The Word Is Not Enough
January 3rd, 2016
This is John’s version of the manger. His birth story doesn’t include “no room at the inn” because there is no inn at all. There are stars and quasars and the vast emptiness of space…maybe not even space, because this is Genesis reimagined, with “the Word” present as creation explodes into being, and I don’t think that John is picturing a book floating in space. For John, a gospel written perhaps as late as the turn of the first century, a full 70 years or more after Jesus’ ministry, Jesus IS the word. And this gospel is, perhaps more than any other gospel, writing a new story about Jesus, and using the full power of myth to place an itinerant preacher from the backwoods of the Roman Empire into the cosmic story…an addendum to the vast story of God.
But John’s gospel is often misunderstood and really exploited by people who take the figurative, descriptive language and use it as historical or empirical information about Jesus. The “I am” statements are the best examples of this. They are meant as deep, spiritual statements about who Jesus is and how he connects to God, who is named in scripture as the great “I AM”. John’s audience are people who never knew Jesus, or any of the disciples, and who are struggling perhaps to define Jesus in their own time. They, like we, are trying to make sense of the Jesus who lived in history and the Jesus they pray to, the presence they seek and sometimes feel, the idea that is represented in the figure of Jesus Christ. John, and many in his time and place, go to this concept of “the word”, which is, in Greek, logos, and much more complex than letters on a page or a powerful speech. Logos is wisdom, essence, divine energy. If God is that which creates, and, in Genesis, creation happens by speaking, then the logos is the speech…the enactment of that creation, the visible part of the invisible God.
John makes a very bold move then when he claims that Jesus Christ is the “word made flesh.” I’m often afraid that we hear “the word” and think the Bible, and limit what John is really up to here. It is a move that centers us on something other than the text, and therefore a claim that the word is not enough. The “word”, according to John, existed at the beginning of creation and was around in every moment of everything that came into being from that time on. So, if the word were enough, we had it. But, John also claims, the word was “in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” So, the word became flesh…because “the word” was not enough.
Just a few days ago, Glen told me that I had to watch this show on TLC called the “Bible Bowl.” In fact, he said it like I already knew about it – “Hey, you watched the Bible Bowl, didn’t you?” Nope, no idea what that is…and it sounds scary. The TLC show follows a group of teens through the intense world of the nation’s top Bible quiz bowl, and the culture that has grown up around it. The competition consists of responding to questions that test their memorized knowledge of a particular part of scripture. It goes from grades 3-12, and often children spend vast amounts of time prepping and studying and practicing and cramming. The pressure to win is immense – like a teen beauty pageant only kinda tied up with your eternal salvation, too.
The show follows a few kids in their trials with the Bible Bowl, all of whom come from what we might call “ultra-religious” families, dedicated and pious, respectable and “proper”. And the kids reflect those expectations, dedicating more of their lives to the Bible than the best blue-chip high-school athlete would give to any sport. So they know “the word.” They KNOW it. And the thing is…they are jerks. I mean they are mean to one another and vicious and cut-throat and even cruel..despite the hours they have spent reading their Bible. I realize that this is a “reality” show, one of the lowest form of mass media that is possible, even lower than broadcast news. I know that reality TV manufactures drama, changing camera angles and cutting the footage to artificially highlight any tension. But you can see the pressure on these kids’ faces. And where, I wonder, are they encountering any word made flesh?
There are now multiple online support groups for people on the other side of this trauma. People who have left the faith, who have abandoned Christianity. And why not? When “Christianity” has promoted the threat of hell more than the promise of compassion, the impact of sin…but only some sin, and your sin is a lot worse than my sin, when wives are told to submit to abusive husbands and priests who abuse children are not only not punished but re-instituted somewhere else, there is much to abandon. We have to be clear that “the word” means something to us now that it did not mean when John wrote these words…and that it holds powerful sway over many people who claim the title “Christian.” Somewhere the great revelation, the living power of the “word made flesh” has been replaced by the inert assertion of the word as boundary, a collection of letters about people’s experience of God becoming the sole way to characterize or define God…”The Bible Says” trumping any and every possibility of a God who is still speaking.
What makes me more suspicious of our current trend is that any careful reading of “the words” ascribed to Jesus will illuminate for us his own relationship to scripture. The Beatitudes, which never seem to get carved into stone outside of government buildings, demonstrate a Jesus ready to say, “You have heard that, but I tell you this…the word says that, but my flesh says this.” Over and over again through the gospels, Jesus refutes the tradition, rejects the “law”, in favor of compassion, inclusion and love. He rejects all of the systems of his time, favoring instead this amazing and slippery thing that we now call the “kin-dom of God.” Instead of encouraging us to read the words, he instructs us to live them.
So, here’s what I suggest to us this morning – the first of a set of New Year’s Revolutions. I say “revolutions” instead of “resolutions”, because resolution is too docile, too domesticated for what we need to evoke. I should also say that I’m not looking for a “bloody revolution” at all, I simply think that we need to change the world. Starting with us.
So, what I suggest is that we do continue to read the Bible. But I suggest that we read it knowing that we are all “selectivists” – we select when we read it literally, like with some of Jesus commands about money, and when we don’t, like a clear endorsement of slavery in the Bible, or the punishment of stoning for adultery. At least when we admit to that upfront, we can help each other identify the times and places that we are reading only what we want to read, and bending the texts to endorse what we already endorse.
But more importantly, I seek the truly revolutionary action. That is to take John’s claim seriously. For “the Bible” has taken over the more cosmic, the more dangerous idea of “the word” that creates alongside of God, and is creating still. John suggests that the word became flesh, and throughout his gospel he emphasizes that the way that we “see” God, the way that we “know” what he calls “the Father”, is by knowing, by seeing, Jesus. So if we see in Jesus compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness and inclusion of people from the tax collectors to the Roman centurions to the condemned prostitutes, then that is, according to John, seeing how God is. And, we ought to also emphasize, this becomes our default position for reading “the word”. The flesh becomes the example…reflected in the word, described in the word, but not contained in or limited to the word.
John asks us to consider that God is not trapped in the pages of a book but alive and well in the world, waiting for us to experience Her, if we will be available to a God who is still creating. This is what should keep us wrestling with the texts, trying to figure out, as we have before, that although our scriptures clearly condone slavery, we do not believe that is a directive from God any longer. Although our Bible clearly endorses women as second class citizens, we do not think that speaks for a God who created us all in God’s image. And the wrestling continues – with LGBTQ acceptance, with our acceptance of immigrants among us, with our treatment of the poor. God’s creative spirit continues to flow and create and make God more fully known to us, in ways that our ancestors could not imagine, just as we will probably not be able to see what God has in store for our ancestors to come. This is the “word made flesh”, the cosmic reality made known to us in this impure, contradictory, messy thing that we call life.
We begin this revolution right here at the table…where we practice the kin-dom. Here we welcome everyone. Here you need no papers, no passport or green card. Here no one asks you what your nationality is or what name you use for God or who you love. Here there is enough for everyone and we practice perfect love, which casts out fear. Here we set aside all of the wants and needs of the day, all of the baggage of life that clings to us. Here we welcome in the child, the wisdom become human, the word made flesh. Here we practice trust, we exercise hope and we demonstrate inclusion.
Come to the table. Let the revolution begin.