Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Word Became Flesh
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 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.
15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” 16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but God the one and only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
Today the gospel readings switch to John, and our listed reading is the introduction to that Gospel. It’s one of the best-known passages in the New Testament, and also a very important one. It’s important for what it says, but also for the glimpse it gives us into the history of the church and of the writing of the New Testament.
Let’s start with some of the historical aspects. The Gospel of John was the last of the four gospels to be published. By the time it came out (probably somewhere between 90 and 100 AD), the church had become an international movement. For more than 50 years, missionaries like the apostle Paul had been at work telling the story of Jesus and establishing churches throughout the Roman Empire and even beyond. By the time the Gospel of John was published, there were probably more gentile followers of Jesus than Jewish ones. There’s some historical evidence that there were functioning churches as far away as India and China, but most believers were still in the eastern Mediterranean – in the parts of the world we would consider the Middle East and Eastern Europe today.
In that part of the world, Greek philosophy was very influential among educated people. In fact, most educated people were taught Greek philosophy and rhetoric. And in the most influential schools of Greek philosophy, there was a widely-held belief that the universe was organized around a single principle — in our terms, they might say there was a ‘point’ or ‘purpose’ to the universe. The Greek word for this central principle of the universe was logos.
And when you look closely at this introduction to the Gospel of John, it seems pretty clear that the Apostle John and his disciples were trying to make the life and teachings of Jesus understandable to people who knew Greek philosophy. Maybe more importantly, John and his disciples were trying to help those people understand the significance of Jesus.
I say that because this passage begins with the famous words, “In the beginning was the word,” and the Greek term that’s translated ‘word’ in this passage is logos. The text goes on to say that Jesus was that logos. So the point the author (or authors) of the Gospel of John were making was that there really is a principle at the heart of the universe, and that Jesus is that principle.
The passage goes on to say Jesus was present at the creation of the universe, and was a participant in its creation. It says that Jesus was and is with God and is even a part of God (in that mysterious paradox we call the Trinity). It says that Jesus is the way that God brought light into a dark world, and that Jesus is the closest we will ever come to seeing the image of God.
All of those are important ideas, but that idea that Jesus is the logos, the central principle of the universe, that’s an idea his followers should keep firmly in mind.
And actually, Jesus himself said something that makes a similar point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described himself as “the fulfillment of the Law.” As we said recently when we were reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus talked about “The Law,” he would have meant something more expansive than just religious rules. When Jesus talked about “the Law,” he was talking about all of the Hebrew scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. So Jesus was describing himself as fulfillment of everything God had been doing throughout history. Which is pretty much the same point the introduction to John makes, just in Hebrew terms rather than Greek terms.
In his history of philosophy, the French writer Luc Ferry observed that when the Christian faith arrived on the world stage, the religious tradition of the Greco-Roman world just disappeared in a very short time. Nobody worships Zeus or Aphrodite anymore. And even the philosophical tradition of the Greeks – it’s still studied by scholars and college students, but as far as most people are concerned, it has lost its influence.
That’s because that Greek tradition taught that the central principle of the universe was ‘virtue’ or ‘pleasure’ or ‘duty.’ But the Christian tradition offered something entirely different – the idea that the central principle of the universe was Jesus, and that Jesus was God in human form. And when that idea caught on, it meant that relationships between people were more important than abstract ideas. It meant that nothing brings us closer to God than helping to promote the welfare of other people. It meant that love for God and other people is the highest law.
And, of course, the followers of Jesus started to live in ways that made it plain that they really believed that love was the highest law, feeding the hungry and nursing the sick and standing up for the abused and the vulnerable.
So that’s why this passage is so important. Because it explained to a waiting world that the real principle at the heart of the universe had finally been revealed. That principle is Jesus. And Jesus is not only the principle that the universe is organized around – he also wants to be the principle that his followers organize our lives around.
And when that happens, when a person really starts organizing their life around Jesus, then that person begins to live out the love for God and love for neighbor that is the mark of a truly transformed life.
Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that by your Spirit, you would open our hearts to accept Jesus as the true center of our lives – as the principle around which those lives are organized. And let our lives display the same love for you and for others that Jesus showed every day he walked among us. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 5 and 29; Deuteronomy 6:1-15; and Hebrews 1:1-14.)