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.
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