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Incarnation – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

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Br. Eldridge PendletonIsaiah 61: 10-62: 3
Hebrews 1: 1-12
John 1:1-18

Several hundred years after the foundation of Christianity, while the new religion was still concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean but spreading rapidly over Europe, north Africa and the middle east, controversy broke out in the Church which caused serious dissension and could have destroyed any sense of unity.  There was much confusion over the true nature of God.  What was the nature of God?  Who was Jesus Christ and what was his relationship with God?  How did he fit into the cosmic scheme of salvation?  Was he God or was he flesh and blood or was he both?  Was he a great moral teacher like the Buddha, a historical figure of long ago or was he still a vital living presence in Christianity?  And what was the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the one Christ called the Comforter which he left for Christians when he went away so that his followers would not be left comfortless?

You may remember that the Church in those days was dominated by people strongly influenced by Greek culture who understood the nature of the world through philosophic argument.  It was through theological debate at the Council of Chalcedon in 325 CE that the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and accepted by a majority of Church delegates.  There was one God, but in three equal part; Father, Son and Spirit.  The canon of the NT was not officially accepted until 40 years later.

Some eastern branches of Christianity never accepted this doctrine because they understood the nature of Christ differently.  Others refused to see Jesus as equal to God the Father.  The Arian Christians reverenced him as a great moral teacher and an instrument of God, but nothing else.  This heresy was very popular and almost gained control of the Church in its early history, and still persists in institutional form in Unitarianism.  But the question of the identity of Christ remains a tough one for many Christians.  It is much easier to admit that he is divine and different, than that he is divine and also human just like us.  Many would rather he be a safe distance than having the same nature, the same temptations that we have, except that he did not sin.  Imagine Christ asking you, “Who do you say that I am?”  What would you say?

Recently, during one of our Sabbaths, some of the brothers and I watched the film classic, “The Heiress”, based on the Henry James’ novel “Washington Square.”  The story centers around a wealthy young woman named Catherine Sloper, an only child, portrayed by Olivia de Haviland, who is destined to be much wealthier when her father, Dr. Sloper, played by Ralph Richardson, eventually dies.  Montgomery Clift, in the role of Morris Townsend, a attractive young man becomes her suitor and proposes marriage.  Since he is penniless and has no job, Catherine’s father suspects Townsend is after his daughter’s money and intervenes.  This is a story about words and their power to create, give life and destroy.  Catherine, who is of marriageable age, has spent her whole life unsuccessfully trying to please her father.  But nothing about her pleases him.  He tells her how inadequate she is in every way, and his criticism has blighted her personality.  It has made her shy, awkward and subservient.  She is terrified by social situations and, as a consequence, despite her wealth and pleasing appearance, no man has ever shown any interest.  At a dance she meets Townsend, who showers her with compliments that bring her to life.  Within a week of their meeting he proposes marriage.  Her father threatens to disown her if she marries Townsend.  She is determined to elope with her suitor, but when she tells him she is losing her inheritance by doing so, Townsend abandons her.  Then in a heated argument with her father, she learns that he has never loved her.  Such rejection by the two men in her life transforms her character.  She is consumed by bitterness and anger.  When Catherine’s father is dying she refuses to nurse him.  After she inherits his estate, Townsend returns and tries again to marry her.  She seems to agree.  They arrange to elope.  When he comes for her she locks him out.  As the story ends Catherine is a different person than she was at the beginning.  She is strong and can take care of herself, but will probably never be able to trust or find happiness.  She is the victim of words.

Words are a creative force.  Words bring into being.  Words have the power to make us, to shape our development, to cause us either to flourish or never reach our potential, to know joy and sorrow, to love, to hate and to destroy.  In the first story of the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis, God speaks it into existence.  God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.”  The central figure in today’s gospel is the same as the one we worshipped as Mary’s newborn baby on Christmas Eve, but today he comes to us as Word and Life and Light.

Of the four gospels of the New Testament, John appeared last.  It was derived from a distinct community of Jesus’ followers and was shaped by their experience of living two generations according to his teaching.  Of the four it is the theological gospel.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, it contains no infancy narrative, nothing about a lowly birth in a stable in Bethlehem or the earthy and celestial events surrounding it.  Instead, in its magnificent prologue it explains the meaning of that humble birth and its significance for all God’s creation.  It describes the incarnation, the most central and foundational tenet of Christianity.  Through that birth at Bethlehem God took on human nature, was born of a human mother, Mary, and lived among us.  He is the creative force of God, called in John’s Prologue the Word.  All things came into being through him, and without him nothing came into being.  He is life and the life he brings is the light of all people.  Think of the implications of this statement.  All things come into being through him.  Think beyond the confines of Christianity to all the good done in the world, to the world’s other great religions.  In another place Jesus says ‘before the world was I am’.

He, the Word, gives life, not just to the human race but to all creation.  The light is God and God is love.  Jesus came to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him.  Jesus is our model of how to live.  To all who believe through him or because of him are given the power to become children of God.  He is the son of God, we, too, can be God’s children.  From our relationship with Christ we receive grace upon grace.

Those that gave us the Gospel of John believed that only at the time of Jesus’ death did he bestow his Holy Spirit on those disciples who believed in him and lived according to his teaching.  When we encounter the phrase “he gave up his spirit” in John’s account of the passion we take it as a euphemism for dying, but it arguably could have had both meanings.  They believed it was through the power of his Spirit breathed on them at his dying that they were able to have a living relationship with him long after his death.  It is by the Holy Spirit that we, too, can have a living relationship with Christ.  His spirit living in us fuels our creative force.  Not only does the Spirit enable us to know him, to hear his voice, to feel his touch, but it also enables us to become the means by which he becomes known to others and the perfecting of creation continues until sin and death are overcome and all have eternal life.  Behold what you are.  May we become what we receive.

When I was a very young man, a university undergraduate, I attended a parish whose rector concluded each Eucharist by leaving the altar reciting what was called the Last Gospel, the prologue of John.   This was a standard feature of many parishes a generation ago.  What was its purpose?  It underscored Christian belief that the mystery of the Incarnation, begun with Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is still at work in the world, and that all creation is sacred and should be treated as holy.  With Christ’s spirit working within us we can be the means by which his saving work is extended throughout the world.  We become his hands, his feet, his voice, and like Mary his mother, bring Christ into the world for others.  In the profound mystery of our relationship with the Word, the son of God, our words, too, have the power to create and enhance life.  Our direction, our encouragement, our concern can help others to be the people God intends them to be, filled with life and light and freedom.  We abuse this power and reject the life God offers us when we speak to persecute, shame and destroy.  Our best gift this Christmas is the life and light God gives us and the best gift we can give is that same life and light.

© 2008

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15 Comments

  1. susan zimmerman on December 26, 2016 at 09:34

    ….hoping for insight from Fr Pendleton on light…like me he appreciates the comments in Genesis 1:1-5 about the 1st thing God did in making nighttime and daytime, which is so taken for granted…these verses also became the ground on who got the Sabbath day correct..Jews or Christians…I think the ….. got it right what about you?

    …i think light is also closely related to the absolute of Time?

    “…And the combination of light and shade creates strong contrasts of planes, complexity, beauty, and interest to ones’ world, revealing the fullness of Gods’ creation…hence something of Gods’ nature.

    For many Muslims there is no more perfect a symbol of the DIVINE UNITY than light. “God is the light of the heavens and the earth…”

    With Jesus’ Last Passover ‘Remembrance’, (HE) replaced the Exodus NIGHTtime memory ON THAT NIGHTtme with a plea for Christians, to ‘remember’ him.

    Was Jesus able to anticipate his Fathers’ next ‘DAYtime’ resurrection, of himself? (I think he was based on the narrative/conversation about himself and his disciples meeting w/Elijah and Moses) .

    Passover and Resurrection night were NIGHTtimes only for Hashem/God…one wonders why God picked the NIGHTtime over the DAYtime for these two miracles…perhaps with God there truly is no darkness? Again, absolutes while not God, tell one something of Gods’ nature…God NIGHT and DAY times…eternal time?

    …we must not take for granted our NIGHT and DAY times

  2. CR on December 26, 2016 at 07:55

    Thanks be to God for Br. Eldridge, of blessed memory.

    • DLa Rue on December 26, 2016 at 09:31

      Indeed. His sense of historicity and humor were ever a delight. — DLa Rue

  3. Nancy Barnard Starr on December 16, 2014 at 13:46

    Thank you Br Eldridge, for such meaningful words. I hear your gentle accent as I read them! At the small church where I lately have occasion to preach, there is a plaque by the side of the pulpit, there just for the preacher, that reads: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Reading your sermon, I can see him that much more clearly this morning.

  4. Page on December 9, 2014 at 11:02

    This is exactly what I needed today. I have been dealing with a dishonest person, and it has been hard to be honest with her, the way she deserves it. Everyone deserve my honestly, & respect no matter if the are or aren’t themselves.

  5. Sandra Ahn on June 11, 2014 at 00:04

    How wonderful that you are providing translations in Spanish. I can share your wonderful sermons with members of my church, St James of Oakland (California). I hope you will continue to provide translations so we may share this in our Adult Education also.
    With appreciation,
    Sandra of Oakland

  6. William Coats on June 10, 2014 at 07:30

    Dear brother,
    Forgive me if I make two corrections. First it was the Council of Nicea and not Chalcedon. Second Arianism was deficient not in seeing Jesus as merely a moral teacher. Nor did they deny his divine nature. They simply defined divinity in such a way as to deny the Son the same fundament as the Father. Unitarianism is not Arian; it is an Enlightenment phenomenomm

  7. Cyndi Wigdahl on June 10, 2014 at 07:28

    To be read again and again… Your words encourage the spirit in me to soar! Hallelujah!

  8. Kalita Blessing on October 28, 2013 at 07:54

    Brother Eldridge:
    Loved reading your meditation on the importance of the Word!

    Sending you love and light,
    Kalita

  9. Clarice Boyd on January 7, 2013 at 16:26

    Your message, Br. Eldridge, is very timely. Christ’s question, “Who do they say I am?” was the focus of class discussion in church yesterday. It was meant to be a contemplative pursuit, so I doubly appreciated the message chosen for today. Once more, I have found the sermons and messages of the Brothers of St. John the Evangelist have echoed my own thoughts and perceptions about Christ in my life. Thank you, and may God continue to bless the efforts of your order.

  10. jane goldring on January 7, 2013 at 12:44

    thanks eldridge for those words what you are may we become what we receive. i try and remember those words when i go up for communion. i think if we are able to help people while they are need helps us also. we certainly do not do this to draw attention to ourselves, as we never know when we are going to need help or guidence. all we can do is try to do the best we can in spreading our lords word by speech and action. jane

  11. Anders on January 7, 2013 at 06:07

    Thanks for the connecting “Word” with Jesus statement that ‘before the world was I am’. It reminds me of the name for God in the Old Testament as the great I Am. I see Word as a promise and try to avoid it as a contextual linguistic tool, particularly in our media saturated age.

    I believe that the literal words spoken by Jesus in Aramaic were quite different than the Greek words which defined early Christianity. American English provides many of our faith parameters, even as a language with hundreds of words for money and few for love. It’s easy to get hung up on words and confuse the yadayada of our brain busyness with the Word, the promise of the great I AM. You remind me to listen.

  12. Marty Byer on December 1, 2011 at 12:36

    I look forward each day to “Brother, give us a word”, such meaty words of wisdom in just a sentence or two.

    My thanks particularly to Br. Eldridge (Pierre). I knew when he was a student at North Texas State and I was at TWU, our paths crossed regularly at Canterbury Club.
    Marty (Russell) Byer

  13. DLa Rue on December 1, 2011 at 06:33

    The Prologue is found here, among other sites, with its Greek original and in translation:

    http://biblescripture.net/Prologue.html

    I’m recalling a class at BC in which the instructor (Harvey Egan) related an insight he’d heard from his teacher (Karl Rahner, I believe) long before….I think there’s an article on it as well.

    Rahner pointed out that so often people try to define “mystery” as something concrete, to hold on to, and to possess. Squabbles over liturgical ritual actions are so often based on one side or the other (or both)’s belief that a certain practice is more consistent with the mystery of the Eucharist than some other.

    The idea of reciting the prologue as one departs–of putting action to the words–emphasizes for me what Egan, citing Rahner, pointed out: that it’s not mystery, but the mysterious, that we need to attend to: the mysterious nature of the Word made Flesh is not to be concretized but experienced, that performative action is consistent with the ephemeral nature of life, as lived in the assurance of a grace that is itself never concrete but fluid.

    And which flows freely and without cost, given in love, and recalled to us in the words of service and readings throughout our lives.

    Even the Word, enfleshed, could not be contained, but was and is released to us in liveliness all our days. …Emmanuel, God with us and among us, ever and always, Amen.

  14. Carl Riedy on December 1, 2011 at 06:14

    This reflection reminds me of a simple phrase, which not only captures a sense of the Trinity but also the pro-active role of the Paraclete and our personal goals as followers of Christ.

    Come God with grace and awaken the Spirit.
    Come God with grace and speak through me
    Spirit.

    May God be with you today.

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