Monday, March 23, 2015

The Greatest Gift

The Greatest Gift (East Union Presbyterian Church, 1/4/2015)
I preached this sermon at East Union Presbyterian Church on January 4, 2015. My text was John 1:1-18. In the opening of this sermon I make reference to the Steelers' loss in a playoff game the night before. I also make reference to my previous full-time job at a consulting company in Wexford, PA.

          Good morning! I realize it’s not easy to say “good morning” after watching that awful football game last night. If I see any of you yawning this morning, I’ll just assume that you were up late last night watching the Steelers—I won’t think you’re bored with my sermon. Likewise, if you see me yawning, it’s not because I’m bored with my own sermon. Anyhow, thank you for inviting me into the pulpit today. It is a joy and an honor to be here.
          So I guess I’m what you would call a second-career pastor. That is, I graduated from college, went out into the working world, and didn’t even think about going into ministry until much later in life. A generation or two ago, most folks who went into ministry began their seminary education shortly after they finished college. But times have changed. Many of us didn’t feel the call to ministry when we were younger, even though God was busy at work in each and every one of us—and each and every one of you, too!
          A lot of people ask me about my professional background and what I did before I entered seminary. I think this is a frequent question for second-career pastors, because it seems like such a radical shift. Yet in many ways, our prior careers played a major role in our formation. This is certainly true for me.
          In my last full-time job, I worked for a consulting company in Wexford. My job title was instructional systems designer. That’s a really cool sounding title, but it doesn’t tell you much about my job. The company that I worked for created online training courses for large corporations; I helped to organize those courses. I would take highly technical information, break it down into manageable chunks, and then put that information in a logical order. I would work with the experts from our corporate clients to make sure I had the right information, translate it into plain English, and then present the information in a way that made sense to lots of different people. In a sense, I was a translator.
          So why is all this backstory relevant? Why am I telling you about my old job? Well, the Gospel of John presents a very deep and rich theology. That’s the nice way to put it. Another way to put it is that John doesn’t say anything simple. John’s theology is very dense and it’s difficult to translate John’s Greek into English. He packs a lot of theology into a few verses. There is so much going on in the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel. I could talk about just the Greek grammar of the first four verses for an hour or more—but I won’t. I promise!
          The Gospel of John does not begin like the other gospels. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with lengthy birth narratives; in particular, Matthew is very concerned with showing Jesus’ genealogy. Mark offers the simplest introduction: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
          But John is different. John begins by talking about the Word. In fact, John mentions the Word four times in this passage—and if you’re following in your Bible, you’ll notice that Word is capitalized, just like Son. The gospel writer also tells us that in the Word, there is life, “and in the life was the light of all people.” What’s more, there is a person sent from God, who is not the light, but who has come to testify to the light. Then in verse fourteen, the evangelist tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The gospel writer doesn’t even use the name Jesus Christ until verse seventeen, and then only in verse eighteen is Jesus identified as the Son of God.
          Of course we all know that Jesus is the Word and that John the Baptist is the one who was sent to testify to the coming of the Christ. We’ve already heard the other gospels. We have heard the birth narratives; we have heard Mark say, in one simple verse, that Jesus is the Son of God. So why does John make it so complicated?
          There’s no simple answer to that question, but it’s worth noting that the Gospel of John was composed much later than the other gospels. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection probably occurred in about 30 AD. The letters of the Apostle Paul were probably written some 25-30 years later. The Gospel of Mark likely came a few years after Paul’s epistles. The gospels of Matthew and Luke came a generation later. The Gospel According to John was composed somewhere between 100 and 125 AD. Now these dates are approximate, but you can see the pattern: John’s gospel is the last of the four gospels to be written. Christian communities have already been established around the Greco-Roman world. And those communities may already be aware of the other gospels and Paul’s letters. So John does something different; John offers a detailed theological interpretation of who Jesus is. The fancy seminary word for this is Christology. John offers a deep theological interpretation of the person of Christ. And what John says is earth-shattering!
          “In the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the beginning: these are the opening words of Genesis 1. In the beginning. . . What John is saying is that the Incarnation—Jesus’ coming into the created world—is as big of an event as the creation of the world itself. Think about that for a second. That’s an enormous claim.
          The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—tell the story of creation and God’s selection of Israel as God’s chosen people, and the covenants that were made between God and Israel. The Gospel of John also says that Jesus was with God from the beginning of time and that Jesus is also God. What’s more, those who receive Jesus, those who believe in his name, have been given the “power to become children of God.” In the Old Testament, only Israel, God’s chosen people, were included in God’s covenants with humanity. But now that Jesus has entered the created world, we may all be included in God’s covenants. All we have to do is believe in the name of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, and then Jesus will make God known to all of us who believe. This is earth shattering; this is the announcement that God can accept any of us who believe in the Son! God is made known to humanity through “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart.” Above all else, God is revealed to humanity through the incarnation of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.[1]
          To put it another way, John is writing all of us into the story of God’s chosen people. Before Jesus came into the world, there was Israel and there was everyone else. But through Jesus Christ, we are also God’s chosen people—we have been written into the story!
          This is an enormous message, but I think we lose the significance of the message for a number of reasons. First, most of us have grown up inside the Christian tradition. We’re already familiar with the story, so it’s not new to us; we don’t hear this in the way that the original audience for the Gospel of John heard this piece of Scripture. I hope that I’ve been able to present this text as the radical declaration of Christ’s nature and identity that the writer of this gospel intended.
          Second, I’m not sure that we fully appreciate that we are a part of this story. Now a few minutes ago, I told you a little bit about the work that I was doing before I entered the seminary, and then I asked the question, why am I telling you all this stuff about my old job? I didn’t give you a direct answer to that question. I told you that in my old job, I was a sort of translator: I took dense technical materials and broke them down into manageable chunks of information, and then I arranged those chunks in a logical order so that other people could understand the technical information. After that, I talked about the Gospel of John and the deep, rich theology that is presented in this morning’s reading, and I tried to break some of that down for you. What I didn’t tell you, and, in fact, what I didn’t realize when I was working at my old job, is that God was shaping me for this job, for what I’m doing right here, right now.
          There’s something else I didn’t tell you: I spent many years outside of the church. Sure, I was raised in the Presbyterian Church and I went to church most Sundays until I went off to college, and then I drifted away. I didn’t go back to church until I was in my mid-thirties. But God wasn’t done with me. No. God was still shaping and forming me. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I began to appreciate all of the ways that I was being formed, even when I was ignoring God’s call. Very often, we don’t realize the larger things that are going on around us or the forces that are acting on our lives.
          When I got to seminary, I learned to put language around my own experiences—I learned to translate. I learned to translate Greek, and I also learned to translate my experiences with God, the things that I had felt as God was acting in my life, and put those feelings into words that I could share with others. I learned to use fancy seminary words like Christology and spiritual formation, and then explain those fancy words to others. This is exactly what we expect from our pastors. However, I do not believe that the work of translation belongs only to our pastors. Creation is an ongoing process, so is formation. God is constantly creating and re-creating, shaping and forming each of us. This is momentous.
          The Gospel of John tells us that we may all be written into the covenants. But here’s the thing: we have to write ourselves into the story, and then we have to tell that story to others. Each one of you is a unique witness to God’s love and faithfulness. I can work at translating the Gospel of John to you, but I am not equipped to tell your story; I cannot translate your experience of God to anyone else. I can help you to tell your story; I can offer you fancy theological terms, if you would like; but only you can fully tell your own stories.
          This morning’s reading from John tells us that through Jesus, we have received grace upon grace; grace and truth come through Christ and through Christ we may know God the Father. I have no doubt that each of you have experienced God’s grace and truth in some way. Please go out and find ways that you can share your experiences of God’s grace and truth—with people here in the church, and also with people who are not members of this community. Translate your experiences so that others may be enriched by your faith! Thanks be to God. Amen!
          Now, friends, as you depart from this place, remember that God entered the created world in the person of Jesus Christ, and that this event is as important as the creation of the world. Remember that Emmanuel has come—God is with us, always. Go forth and share your stories of God’s love and truth and grace. Remember that you, too, are translators. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Guthrie, Shirley C. Jr. Christian Doctrine. Rev. Ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 53.

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