The reading you just heard from John is the opening of his Gospel and is John’s version of a birth story. Isn’t that strange? Well, let’s back up a bit and put it in context.
The earliest Gospel was Mark. And what did Mark have for a birth narrative? – – – Right, nothing. Mark’s gospel begins with the arrival of John the Baptist. And Mark’s Gospel always seems to be asking, “Who is this Jesus person?” Towards the end Jesus is called the son of God.
The next Gospel written was Matthew. In this Gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and the heir to the throne of David. Thus it begins with a genealogy that goes back to David. The birth narrative is all about Joseph, how the angel came to him twice, how the Magi came to visit, how Joseph took his family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath and how Herod murdered all the children in Bethlehem under two. Mary is barely mentioned.
The third Gospel is Luke, who is writing to a gentile audience rather than a Jewish one. In Luke Jesus is the divine/human savior with a universal mission to all people, especially the lowly and the outcaste. This is the birth story we know the best, the one we heard this Christmas. It contains the story of the annunciation to Mary, the same for Elizabeth and Zechariah, the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, and the wonderful songs: of Mary, called the Magnificat; of Zechariah; of Simeon. Luke also includes a genealogy, but it goes all the way back to Adam. Thus Jesus is for all people.
John’s Gospel is written the latest, and it is so different from the first three because John does not so much report events as he tells us what he thinks the events mean. There’s no better example of this than in today’s reading. Instead of any kind of birth narrative we have a theological statement about what the arrival of Jesus into the world means. Not only does John not mention anything about birth, he never mentions Mary by name anywhere and only mentions Joseph a few times as the father of Jesus.
If we look at what these opening lines say, we can see why John doesn’t bother with the kind of detail we get in the other Gospels. “In the beginning . .” is how he opens the first line of the Gospel. And what does that remind you of? – – – – – – Indeed, those are the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth . . .”
John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Word is capitalized and is translated from the Greek word ‘logos.’ The commentator Barclay goes to great lengths to explain that logos is not just word, but also reason. And we need to remember how it was that God created the world in Genesis 1. He created it by saying words. “Let there be light, and there was light.” For the Jews and the Greeks, words had the power to create.
Throughout the Gospel of John, Word is synonymous with Jesus. Jesus was the word of God made flesh. But the most surprising statements of John come next. “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
This is a claim that Jesus or Christ existed before time and participated in the creation along with God, or is God. In other words, John is proclaiming the full and exclusive divinity of Jesus. Jesus is not just the Messiah and the Savior, he is fully divine. It’s no wonder John doesn’t want to reference his birth or his parents.
Later in this reading John says Jesus came into a world that was already his own, but that people did not accept him. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
So John would claim that the only way we can become children of God is to believe in the name of Jesus. This is the beginning of the strain of Christianity that essentially says that salvation is based on your belief that Jesus was the divine son of God. Faith in that statement or acceptance of Jesus as your Savior is the means of salvation and makes you a child of God.
As you well know, there is another strain of Christianity that says we are all children of God because we are all part of God’s creation, whether we recognize it or not; that God gave us the gift of free will to accept or reject Jesus and his teachings.
I know from my participation in confirmation classes this year, that this sort of statement drives the young people a bit crazy. They want to know what is true. I’m not sure whether it is a real drive for truth or whether it’s a concern about what to say on quizzes and tests. But I sympathize with them, because it’s so much easier to be told what to hold true than to have to try to figure it out for yourself.
I would guess that many of us hold to John’s position, since that essentially became the orthodox theology of the church. Another way of putting it is that Jesus was absolutely unique and in no way like the rest of us. He could live in this world without sin, he could perform miracles, he could rise from the dead. In our church, believing in him alone has not been enough. We’re also expected to follow his teachings.
But there may be some of us who believe Jesus came to be a role model for us, to teach us how to live and to show us that we are all God’s children, even the least of us. And also to show us that life does not end in death. For such believers, the divinity of Jesus is probably not as important as his humanity.
I expect that we all agree that following Jesus means trying to live as he taught us to live. We all would agree that Jesus was an intensely spiritual person and in close contact with God.
But the most important part of all this is that people of different theological positions can still come together to worship and to break bread and to listen to the stories of our faith. We are so lucky to live in a tradition that allows this.
I’m sure you remember the quip I’ve used before – that whenever three or four Episcopalians gather together there are at least five different opinions. Since there’s so much we cannot be certain about, this is a healthy thing and something to be celebrated. Thanks be to God!