Word of the Week

Claiming Jesus: John 1:1-18

On July 14, 2012-- only more than a week ago-- an op-ed article appeared in the New York Times that has been all the rage of debate online and in progressive circles ever since.

Ross Douthat titled his edgy piece, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" He wonders about the future of the institutional church in particular the progressive among us, those of us who are willing to say more what we are for rather than we are against, those of us who champion God's love for all people, and don't claim as a Christian people we have a one track highway to God.  We usually feel pretty good about ourselves for this, but he muses what is our future? Will we ever see the glory days of the 1960s and booming church growth again? Will the progressive church of today be the progressive church of the future?

Using the  progressive branch of the Episcopal Church as an example, Mr. Douthat says:

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

We could use this opportunity to pick on our Episcopal friends and stick our self-righteous Baptist noses up and say that this is their particular problem and not ours, but such is far from true. We are just singing a different verse of the same song. Churches like ours might have steady growth in membership over the long haul, but in the short-term, we aren't. Where do the large flocks of remaining interested church goers attend on Sunday morning if they go to church at all? It's fundamentalism driven, we will hand you your faith in a box, type of mega churches with their own parking garages. But, he doesn't say that our more conservative church friends have ALL the answers either.

But what I find interesting about Mr. Douthat's comments are that they dis-spell the myth that many of us in this community have in our heads about why people don't attend church.

Rather than thinking that the church is just so out of tune with the culture and if we could just "hip" ourselves up with an attractive mailing or two, more people would come, he suggests we are asking the wrong questions altogether. If the stats of the Episcopal church are any indication, there is NO amount of liberalism or open-mindedness, that is going to attract newcomers to us. So, can the liberal church be saved?

I think a better question than the one asked in the article is, "Do we know we are as a Christian people?" or "What does it mean to follow Jesus?"

In our gospel text for this morning, we have the opportunity to examine a favorite scripture text that is speaks to the nature of this Jesus, for whom we say our faith is built upon. It's a passage rarely read in worship outside of the first Sunday after Christmas. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

It's a text paired with the Christmas celebration narrative often, because unlike the gospels of Luke and Matthew, the writer of John's gospel just starts things out this way. No Jesus in the manager. No shepherds. No wise men. No, rather we read of a light shinning in darkness and the darkness not overcoming it.  It's one of most beautiful pieces of poetry in all of the gospels-- in fact is a sermon in itself (so I could just read it again and sit down . . . but I'm not).

So, as we begin to digest this word for us today, one thing is very clear and that is: John's high Christology. In fact, if you wonder where the church got his Trinitarian Christology that has been our legacy since the 4th century all discussions must go back to John 1. In other words, this gospel does not imply that Jesus was just another person, rather that Jesus was and is divine and has been such from the beginning. Not just from the time of his baptism as Mark's gospel presupposes, or from birth as explorations of Matthew and Luke might suggest-- but before creation itself.

This connection is made even in the original Greek as the word for word-- logos, is in fact the same word used in the very first sentence of the creation account in Genesis. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." When did Jesus become God, according to John's gospel? Jesus was already God and has always been God.

Yet what is most astonishing about the Word that was with God and the Word that was God in the beginning is what we read in verse 14, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."  Not only are we told who the Word is but we are told that the Word became flesh, a man, and lived among us.

Thus, God did not love us from afar, as the "big man upstairs" as many of us comically refer to God from time to time. No, God love us up close, flesh to flesh. God wanted us to know who the Divine was so much that we were given the most surprising: a visitation of the holy.  

And in the incarnation,  we were given a concrete, flesh and blood human being who walked on our earth, who drank from our rivers, who bathed in our streams, who felt our aches and pains, and who tasted the tears of our cheeks-- so that we could get to know and SEE for ourselves (or in our modern case hear for ourselves) what God is really like. Martin Luther in fact said, " The mystery of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding." It's beyond human understand, I believe because we have not known a love like ever! And, most of all, God wanted us to experience love!

Recently, I was visiting with a family not affiliated with any religious community in our area, as I was preparing to lead the funeral service for their son, recently deceased in a car wreck. As I sought to get to know the family better, asking questions about the life of their son, I found it was hard to keep them on track of the conversation of the information I needed to get from them. Instead of answering my questions about planning the funeral service, they kept wanting to tell me about all the long time neighbors and friends who kept popping in their home to visit over the past couple of days.

It was like a broken record of kindness. They especially told me about all the family members, coming into DC from other parts of the country who hadn't been to visit in ages who wanted to be with them during this difficult time of loss-- not just through a card, or over the phone, but in person-- through human to human contact. It meant the world to them, I could tell, to be surrounded by tangible signs of love at this difficult time. And the love in this community of folks, and thus of the legacy of the deceased became apparent in story form.

And, such I believe is true of the story of "Word became flesh" from John 1. God knew there would be no other way that we'd know how loved we were if God did not become one of us and initiate contact that could be for us the symbol of love.  God wanted to hit the "re-start" button the relationship-- God wanted deep and abiding relationship with each of us. And so Jesus came and showed us how.  

This gets to the heart of the Christian message of what means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means a collective group of believers gathered at a church: we are to be in relationship with this one, Jesus, who came to earth to be in relationship with us.

However, it is at this juncture that I know I might lose some of you. I might lose those of you who have long given up the notion of having a "relationship with Jesus" or "inviting Jesus into your heart" because you feel such a sentiment is a part of a branch of the Christian church that asks you to check out your brain when you wake up or love only certain people or read scripture in a prescribed way. I hear you on this and am right there with you.

We, as the progressive wing of the Church of Jesus Christ, have often thrown out the baby with the bath water when it comes to talking about  relationship with Jesus. We've circumvented the conversation by loving Jesus with our minds, with our theology, but not with our hearts, not with our bodies, and not all that we are. And we wonder why people say they find God more in a yoga studio or a meditation class than in a church worship service?

But, I believe what John 1 is asking us to do is reconsider and possibly even redefine our spiritual language so that it always includes room for conversation, connection and communion with the Divine.  Conversation one on one with Jesus. Jesus, the word that became flesh and dwell among us, longs, who wants to be who we lean upon as w e live our lives, day in and day out. And  so as we do we keep asking ourselves and each other: who is Jesus? How can I talk to him? How can I love him? And how can I share Jesus' love for me with others?

The embodiment of Jesus aspect of our faith, I believe is what we as "liberal" Christians are missing-- even as we have our heart open wide to all kinds of folks in the world: all colors, all genders, all people, we miss out on the most important relationship and that is with Jesus. We've become so invested in the "box" of church looks like (stand up, sit down, listen, go home) and faith looks like (honor God through our right belief) that we've robbed ourselves of how incredibility mind-blowing and transformational our faith can be.

For we have been given through Jesus the gift of  a God who truly can say, "I was one of you. . . ."

The gift of a God whose real presence can come very close-- closer than even the dearest friend to us. . . .

The gift of a God who says, no matter what I am going to find a way to be in relationship with you and love you in a way that touches your whole being.

This is what we need, my friends. This is what the church needs my friends. Who cares if "liberal Christianity can be saved?" or not. What should most keep us searching in the night is "Do we know Jesus?" And if we do, "How can we know him more?" For when our lives are connected to the life of the Divine, what will be will be in our churches, no matter how large or small they are.

So, today, will you join me in re-committing your life to a relationship with Jesus? Will you join me in worshipping God not just in the rote routine of words on a page, but words that speak of the Word who was God? Will you join me in love Jesus with your hearts, knowing that he dearly loved our hearts before even the creation of this world? Will you join me in claiming Jesus as we sing, "Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word and to rest upon his promise and to know thus saith the Lord?"

I love Jesus . . . even as a socially progressive Christian. What about you?