What we have just heard, which reverberates so mysteriously in our hearts, is often called the Prologue of John’s Gospel–the very first 18 verses. It is a brief, but majestic overture to the magnificent Fourth Gospel, laying out the themes of God, creation, life, light, grace, truth, humanity, Jesus. The Prologue is striking in its cosmic sweep, gathering up, well, everything: all things came into being through him. This Prologue is about everything that is, and how all things came to be.Paradoxically, the Gospel of John ends with a scene of great personal tenderness and intimacy. The final scene of this gospel takes place after a breakfast of bread and grilled fish on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter says he does. Jesus asks again and then a third time if Peter loves him—three times, echoing Peter’s three denials before the cock crowed on that terrible night. Peter tells him each time, yes, I love you.
Then Peter asks Jesus about the Beloved Disciple, the one who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper. Or—translating closely—who reclined in the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper. We Brothers are a community dedicated to this disciple who reclined in the bosom of Jesus. If there is a single image that represents who we are, it is the image of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple. That phrase, “in the bosom of Jesus”, incidentally, echoes the last few words of the Prologue: “It is God the only Son, who is into the bosom of the Father” who has made God known. These images of tender intimacy exist side by side with the immensity of the creation of the cosmos, all that is. Incidentally, the Beloved Disciple is in the bosom of Jesus, translating closely; Jesus is into the bosom of the Father—a slight difference.
We Brothers have an affinity for the Gospel of John. Some of us have a particular fascination with the Prologue; I think that over the years I have drawn more on these 18 verses for my own prayer and for preaching than any other part of the Bible. I’m drawn to the sheer richness of the writing, the multiplicity of themes, the rhythm of its cadences, the mystery of it all. And there is this unexpected juxtaposition of the broad, cosmic sweep with tender human intimacy.
The wisest thing for me to have done following the reading of the Prologue would have been to sit down and be quiet. The second wisest thing may have been to arrange some familiar pieties in some pleasing, fresh way and then sit down. But, as a poet once put it [Alexander Pope]: “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. For reasons I do not understand I have chosen the foolish option and shall rush in and talk about one little word, which I find tremendously fascinating—I’m quite bedazzled by it, actually, and I keep going back to it again and again, wondering what it could mean. A little warning: what I’m about to do is peel the onion a bit, figuratively speaking. But the problem with peeling the onion is that onion peeling can make you cry. But I guarantee that my little scriptural exegesis will be over in just a few minutes.
I want to talk about a word in the Prologue that you didn’t actually hear. I think this is because it has stumped translators from early on, starting with St. Jerome’s translation from Greek into Latin in the fourth century. What we heard in verse 1 is: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is mystifying enough. What we would have heard had the translators stuck to the original is: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was toward God and the Word was God.” The original uses the ordinary word for “toward”, which is pros, and does not use the ordinary Greek word for “with”, which would be meta. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was toward God and the Word was God.”
The image seems to be of the Word of God going out from God in the act of creation, God “speaking” the creation into existence (as in Genesis)—and, simultaneously, the Word of God going toward God, into the heart of God, as it were. The Word goes forth from God in creation and also, simultaneously, toward God. The creation, as it is spoken out into matter, time and space, is also spoken into the heart of God, or “into the bosom of the Father”, as it says in verse 18. We, who have been spoken into this incarnate existence, through the Word of God, have been simultaneously spoken into the heart of God, taken there, as it were, by the Living Word, God the only Son, who is “into the bosom of the Father”. (Any tears yet?)
This suggests that God is in some way changing: as creation is spoken out into existence through the Word and into the bosom of the Father, God’s being may in some way be changing. This suggests a kind of “process theology”, as theologians might call it. We are accustomed to thinking of God as unchanging. But the witness of the New Testament challenges this notion. We read in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus, the Son of God, through whom all things were created is not only the reflection of God’s glory, but the “exact imprint of God’s very being” [Hebrews 1:3]. Jesus is the image, the icon of God. This image, this icon of God is a living, growing human being: a baby in his mother’s womb and in the manger; a boy in the Temple, growing in wisdom and stature; a grown man teaching, healing, forgiving, dying, descending, rising, ascending, filling all things, taking us into his risen body.
This living, growing Jesus is the image of the Living God—which means that God is not a static, unchanging being. But to say that God is changing suggests that God lacks something, that God is incomplete or imperfect. And so, we read in the First Letter of John: “…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” [1 John 4:12] Just a few verses before we read that God is love—God’s essence, God’s very being is love. And then we read: God’s love is perfected in us. The perfection, that is, the completion of God’s love, his very being, is in our loving one another. When the creature God has made chooses freely to love another human being, God is—somehow—more complete, more perfect. “…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
When love happens in the world, something happens in the heart of God, in the “bosom of the Father”. There is an everyday human counterpart to this: when we do or say something loving or gracious or kind, we sense a change in ourselves. The kindness we do and say “out there”, the graciousness we offer to others “out there”, changes us “in here”—we feel differently about ourselves and about the world.
I think this is why we are so interesting to God, so important to God that God would become flesh and dwell among us. Live and die among us. The creation that God has so lovingly spoken into existence, somehow changes, perfects, completes God’s own being—especially we, the creature who can freely choose love. Christ, through whom we came to be, Christ, the Living Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, both inspires the embodiment of love in this world and takes it with him toward God, into the bosom of the Father. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was toward God and the Word was God.” It is through us and in us in the tenderness of human intimacy and love, in our kindness and graciousness to one another that God is reaching toward the fullness, the pleroma of God’s own being. “…his love is perfected in us.”
We are so very intimately connected to God: tenderly enfolded in the bosom of Jesus, who is tenderly enfolded into the bosom of the Father. When we embody love, when the light of Christ shines forth in our lives, Christ takes these things into his most generous bosom and with him into the bosom of the Father, into the very heart of the Divine.
I shall sit down now and turn these matters over to the angels, who are far more able to explain the mysteries of God—yet they so wisely hold back.
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