Another person at our Thanksgiving feast responded with the following when asked for a favorite verse: “The first part of John. I just really like that whole passage.” And my first thought: “But the passage is so abstract!”
I had a three-hour-drive today to think about the first passage in John (that’s a warning for seriously long reflection). I will share my marginalia first this time. If you feel curious about why I chose the specific verse from the passage, read on!
I found myself comparing the first passage in John to the genealogy of Jesus that begins the gospel of Matthew. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that sharing the genealogy of Jesus was a genius way to place the story of Jesus within the context of a much larger story: one that shows God patiently at work through a whole long history to bring about a plan of salvation. The Gospel of John, by contrast, feels so abstract to me. Am I alone in thinking this is a really hard passage? I read it slowly and broke it down for myself. What I discovered: This passage explains my deep understanding of Jesus Christ, who is the son of God in a unique way, the one true light of humanity, and the giver of grace and truth.
Here’s my very slow reading of the passage:
As I start reading the passage my mind turns to the beginning of Genesis when God speaks and the universe comes into being. I am reminded of the creative force of “the Word”:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Then John begins talking about the “light of men:”
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I imagine hearing this passage for the first time as someone who does not know about Jesus yet. And I can still identify with what he is saying here. I feel myself look inward to that light inside me—the light I know is there. I am reminded of hearing “The light in me sees the light in you” at the end of a yoga class and also the lyrics of my all-time favorite Christmas song, a sweet somewhat agnostic duet by Kermit the Frog and John Denver (“I know there is a light/I have felt it burn inside/I have seen it shining from afar”):
(It’s fun having a blog where I share my true random thought process!)
It occurs to me maybe I shouldn’t think of contemporary examples of light, but look to the Old Testament instead, and I am reminded of the Words: “Light of the nations” found Isaiah. I found the passage and was surprised to see how similar it is to the beginning of John, spanning from the beginning of creation to the arrival of the light of the nations: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out….I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” (Isaiah 4:5-5)
The author of John interjects the character of John the Babtist, which always takes me by surprise because up until this point in the passage, Jesus has only been introduced in the most abstract terms:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
And I start to see that maybe the author of John is writing this to clear up confusion. He wants to show that Jesus is more than just another prophet or holy person, which is something that still seems to be a matter of some confusion.
In contemporary spirituality it’s quite common to hear people say something along the lines of “We are all children of God; we just need to awaken the God or Goddess within; we can be creators of our own lives.” And my response is always to cringe inside. Many even talk of Jesus as being an example of someone who gets this.
And it’s frustrating to me because there is some overlap: yes I see myself as a child of God, and yes, I know that I was made in the image of God and that means I can create. But there’s a subtle difference, too. I am not a child of God in the way that Athena popped out of Zeus’s head. I am happy to think of myself as a princess, daughter of a king—just not a goddess. Whatever I create and do in life is subject to the prayer “Thy will be done.” And I only say that I am a child of God because I have accepted Jesus into my heart and recognize what Jesus has done for me on the cross. I wouldn’t dare approach God the Father, based on my understanding of God, without “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left….” (to borrow from St. Patrick!)
My first stab at identifying my unease with contemporary spirituality is how extremely individualized it is. I can’t even put a name to it: a customized blend of various ancient traditions mixed with quantum physics that provides motivation for personal dreams and aspirations? And I know that I am guilty of pulling from various traditions as I progress down my spiritual path. Still, contemporary spirituality is so different from Christianity where the focus is much more on living within the context of commonly held beliefs. Community and caring for one another is a big part of the Christian faith. Families come together for worship on Sunday morning with the hope that they will be there for each other and for the broader community on all the days in between. (In our age of social media, this is starting to seem like an increasingly strange idea—we meet in person!)
I was having trouble even coming up with language to talk about this subject, so I Googled “contemporary spirituality” and stumbled upon a book “Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, and Unhappy” by David Webster. Two things made me curious about the book: 1) the first sentence of the book, which made me laugh: “When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face hard” and 2) I had the sense that the author, an avowed atheist, views traditional religion as favorable to the Mind-Body-Spirit thinking that is so pervasive today. I thought it would be interesting to read how someone outside both traditions compared them. I thought I’d share a few thoughts straight from his book that struck a chord with me:
“Theology is the attempt at finding out what it means if we accept certain foundational propositions. If we take on board specific fixed points-what does that do to the world and our relation to it?…With the Mind, Body, Spirit approach there are too few fixed points from which to work.”
“There may be beliefs, or doctrinal notions, that you find hard to believe. You cannot abandon them though, and have to enter a reflective, thoughtful, possibly hermeneutic process to try and make sense of them.”
“If we follow a religion faith, with sincerity, we are challenged to do some very difficult ethical work, to put others first; to love enemies; to forgive those who do wrong; to cultivate humility.”
As a Christian, I am happily stuck with the Bible, creeds, and Jesus (the true light of the world!). I have to wrestle with these and figure out how to live with these as fixed points in my life. And honestly through doing so, I feel that I am blessed with what the author of the book says he craves in life: “the potential for an interconnected, rich and humane life.” As I read the author’s existential reflections on facing death, I just sort of wanted to visit with him in person and give him a hug and tell him that Jesus loves him very much!!! (I don’t get the sense that he would really punch me in the face for saying it.)
The author of John does his best to explain there is a uniqueness to the divine light of Jesus Christ; Jesus is the source of light:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the word was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Earlier in the passage, I was reminded of the story of creation. When John talks about the Word becoming flesh, I recall the Word spoken by God through Moses (still a creative force) that shaped and created the Hebrew people. Jesus lived and fulfilled this law:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.;”) For from his fullness we have received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
Jesus is the fullness of God’s plan for salvation, which began the moment God reached out to Abraham (I see God’s salvation plan as slower, but still more favorable way of starting over with humanity than destroying the world by flood!) Jesus lived the law given through Moses fully and so we say that Jesus is truth and yet he is also the ultimate giver of grace. The author of John tells us when we accept Jesus and believe in his name, we are welcomed as beloved sons and daughters of God, and this, for me, is the meaning of grace.
A prayer for a lover of truth: God, what an encouragement it is to know someone so comfortable with your strong claim of truth who generously expresses love for all and reminds me of the meaning of grace. Amen!