Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Word made Flesh (A Christmas day sermon from John 1:1-14)

Fr Richard Rohr shares a fascinating story he learned from a seasoned African missionary. When the priest first arrived in an African village he began by celebrating the Eucharist in a simple manner. He said to the people, “Now I’m going to celebrate a very simple means of sharing God’s love with you. Those of you who want to join in this meal are entering into God’s love.” Then he held out the bread to them and said, “Whoever eats this bread believes that your people are one people.” He explained to them the implication of this simple gospel, “That means you can’t hate one another anymore.” That’s how he shared the gospel.

Unknowingly, the priest had violated a custom of the tribe; namely, the men ate together, while the women and children ate separately. It was a disgrace for a man to eat with a woman. Unwittingly, the priest had gathered men and women around the sacred table and fed the bread to men and women as equals. This disturbed them, and the natives reacted quite vocally. The priest raised his voice over the murmurings and said, “In Christ there is no distinction between male and female.”

The people were dumbfounded at that statement. They wanted to know who this Christ was who made no distinction between men and women. The priest tried to explain, “He is the father of all. That means you are all brothers and sisters, and when you eat this bread, you are one in Christ.” At this, some began to move away, because it was humiliating for men to eat with women.

The great challenge for the priest was to communicate the gospel in their cultural context. For the priest the Eucharist struck at the very heart of the gospel, so his approach was to invite them to the sacred meal and as simply as possible explain to them, day after day, the meaning and implication of the ritual. He kept telling them they were one people and they were to love one another. In fifteen years, this created something of a social revolution in the tribe.

One day, the men came and literally laid their weapons at his feet, saying to him, “If the gospel you preach to us is true, if this Jesus, this Son of the Father, loves us in this total way, and if he is the Father of all the people in our village and the Father of the people in the village down the road, then we can’t kill them anymore.” Rohr comments, “In fifteen years this tribe learned what Western Civilization hasn’t been able to learn in two thousand years with all its complex versions of Christianity.”

The missionary told Fr Rohr that he saw no point in confusing these people by telling them about all the different denominations in Christendom. He just wanted to communicate Jesus’ and the Father’s love to them. After fifteen years, there were over ten thousand practicing Christians who were celebrating the Eucharist.

Then, a bishop of Rome assigned to investigate the situation asked the priest, “Do these people know that they are Catholics?” The priest responded, “No, I haven’t told them that yet.” The bishop tightened up and thought the situation was entirely out of control. He insisted that they had to know they were Catholic. The priest replied, “They are a catholic people. They are a universal people, open to all that God is saying and doing.” The bishop threw up his hands and returned to Rome.

The priest started thinking about how upset the bishop was and that perhaps he should teach them about the seven sacraments. So he gathered some of the elders together and explained to them that a sacrament is an encounter between God and humans, and that there were seven of these. All the elders looked puzzled, and finally one of them said, “But we thought there were at least seven hundred!”

It was at that moment the priest realized that he would be limiting their perception of Divine Reality if he were to insist that there were only seven moments when God encounters humans. These people were already sacramentally minded and more incarnational than even the most devout Westerners. They had no problem thinking that God communicates with humans through signs, symbols, rituals, and gestures; their  whole lives were filled with these things. They couldn’t imagine limiting these to seven. One of the great realities that the Christian religion has given to the world is the truth that God is here among us in many forms and expressions.

We who are followers of Jesus, we look to Jesus as the definitive, quintessential incarnation and revelation of God. Now, I do not insist that this must be so for all people, but for you and me who are followers of Christ, Jesus is our model and guide as to what God is like. We look to Jesus first of all.

And while we look to Jesus as a unique revelation of God, we need to remember that we are all unique, and the Divine character and goodness that was incarnated through the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus, can be incarnated in you and me in similar ways. Jesus shows us the human potential. According to John’s Gospel incarnation is the way God will save the world – that is heal the world, redeem the world, liberate the world, transform the world, and bring peace to the world.

The two particular aspects of the nature of God that are highlighted in John’s prologue are grace and truth: “The Word became flesh (and to keep this simple, the reference to Word or Logos is just another way of referencing the Divine) and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . . full of grace and truth.” I think we are pretty clear on what grace is and hardly needs any elaboration, but our understanding of truth probably needs expanding and maybe even in some ways correcting.

Truth in John’s Gospel, and in early Christianity in general, is not doctrinal or factual or propositional. It became that later in church history when creeds became popular. In this Gospel, however, Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life. Truth pertains to life – God’s life – and in particular the life embodied and modeled in the way of Jesus. So truth is first and foremost about a way of life.

It’s not about getting your beliefs correct. In fact, there is no standard dogma in scripture or anywhere where we can determine correct beliefs. In early Christianity there was quite a bit of diversity. And of course, God is so much more than any of our beliefs. When I talk about beliefs I like to talk about healthy and unhealthy beliefs, life affirming beliefs and life diminishing beliefs, not about correct or incorrect beliefs. In my opinion, a false belief is a belief that if acted on diminishes our lives in some way.
Truth relates to life. To live truly is to live with integrity and generosity and humility. To live in truth is to live for what is good, just, and right for all people.

Our scripture text today says that the Word that Jesus embodied, we too can embody. Our text suggests that what Jesus received we too can receive, that what Jesus incarnated we too can incarnate, and we do that by learning and receiving from Jesus. The text says that as many as receive Jesus, as many as believe in his name, they receive the power to become children of God. The way I read that is that they receive the power to fulfill, to actualize what they already have and realize or fulfill who they already are.

We all bear the image of God and we all are God’s daughters and sons. We all have the Divine life residing in us. Paul told the philosophers in Athens in Acts 17 that we are all God’s offspring and that in God we all live, move, and have our existence. Here in John’s prologue we are told that the Divine Source of Life is responsible for everything that exists and that this life is the light of all people. This light enlightens everyone, says John. Human beings may acknowledge this or be completely blind to the source of this light. Different religious traditions give this Light different names, but it is the same light that we see so beautifully radiating from the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

According to this text we Christians access this Light and Life by receiving Jesus, by believing in his name, that is, we enter into the experience and flow of the light and life of God when we open our hearts and minds to the grace and truth that Jesus lived out for us. We receive the power to live out our sonship and daughtership to God, we receive the power to actually mirror the image of God, when we trust in the sufficiency and adequacy of the grace and truth embodied by Jesus, and when we commit ourselves to the values that Jesus fleshed out for us. We receive power to reflect the light of God’s grace and truth when we are faithful to live out and practice daily the grace of Jesus and truth of Jesus. This is what faith is. We believe in and trust in the way of Jesus and we strive to be faithful everyday to actually living out our commitment to embody in our lives and relationships the grace and truth of God.

I love the story the late Fred Craddock use to tell about the time he and his wife were on vacation in the Smokey Mountains. The had left the kids with grandparents and they had just set down in a new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn which featured a beautiful view of the mountains.

As they waited for their food they were engaged in conversation by an elderly gentleman. Fred learned later that the gentleman who conversed with them had been twice elected governor of Tennessee. When he found out that Fred was a Disciples of Christ minister he pulled up a chair and told Fred his story.

He grew up in the mountains there and his mother was not married when she had him. In those days there was a lot of shame in that. So the reproach that fell on his mother fell also on him. When they went into town he could see people starring at him and making guesses as to who his father was. At school the children said ugly things to him and so he stayed to himself at recess and ate lunch alone.

Then in his early teens he began to attend a little Disciples of Christ church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. He would go just for the sermons. He told Fred he wasn’t sure why, but his sermons did something for him. He would arrive just in time for the sermon and hurry off quickly afterward. He was afraid a boy like him might not be welcome there.

One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before he could get out and make his way to the door, So as he stood there kind of pinned in he felt a big hand on his shoulder and he knew it was that minister. He turned around and looked him in the face. The minister paused and he just knew the minister was going to make a guess as to who his father was. A moment later the minister said, “Well, boy, I know who you are. You’re a child of . . .” then he paused again and continued, “Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.” Then he swatted him on the back and told him to go claim his inheritance. He told Fred there in that restaurant, “I left that church house a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

I can imagine that there were some in John’s church who felt like that when they opened their lives to the grace and truth of God embodied in Jesus. The challenge for us is to do that daily. To daily trust in the power of God’s grace and truth that we have come to experience in Jesus and then nurture this grace and truth so that the life of Jesus grows in us and is expressed in our relationships, in our attitudes and actions, and in all we say and do.

Our good God, we celebrate this Christmas day the Word made flesh. We give thanks for the grace and truth made visible in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. And we commit ourselves anew to live and embody the grace and truth of Jesus every day. Open our eyes so that we can see where we need to grow, where we need to let the light of your grace and truth shine into our own hearts, and may we then let it shine for others to see.


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