Here is the sermon for the ‘midnight’ communion service tonight. It concludes the series on the Prologue to John’s Gospel, and given the hour at which it will be delivered, is shorter than my typical Sunday morning sermons.
Grace and truth. As we complete our reflections on the Prologue to John’s Gospel tonight, these two words dominate the final verses. Grace and truth. They are such rich words, and not to be trivialised in the way we often do, where grace is no more than what we say before meals and truth is no more than being right. Here, grace and truth are linked to the rich beauty of the Incarnation, the birth of our Lord in human flesh.
In particular, there are two strands about grace and truth in these final verses of the Prologue.
Firstly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are the glory of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Verse 14)
When the Word is made flesh – when Jesus is born – we see the glory of God, and that glory is ‘full of grace and truth’.
When he says ‘we have seen his glory’, John may want his readers to think about the time in the Book of Exodus when Moses asked to see God’s glory. When indeed God’s glory passed near to him, the Lord proclaimed that he was
the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:5-7)
So back then, seeing God’s glory meant discovering the goodness of God. Now, as we see God’s glory in the birth of his Son, we also find the goodness of God revealed to us: he is ‘full of grace and truth’.
We might think that to see the glory of God is a fearful thing and in one sense it is. We can no more see the glory of God in all its splendour than we can safely look straight at the sun. But at heart, seeing the glory of God is a good and wonderful thing. The glory of God is that he is the saving God.
And we celebrate this supremely at Christmas. Here above all we see God’s glory. He is the saving and redeeming God. His Son takes on human flesh in order to bring his grace and truth to the world. Perhaps here the old saying that GRACE stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense comes into its own. The riches of God which we do not deserve come to us courtesy of all that Christ gives up. Eventually that will be the Cross. But it begins with the Incarnation. Tonight we mark when God goes up a gear in the salvation of the world.
And what a privilege it is to mark this. ‘We have seen his glory’ – we have, says John, and the implication is that not everybody has. He has not long said that
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (verse 11).
Let us never treat the glory of God’s goodness, his grace and truth, as a commonplace. It is not that we are some kind of élite because we have seen his glory, but it is the most awe-inspiring privilege. This is the One who outstrips John the Baptist, because although he came after him in terms of birth is actually senior to him because he originates before him (verse 15). This is the One who would later claim, ‘Before Abraham was, I Am’.
So in the morning, even amidst the rushing of preparation and the rustle of paper, might we have a moment to contemplate what a truly wonderful thing it is to know that God has revealed his glory in the coming of his Son? Here is grace and truth: grace in God giving us the blessings we do not deserve as sinners; truth in that he who himself is the truth has come into our midst. What wonder. What glory. What goodness this is.
Secondly, God’s grace and truth in the Incarnation are a greater grace. Here I want to tease out something of the relationship between God’s work as witnessed in what we call the Old Testament and his work in Jesus Christ Incarnate. Sometimes we seem to set them up in opposition to each other. Because we can come to the Scriptures in that frame of mind, we can hear a verse like verse 17,
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ
and think that ‘law’ is being opposed to ‘grace and truth’. Law is bad, grace is good, we think.
But this is to miss the force of verse 16, immediately before it. The NIV translates it,
From the fulness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.
However, I would translate it more literally:
From the fullness of his grace we have all received grace instead of grace.
What preceded the coming of Jesus was grace. The Old Testament Law was not originally given in order to say to God’s people, ‘Follow these rules and you will be saved.’ It had a different purpose. The Law was given at Mount Sinai, after God had saved them from the Egyptians. Salvation had taken place. The Law then showed them how to live as the people of God in grateful response to that salvation.
Why, then, does Paul speak about ‘law’ and ‘grace’ in Romans as if they are opposites? Because people ended up using the Law of Moses in the wrong ways. Either they used it to say, “I’m one of the in-crowd and you’re not” (the elitism I spoke about near the end of the first point) or they said, “My keeping of the Law is what saves me” (salvation by works, not by faith). The Law was unable to save in itself, but it could show where people needed to change and it could show ways of faithful and grateful response to God’s salvation, just as the ethical passages in the New Testament can for Christians. And because it could have a good purpose in the plans of God, it was a gift of grace.
Therefore when Jesus comes, he brings a greater grace. It is ‘grace instead of grace’. Jesus is the fulfilment of all the Old Testament hopes – not just the prophets, as we often remember in Advent, but the Law, too. What the Law could not do in transforming us, he can. What the Law pointed to, he brings to fulfilment. The grace of the Incarnation replaces all the promises of the Old Covenant: truly, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’
It’s like going to a concert where there is a support act before the main act you have gone to see. When the main act is about to take to the stage, they may be introduced with words to the effect that this is who you’ve been waiting for. John is telling us that Jesus is who we have been waiting for. In him is the grace of forgiving love, for he will offer a sacrifice that does not need to be repeated like the Old Testament sacrifices – this is ‘grace instead of grace’. In him is not only the example of how to live in gratitude for the love of God, but also the gift of the Spirit in order to live that way, unlike the Law – again, this is ‘grace instead of grace’.
John’s Prologue, then, concludes at a fitting place as we stand on the cusp of Christmas – never has the glory of God’s goodness been better seen than in the grace and truth of Jesus. And the gracious God of the Old Covenant now gives a greater grace as his Son inaugurates the New Covenant. ‘O come, let us adore him – Christ the Lord.’
Having children has had an effect on my mental health. Not just the increased stress; I find my memory is not what it is, and I don’t like to think that has anything to do with age! Debbie will ask me to bring three items in from the garage, and I will remember one. And while I’m sure some of that is down to the way that I as a typical man like to concentrate on just one task at a time in contrast to typically feminine multitasking abilities, I have to admit that there are just too many times when I forget things I would previously have remembered. Senior moments seem to have started in middle age for me.
And you may be thinking I’ve had another memory failure in the choice of John 1:1-18 as our reading tonight. Didn’t we have it in the carol service? Yes. Didn’t we have it on Christmas Day? Yes: it’s the traditional Gospel reading for Christmas Day, and so if anyone has a memory relapse here, it’s the compilers of the Lectionary! And don’t I go on and on about verse 14 when talking about mission, ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’? Yes. I’ve remembered all these things.
But when I saw that these great verses occurred again today, I saw an opportunity. This passage, known as the Prologue to John’s Gospel, gives us – to use an overworked word – an awesome vision of Jesus. This passage is for me the Mount Everest of the New Testament. And we have a chance here to let its towering vision of who Jesus is inspires us at the beginning of a New Year.
So I thought I would take some of the great images of Jesus here and explore each of them briefly, so that we might bow before his magnificence and kneel before his wonder. It’s a fitting place to get our bearings for the new year.
Before Jesus is named at the incarnation, he is the Word. Before time and for all time, he is the Word. He is the creative Word, involved in creation. As in Genesis God spoke and it came to be, so in John ‘all things came into being through’ the Word. So when the Word becomes flesh and speaks to the created order, he is continuing his work of creation.
For Jesus, then, being the Word doesn’t mean words without action. There is no division between truth and deed. One leads to the other. We can see that in another way as well as Jesus being the Word through whom creation comes into being and is sustained. For John 1 has resonances with Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is spoken of in similar terms to the Word here. Now we might associate the word ‘wisdom’ with wise words or philosophy, but to the Hebrew mind wisdom was not merely intellectual. It was moral. Wise words maybe, but words connected with action. That’s why the Book of Proverbs is full of advice on how to live.
Now if Jesus the Word is the Wisdom of God, then he is not an abstract philosophy, he is the One who supremely shows us how to live. When we call Jesus the Word, we aren’t simply ranking him among or above the great philosophers of the world – although he belongs there – we are saying that he speaks in such a way as to show us the paths of life.
What does this mean for us? Something quite down to earth. It is a renewed commitment to walking in the ways of Jesus. Not only has he died for our sins and been raised to give us new life, he lays down the yardstick for living the new life he grants us.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but in recent months the great majority of my sermons have been based on passages from the Gospels. I have concentrated on those four books where we most clearly get the voice of Jesus. It’s why Anglicans and Catholics stand for the Gospel readings at communion.
Not that he doesn’t speak throughout all of Scripture – of course he does – but the central biblical documents are the Gospels, and if I am to be any kind of Christian, I must tune into Jesus’ life-giving words and align my life accordingly. That would be a worthwhile vision for a new year.
In reception class at school, Mark and his friends have had to learn forty-five ‘action words’. They learned the words by learning the associated actions. (Except Mark knew them all already, including how to spell them.) Jesus the Word is an ‘action Word’. He is not ‘mere words’ but ‘the Word in action’.
The image of Jesus as light tells me something about his supremacy and victory.
On the one hand, his life is ‘the light of all people’ (verse 4) and he is ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’ (verse 9). Whatever light may be found in this life has its source in Jesus. The old saying is that all truth is God’s truth. If something is good, beautiful, pure and life-enhancing, then it is from Jesus, whether it is overtly religious or not. We Christians need not be afraid of truth, wherever we find it, because its origin will be Jesus, who is light to all people. Conversely, we may find goodness in many places but none will outshine Jesus.
So do not worry about truth. Sometimes the world’s discoveries seem to contradict our faith. In time, however, we shall either see how they harmonise (dare I suggest evolution and creation?) or that the world’s claims for truth were over-rated. Let us remember that whenever an intellectual controversy strikes this year. Jesus always brings light.
But better than that, says John, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’ (verse 5). The word translated ‘overcome’ is one of those rich, multi-layered Greek words. You could say, ‘the darkness did not overcome it’, but you could also render it as ‘the darkness did not understand it’, or ‘the darkness did not come to terms with it’.
Sometimes understanding is a way of coming to terms with something or controlling it. But darkness can never master light. Even a tiny speck of light cannot be extinguished by the surrounding darkness. And John tells us that the darkness in creation can never master the light of Jesus.
Now that, surely, is Good News for us. The light of Jesus can never be put out. Light and darkness are not even two equal and opposite forces: light is superior! So whenever the life of faith is discouraging – whether due to internal reasons or external pressures – we have good news. Jesus triumphs!
And this is not just a private pious hope for us to enjoy. In the world, when dictators ravage their people, we know they cannot finally prevail. When governments and armies rampage with their forces of war, we who believe in the light know that their darkness is not the final word. It is good news to proclaim to the world as well as the church that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it – nor will it.
John makes a staggering claim about Jesus when he says that ‘we have seen his glory’ (verse 14), especially as he also acknowledges later that ‘No one has ever seen God’ (verse 18). Moses wanted to see God, but he had to hide in a rock and glimpse just a little of God’s glory from behind. Isaiah saw the Lord, but became stricken by a knowledge of his sin and his people’s sin. Claiming that we have seen divine glory in Jesus, then, is a monumental claim.
What might such glory look like? The Queen of Sheba saw the glory of King Solomon: it consisted of wealth, property and expensive possessions, as well as his famed wisdom. If we took a tour of Buckingham Palace, we might hope to see some royal glory, but not all of it would be on display, and that which was would be a matter of high culture, fine art and items from the most exclusive of suppliers.
Similarly, our popular culture has a crude version of glory. We see it in magazines like ‘Hello’, ‘OK’ and ‘Heat’, when they invite us inside the mansions of the rich and famous. Money, possessions and property are still a popular measurement of glory.
Jesus could call on all the resources of heaven to show dazzling glory that would make Bill Gates look like a pauper. But that is not the divine glory John describes. His glory is ‘the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (verse 14).
The glory of God is not in the splendour of heaven or the armies of angels: it is in grace and truth. The awesomeness of our God is in the grace and truth brought by the ‘father’s only son’. For grace and truth are the family likeness. The glory of God is not in palaces but a manger. The glory of God is not in the amassing of wealth but in the humiliation of the Cross. The glory of God is not in fulness of possessions but in emptiness – Christ emptying himself of all but love, and the emptiness of the tomb on the first Easter Day. The glory of God comes not in the violent conquest of enemies, but love for enemies and forgiveness for sinners.
What does this mean for us? For Jesus, showing divine glory in the form of grace and truth is a matter of the family likeness: he is ‘God the only Son’ (verse 18). We are children of God in a different sense according to the passage: Jesus gave us the power to become God’s children when we received him (verse 12). In Paul’s language, we are adopted children. The family likeness doesn’t pass down easily – not in the same way that our little Mark looks so much like a red-headed version of me. For adopted children, it’s a matter of being open to the influence of the parents and the existing family (which of course is vital in other families, too).
So we are called to reflect God’s glory of grace and truth in also being humble, loving and forgiving of those who wrong us. However, it’s not an easy matter. It’s something that only comes as we grow in grace, and that means being part of the community of God’s family and being consciously open to the work of the Holy Spirit who imparts the character of God to us. (We call it the fruit of the Spirit.) We don’t work this out alone, but together under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That’s why not all the great spiritual disciplines are private actions, but many are also corporate practices, as in fellowship we seek to be open to grace in order that it may transform us and we may share it.
Jesus the Word, then, is the great ‘action Word’ in creation and ethically wise living. To encounter him who is the very Word of God is a call to our own action in response.
Jesus the Light is good news for the church and the world. Wherever we are enlightened by the truth, it is the work of Jesus. And the victory of his light over darkness is good news for all who may despair when evil advances.
Finally, Jesus brings the Glory of God in grace and truth. He reveals God as so different from the petty obsessions of the world, and calls us to receive and share grace.
These three aspects of Jesus – Word, Light and Glory – constitute just a sketch and not even an oil painting of our spiritual Everest. But I pray that even these sketches might give us enough vision of our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord to inspire our discipleship in this new year.
Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!
But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.
For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?
(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)
How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.
Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.
So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.
Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.