A little late this week as I have been away since Sunday on a conference, but here at last is what I said last Sunday.
On the wall of my vestry, amidst all the untideness and clutter typical of churchy vestries, hangs an icon. It is an icon of Saint John the Evangelist. And one thing that you will always see in an icon of Saint John is a book that he holds in his hands. Usually the book will be open – in our icon it is nearly closed. But if you look closely you can just make out enough of the words written in the book to recognise – if you can read Greek – the opening words of Saint John’s Gospel. The opening words of his Gospel are such powerful words – words that still, down the centuries, resonate – even though they may not be immediately understandable. John knew how powerful words could be.
I can still remember many of the playground rhymes and chants that I used as a child – I’m sure many of you can remember those you used as well. One of them, which I think was more or less universal, was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Even at the time I thought it was a suspect saying. I can think of one particular person, two or three years older than me, whose response would have been to say “Well in that case I’ll try the sticks and stones”. It was also my experience, even then, that in fact words do have the power to harm and to harm quite deeply. We all kept well out of his way!
When words are used with care, they can be very powerful. They have the power to move and to support, to comfort and to encourage, but they also have the power to inflict immense pain and long-term harm. And even when words are used carefully, they’re still open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I may not hear exactly what another person has said, for I may not hear the thoughts or the feelings behind the words. And because of my own thoughts and experiences, I may interpret the words in quite a different way to that which the speaker intended. So I may come away from a conversation with a very different impression than the other person with whom I’ve been talking. This, of course, can cause all sorts of difficulties in relationships, especially if I’m particularly sensitive or expecting some sort of slight or put-down. I often wish that Christians, and indeed members of the congregation, would think very carefully before they say some of the things they say to each other. So important is all this seen to be today that clergy – and other people in caring professions – are expected to learn, as part of their training, what is called “Listening Skills” – learning how to listen to what someone is really saying, not just to what you think they’re saying. Or even what they think they are saying.
And words can spring other traps too. For instance, they can change their meaning over the years. Words and phrases may not mean the same thing now as they used to. We see this is some parts of the Bible – a good example is found in the story of Saul in the Old Testament. And this is my favourite example in the Bible, which probably says a lot about my sense of humour! At one point, when he is being pursued by David, we are told that he went into a cave and covered his feet – at least that’s what the original says. In case you puzzled as to why Saul would want to cover his feet, it’s an ancient Hebrew way of saying that he went to the loo! Words don’t always mean want we think they do! Slang and colloquialisms can alter the meanings of words and phrases so much. I wonder what people in two thousand years time will make of some of today’s expressions such as “wicked!” There are those of us now who still think it means “bad” rather than “good”. Imagine the confusion caused in the future. It’s rare indeed to find words which are utterly unambiguous and whose meaning cannot be mistaken.
Which brings us to today’s gospel reading – which all in all is rather complex and easily open to misunderstanding. In previous weeks we have been looking at the early chapters of Mark’s gospel. Today, most churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, continue the journey through Mark. The Church of England, though, has decided that we need a good dose of theology – and so has dropped the expected readings for today and instead has given us some pretty heavy and wordy readings to consider. So today we going to have to struggle with some quite heavy theology – time to use our brains a bit!
And so our gospel reading is John’s famous prologue about “The Word”. You might have thought that with Christmas out of the way we’d done with this for another year – but no, here it is again in the run up to Lent.
What about John’s concept of Jesus as the “Word” of God? Is that unambiguous and unmistakable? Or, after 2,000 years, is it open to misinterpretation? John takes an ancient Greek idea, the Logos, the “Word”, which was thought of in Greek philosophy as the “founding principle” of the universe. John has applied this word to Jesus – so Jesus is called “The Word” and the idea arose that Jesus was with God from the beginning, from the creation of the world. Christians knew that Jesus was God’s Son, and was divine, but the idea that, as we say in the Nicene Creed, that he was “eternally begotten of the Father” – that is, before time began, took time to develop. In today’s New Testament lesson from Colossians we read an early Christian hymn to that effect. But this is a difficult idea to comprehend. It was difficult two thousand years ago when this gospel was written, let alone today! So John is trying to make it all clear.
Each of the gospel writers has his own agenda, and each fashions his material to fit that agenda. John didn’t simply write a chronological account of the life and works and teaching of Jesus. He wrote some 20 or 30 years after the other gospel writers, and he wrote a theological reflection upon the life of Jesus and all that it had meant in the community in the 60 or 70 years since the crucifixion and resurrection. Within those 60 to 70 years had come an increasing realisation that Jesus was indeed divine. So unlike Luke and Matthew, John doesn’t include any account of the birth of Jesus, but he does describe the Christ as the second person of the Godhead. And God wasn’t born. God was always there, from the beginning. Everything, all of life, emanates from God, therefore the Christ, the second person of the Godhead, must also have been there from the beginning.
But all of that would have been quite difficult for ordinary people to understand – it still is! So John uses poetry to make his point, and rather than explicitly talking about Jesus, he talks instead about “the Word” and leaves his listeners to understand at whatever depth they can manage. Imagine hearing this gospel for the very first time – for that’s what would have happened – people would have heard it read, rather than read it for themselves. It’s only after hearing his gospel to the end, that John’s listeners would really have begun to understand that when he speaks about “the Word,” John is referring to Jesus – and to Jesus as God.
As each generation moves further and further away from the actual time of Jesus, so it becomes increasingly difficult to understand exactly what was meant by some parts of the Bible. And it becomes increasingly important that the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is re-interpreted for each new generation in terms that can be both heard and understood. In this country we are witnessing a huge move away from the religion which previous generations learned at their parent’s knees. Children no longer hear Bible stories over and over again. We now have huge numbers of people to whom religion and God and Jesus and spirituality are utterly alien. And those who would see it stamped out. Take this week’s legal decision that you can’t pray at Council meetings, brought about by the National Secular Society.
Words are very important. If we want future generations to know anything at all about the Word of God, then we need to find words right now to tell them about the gospel in ways which will inspire them and introduce them to God. And words that will challenge those who oppose the good news. And that isn’t just my job – anymore than 2000 years ago it was just John’s job, or the job of the gospel writers. The early Christians knew that it was everyone’s job to know the Scriptures, to pray, and to lead other people to Christ.
It’s the task of every Christian today to learn enough about their faith to be able to talk easily about it in every day terms where other people will know what they are talking about. Every Christian needs to become familiar with the words of the Bible, to become regular users of the words of prayer and worship, so that it becomes easy to talk about Jesus and faith in words that others will understand. If you are not reading your Bible at home – perhaps with the use of Bible study notes – or if you are not spending some time each day in private prayer, then it’s time to take stock of your own spiritual life. If you are not spending time daily with God, conversing with him through prayer and through his written Word, how can you ever find the right words to talk to others about him. And if you can’t talk to others about him how is Christ’s body, the church, ever going to grow? It’s a big challenge and a big commitment and a big task, but the rewards are big too – they are eternal and they come from our Father in heaven.