(Colossians 1,15-20; John 1,1-14)
“In the beginning was the Word”.
In John’s theology, before the coming of human beings who measured time, before the creation of the earth, and the planets and the sun and the other stars by whose movements humans count the passing of time, before the light of the stars of the furthest galaxies came into being, the Word of God already was. The memra, the creative power, the reason, the wisdom, the Sophia, the Logos existed before and outside time.
And once the universe came into being, the Word is the creative force behind it, the Word is the pattern that underlies it, the Word is what gives it light and life.
The Word had the character and quality and essence of God. According to the author of the letter to the Colossians, the person who embodied the Word was the image, or ikon of the unseen God; in the Word the fullness or pleroma of God was contained.
Our western part of the world is hung up on the word – but not on the Word of God. For most of the last 2000 years it has been obsessed with human words, written and spoken. It delights in definitions and reasons. It tries to control human bodies and minds by laws, by creeds, by articles of religion. It seeks to contain God within written scriptures – a selection of the sacred writings of pre-Christian Jews and an even smaller selection of the writings of first century Christians. But, as a civilisation it has largely lost contact with the living Word of God.
Our Western civilisation has tended to replace faith in the Word of God with the idolatry of the human word. The French sociologist and anthropologist, Jean Danielou, writing an introduction to a study of Hinduism, said that the West accuses Eastern religions of idolatry, because they have images that humans have made to represent the divine; but he accuses the Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – of being equally idolatrous, because they worship the words which represent the divine.
We in the West find it so easy to forget that our words are just approximations, representations of reality as we understand it. They are one means by which we seek to impose order on our experience – but they are not the experience itself. All words are human constructions, we share them with others, and we come to them with the assumptions of our own time and our own people. We cannot do otherwise.
Words from other times and other peoples may be translated for us – but translations are inevitably imperfect, because people in different times and in different places do not think in the same way. We never have perfect understanding of others. So there is always a tendency for us to be like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass – “When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean.” Which is why it is dangerous for any of us to try to impose the words that convey our understanding of experience, especially religious experience, on others.
The Word of God is outside all of these human limitations – but we can only understand it through human words.
Words are only of significance when they are embodied, enmeshed in human lifein a particular place and a particular people. This is what the evangelist John asserts happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
“And the Word of God became flesh, and lived among us.”
The eternal power and reason and wisdom of God became a human being, and so part of the human world in all its reality – messy, sinful, confused; subject to the influences of human psychology, social forces, illness, imperfect knowledge, and mortality. Above all, the word became subject to change. All living things are subject to change – both renewal and decay and death. They cannot avoid it. Those humans who seek to deny change become ridiculous – mutton dressed as lamb – or dangerous. The main thing that has stayed with me from my first teaching practice are some words of the teacher in whose class I worked. “Some teachers”, he said, “say they have had twenty years experience; but what they have really had is one year’s experience twenty times over”.
That is not just a danger for teachers. It is also a danger for other professions, and for societies, for religions, for any individual. In the Greek of the New Testament there were two different words for time, conveying different understanding. First there was chronos – clock-time, weeks, months and years time, time like an ever-rolling stream, which had no significance except to mark human mortality. But then there was kairos, significant time, eternal time, the time for decisions, the time that can change things.
In the understanding of the Gospel writers, the life of Christ was when chronos and kairos intersected.
We are all subject to time, to chronos, which faces us with a series of kairos events, when we have the opportunity to change or to stagnate. And because “The Word became flesh” it is true also of the Word of God.
I once saw a notice outside a church, which said: “Happy New Year! Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.” I don’t believe that is true. Christ is no longer embodied in the same way as he was. Two thousand years ago, he was embodied in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth; now he is embodied in a multitude of different people, who believe that he carries the Word of God for them. That belief will be affected by the understanding of all those who have embodied the Christ down through two millennia, from Jesus himself, through the first disciples, the theologians of the Patristic Age, the Reformers, and by their experience of life in the modern age. All those understandings will be subtly different, and it is a mistake to try to confine valid understanding to the words of one time, as people have tried to do through Scriptures and Creeds.
“The Word became flesh, and lived among us. And we saw with our own eyes his glory, full of grace and truth”.
We will only see the glory of the eternal Word of God if we see it with our eyes, the eyes of our own flesh and our own time. We will only share the glory and truth of the Word with the world if we speak of them with the words of our own time, with our own understanding of what it is to be a human being, and of what brings life and light and love. The only way the eternal Word of God will make an impact in our world is through those who receive the Word, meditate on it and reflect it in their own time.
But it needs to be a reflection in kairos not just in chronos. John the evangelist recognised the coming of the Word as a challenge to our understanding of time and of words, a challenge that demanded change in those who received it.
The Biblical writers understood the Word of God not just as sound, but also action. If we really receive the Word of God, it demands action from us, action to embody the Word, and reflect it in what we say and do in the world. The epistle of James warns us against being just hearers of the Word, and not doers.
It is only when we act in obedience to the Word that we can ensure that God’s time and God’s eternal Word have entered once again into our time and our world, and that we are receiving still its grace, and truth, and light, and life.