GOD’S WORD FOR ALL PEOPLES
Isaiah 42: 1-4
John 1: 1-8
Acts of the Apostles 10: 34-43
JANUARY 9, 2005
Sunday after Epiphany
a sermon preached
the Rev. Maxwell Vines
First Baptist Church of Oakland
Telegraph Avenue at 22nd Street, Oakland, California
The New Testament is a source-book for our origins as a Christian community. As we read it we need to think ourselves back into the situation of the early Christians. Their Scriptures were the Hebrew Bible. By the year 100 many of the original witnesses of Jesus had died and Christian communities were faced with deciding which writings would be authoritative. They began to discuss the writings already circulating among the believers but it was more than three hundred years before the New Testament as we know it was agreed upon, at the Church Councils of Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397 CE.
The New Testament writings had been produced at a time when the earliest Christian communities needed to preserve the story and teachings of Jesus. Realizing that he was out of the ordinary they tried to explain him as in some sense God embodied in a human life. No expectation in their Jewish past said Messiah would be divine so they were faced with a problem. How do you explain this man, who is more than a man, to a strictly monotheist Jewish community?
In these writings there are at least three explanations of the nature of Jesus: One of them is the virgin birth story which tells that at a particular point in history God overshadowed Mary in a miraculous way and the child so conceived therefore had a human mother and a divine father. A second is the belief that Jesus, outstanding man and prophet, was adopted by God and raised to divine status. This is in some of the early preaching in Acts (2: 36) and hints in the early writings of Paul. Along with other hybrid notions this later came to be called adoptianism. The third is divine incarnation which John expounds in the opening verses of the fourth gospel. In the beginning, says John, was the Logos, the Word, and this Logos, this Word was with God; indeed was God. This view is the one which primarily prevailed and became the basis for future doctrinal discussion.
Later books of the New Testament reflect a variety of alternatives which worried people like Paul and John. One notion that nearly slipped unnoticed into the early church was that Jesus, rather than being the incarnation of God, was really a kind of phantom. He was not the manifestation of God, some said; he was a phantom-like creature who looked good, danced around the world for a while, and then slipped off into the great blue yonder again. He was not substantial, not really a man (he only looked like one) and not really God (he only sounded like God). This appealed to some people, as an alternative to calling him God in flesh living a human life. How could he really be human if he was divine? How could he really be divine if he was human? Maybe he was both, but how did these natures mix and unmix, if mix is even the right word? The debate about the nature of Jesus, his humanity and his divinity, concluded in a complex confession of faith at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. To pose this as a contemporary question: Did Jesus of Galilee have foreknowledge of the battle of Bull Run in the Civil War of 1861-65? Did he understand the dynamics of the rise and fall of the dot-com companies in our time or how the current situation in Iraq is going to turn out? If he did, how human was he, and if he did not, how divine was he?
Five centuries before Christ, the Greek Stoic philosophers explained the universe by theorizing about the Logos. This word meant literally word but it could also mean thought, reason, and other related ideas. It came to be used to express the rational order, the harmonious inter-connectedness of the universe. It was but one more step to identify this network of reason and meaning with the being and mind of God. In Israel, among the Hebrews, the prophets spoke of the word of the Lord (they called it dabhar) which came to them as a powerful experience of possession by God, speaking through them. As prophetism declined after the exile in Babylon what we call the wisdom tradition, a new philosophical movement, emerged in Israel. They spoke of wisdom, the wise word, as embodying GodÕs presence in the world. Against this background of Greek philosophy and Hebrew wisdom John writes his gospel. In the opening verses he points to the presence and the power of the Logos, the Word. The Word, the Logos, this One who gives shape and meaning to the universe, is bound up in the being of God; the harmony in creation is a sign of GodÕs presence and the Logos, revealing God, appeared as a person. Put simply it means that what God has to say to the world is said in the life of Jesus.
This concept of the Word/Logos or something like it, some form of incarnation, appears in other religions. I am not suggesting that all religions are equal or that there are no differences that matter, only that there are significant similarities. We use the word word to mean a sound made by our vocal cords in speech, to express thought; writing was invented to represent these words. Logos carries the ideas of word, expressing thought, the whole fabric of meaning and connectedness in the universe. This complex of ideas and meaning, bound up with the nature of God, says John, became flesh and lived among us.
Now let us move to Asia. Centuries before the Christian era, as the Aryan tribes moved down from Central Asia into India, driving their flocks and herds before them, living in the open, battling the elements among the Hindu Kush Mountains and along the Indus River, these people developed a complex religion which their priests codified in the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas and the Upanishads. These priests were called Brahmins. Brahma was one of their names for God and when they spoke of the sacred spells and prayers, the ritual sayings which only the Brahmin priests understood they called the sacred word brahman. Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, their gods, or more accurately the differing faces of the One God were made known to the people through this sacred word, brahman, which helped to interpret the universe and how people were related to it. Gautama the Buddha appeared later within Hinduism, and inspired a new religion; his teaching, his word of truth was recorded in the dhamma. Buddhist children sing, “Buddha loves me; this I know for the dhamma tells me so”. In ancient China, Confucius is usually credited with developing the guidelines of classical Chinese society and religion, but there was another shaper of life and tradition. His name, Lao Tzu, is said to mean something like the old guy. Asian religions were deeply influenced through the short yet profound writing, the Tao Te Ching, a collection of sayings attributed to him. This little scripture tells of the sacred power behind and within the universe and all of life. This power may be called the Tao and while it can be translated as word or way, no translation can give its full meaning. Tao is indescribable and incomprehensible; it is beyond all words yet flows through all of life, giving its energy and its power to all that is. To live satisfactorily one needs to live in harmony with the Tao. While Tao is not called God it is the ineffable reality. Tao is used of the spirit and nature of the universe and sometimes of the words which express but can never capture the reality of this incomprehensible mystery. Twenty years ago I spent a week in a retreat house above Hong Kong, called Tao Fong Shan, which means the Mountain where the Wind of the Word blows. Seventy years ago Karl Reichelt invited Buddhist monks and Taoist priests there to discuss the relation between dhamma and tao and logos, as Christ incognito in the faiths which they followed. Christ the living Word may be profoundly present in spirit even where his Jewish name is not used. Even Islam speaks of Jesus as the Word of God, but there are other considerations for which we have no time now.
Did you notice in the story of Cornelius the Roman centurion, Peter began his speech by saying: “I now see how true it is that God has no favorites, but that in every nation the one who is godfearing and does what is right is acceptable to God.”? We are living in days when the epiphany, the manifestation of Christ’s presence continually appears among the world’s peoples. The outpouring of generosity in the wake of the Tsunami disaster is a sign. Terrorism notwithstanding, in the highways and byways, but especially in the byways of the world, the Living Word calls men and women to compassion and to gentleness.
In the light of this context, Albert Schweitzer’s words from The Quest for the Historical Jesus make fresh appeal. After considering the many ways in which theologians of recent generations sought to explain the enigma of Jesus, Schweitzer wrote of him -
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfil for our time. He commands, and to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.