that it is through the Logos that all things have come to be, including all true human wisdom, even though human wisdom does not encompass, or comprehend, or overcome the Word in its fullness.
The third section, verses 11 and 12 are about the Word coming to Israel, not as the written Torah, but as Jesus.
The Word’s own people did not accept him, but all those who did accept him, he empowered to become God’s children.
Verse 13 is a later addition, and now we come to our last verse, verse 14, which originally read:
“And the Word became Spirit and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
That is, the Word which has come as Jesus is now in our midst as Spirit.
If the Word has come in Jesus as God’s Advocate, his Paraclete, then the Spirit is that other Paraclete or Advocate that we find Jesus speaking of in John’s Gospel, as the one who will bring to mind all that has been seen and heard in Jesus.
In summary, (1) the Word at God’s side encompasses his will and way; (2) the Word is the agent of creation; (3) the Word has come as Jesus, and (4) the Word now dwells in our midst as Holy Spirit. This is the original structure and meaning of the prologue.
Now to deal with the additions. Verses six to nine about John the Baptist were added because it was felt necessary for two reasons, firstly, to give due recognition to John, but secondly, at the same time to put him in his place as no more than a witness pointing to the Christ.
The addition of Verse 13 adds what was felt to be a necessary emphatic stress on it’s being God’s action alone and nothing of our own doing that makes us his children. And in verse 14 “the Word became Spirit and dwelt among us” was changed to “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Why were these last changes made?
They were among the changes, including the story of doubting Thomas, that were made to combat the gnostic-type anti-materialism of some groups. These gnostic groups claimed to have special spiritual knowledge available to the select few, and gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge”, which is why they were called “Gnostics”. Hellenistic culture tended to be dualistic, that is, it tended to make a strong separation of the physical world from the spiritual world and gave value only to the latter. Hence, matter, for which the Greek word is hulé, was considered to be dirty, and something to be avoided or escaped from.
This outlook is represented, for example, in the gnostic writing known as “The Apocryphon of John”. In this writing the apostle John is weeping because his Lord has been crucified, and his Lord appears to him and says, in effect, “Don’t weep for me. When that poor sap was nailed up on the cross, I hopped off.” That is, our Lord was not really human, he only seemed to be. To combat this the editors of John’s Gospel added the story of doubting Thomas, they may have been responsible for emphasizing the water and blood flowing from the spear wound at the cross, and probably also the mention of the abiding scars of the wounds on Jesus’ body in the resurrection story of Easter Day. They also changed one word in the Prologue. Where it had said “And the Word became Spirit”, they changed it to “and the Word became flesh”, sarx, good gutsy flesh. Their intentions were good, but the change they made in chapter one, verse 14, broke up the intended structure and meaning of the prologue. In the original the whole prologue was about the Word, with only the third part being directly about Jesus. But once “Spirit” had been replaced by “flesh” in verse 14, it became natural to read the whole of the prologue as being about Jesus as the Word, and then it became almost inevitable that he would be viewed as being pre-existent, which is why we end up in the Nicene Creed as saying “he came down from heaven”.
But it was not always like that, as you can hear when you listen carefully, as I read to you the opening of the first letter of John, written toward the end of the first century AD and which is built on the original understanding of the prologue. Here it is:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life -- this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us -- we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
The manuscripts indicate that the last bit may equally be read as “so that your joy may be complete”.
But, in any case, our joy cannot be complete unless your joy is also complete, for the joy of life in Christ is to be shared.
The opening of 1 John witnesses to the Spirit-filled community in which Christ as God’s Wisdom is made known. It is also the same letter that stresses that one must confess that Jesus is the Christ, he is the Son of God, and he has come in the flesh. And this is the letter that reaches the ultimate confession: “God is love”.
What Jesus’ followers and those who came after them had experienced and bore witness to was that in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, they had met and seen all that they knew of God, his love and faithfulness and his concern for all people. It was to bear witness to this enfleshing, this incarnation of God’s will and way, that led them inevitably to identify Jesus as the Word made flesh that has dwelt among us.
It is as we incarnate in our daily lives the Word made present and known to us by the Spirit that we are the Body of Christ, in effect, the ongoing incarnation of God’s will and way, his very Word.
Christmas may be a concocted feast, that is, one made up in the fourth century, but we cannot go wrong if we celebrate it in the words of the hymn, “Love came down at Christmas”, for in Jesus we have met the one who has made known the Father as the God who is Love.