Delivered at Ames UCC on January 7, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Something terribly exciting has happened, if you are a church nerd like me: There’s a new translation of the Christian Testament. Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has published a version of the gospels and letters that he believes is more reflective of the original Greek, but without any tweaking to make it sound smoother in English.
Here’s a comparison, using the Gospel of John.
First, the New Revised Standard Version, first published in 1989:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god; This one was present with God in the origin…
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;
It was the true light, which illuminates everyone, that was coming into the cosmos. He was in the cosmos, and through him the cosmos came to be.
Do you hear the differences? Logos instead of Word, origin instead of beginning, cosmos instead of world. Whereas Matthew begins with a human genealogy of Jesus, Mark with the story of John the Baptist, and Luke with King Herod and the barren Elizabeth, John begins with the origin of the cosmos.
I love it! It is poetic and it is a bit intimidating. The dusty man of prayer and irritation whose hem we can grab and whose hand anoints us with oil is pure energy, is life itself.
And then there’s line that I want to tie into today’s passage, John 1.14.
The NRSV reads
And the Word became flesh and lived among us
But Hart’s says
…the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us
The ancient community of John is telling us that the origin of cosmos—stardust and supernova, varied nebula and nuclei—took on the trouble of skin and set up house among us. The very idea gives me shivers on my own skin.
JESUS AND BAPTISM
But what kind of house, or tent, what kind of skin? Presumably stardust could occupy the world in any which way it so chooses, so how did it choose?
First, there’s the skin of Jesus. Theologian Laurel Schneider, writes that in being or becoming Jesus the man, God became “complicit” in terrestrial life.1 By narrowing Godself from the space of the cosmological logos and into the toes and shoulders of a human man, by needing to breathe and eat, by having skin that sheds cells and eyes that could cry, God was no longer an observer or container of human existence. In Jesus, God took literal part in human existence.
And it was a particular, a specific kind of human existence. Jesus was not an emperor or a chieftain, a multi-billionaire or an elite scholar, meaning someone with status or power or distance from other humans. God/the Logos became flesh as an among-the-people, powerless Nazarene. And we heard today that nothing good comes out of Nazareth.
Then there’s the tent of where and how cosmos-Christ got to work. Immediately preceding the passage we heard today, is a long scene in which John the Baptist asserts that he is not the prophet Elijah, but the one the prophet Isaiah said would prepare the way of the anointed one. Then there is a description of Jesus’ baptism. Unlike the other gospels, we do not see for ourselves how Jesus walked into the water or hear the heavens open and speak. All we have is John’s brief retrospective account.
Why? Why the weighting of the context of Jesus’ baptism over the action of it? Maybe as a means to emphasize that Jesus fulfilled prophecy and so has solid credentials. Which prompts another why: There were plenty of prophesies open to God in Jesus to fulfill, so what does it mean that stardust chose this one and in this way?
Isaiah was written in a time of collapse and John was a radical during a time of occupation. The interpretation is that Logos chose to take on flesh and pitch a tent among the exiled and the outsider, those whose daily life includes no messages of affirmation or safety.
That’s pretty compelling, as evidenced by Jesus’s subsequent acquisition of disciples: The day after Jesus’ baptism, Andrew, originally a disciple of John, begins to follow Jesus. Andrew then grabs his brother Simon Peter. The next day Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow me.” Philip does.
The full twelve are not named in John’s gospel, but other followers are: Mary and her sister Martha are devoted to Jesus, as is their brother Lazarus. And Mary Magdalene, or Miriam of Magdala, stays with Jesus longer than anyone, long enough to become the disciple’s disciple: she is the first to see that there is life beyond crosses.
So in becoming complicit with human existence, we see that God did not choose to take an easy path or a glorious one. Logos as Jesus did not make very smart strategic or political alliances. The cosmic birth force came into the commons, spoke to all, and welcomed all to welcome God and each other
It’s an audacious story, an audacious claim. Even a church nerd like me has doubts. I can be as much like Nathanael, the man who tested Jesus at the end of today’s passage, as anyone. Maybe even more so now, when we could really use some evidence of God among us in the world. All of John’s cosmos-talk is fine except that it feels like we humans may be coming quickly to the end of our time within the cosmos.
So I look again to the disciples and followers. With little to lose in terms of material and social status, the disciples and the followers did risk their lives for the stories Jesus told and the healing and feeding that he shared. In their own feeding and healing, then, they became the evidence of God in the world, it is the same evidence we are called to make flesh, to occupy.
…the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us
God chose to take on these bodies so that we may choose to be the body of Christ.
All of which begins, as it has for all disciples and followers, with a yes. Yes, no matter what translation we use, Holiness chose to be among us long before we were born and will remain long after we die. Yes, Holiness knows us at our worst and what we may be at our best. Yes, Holiness resides in our hardest of places, even our hearts.
So for as long as we can see the sun shine and the stars sparkle, for as long as the moon rises and darkness falls on our days, with the very skin on our bones we say yes and pitch our tents as outsiders and exiles, just like Emmanuel, God with us.
1Laurel C. Schneider. Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity. New York: Routledge, 2008, p. 175