Reading: John 1.1-14
What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever heard?
Legend has it that when challenged about his apparent drunkenness by a formidable lady at a party; (‘Winston, you’re drunk’) Churchill replied with the words ‘Lady, I may be drunk, but you are ugly. And in the morning, I shall be sober.’
Now that’s fairly outrageous.
Oscar Wilde wrote that religion is ‘the fashionable substitute for belief’ and also that ‘Sceptism is the beginning of faith’.
That’s pretty outrageous!
Apparently when Beethoven included a choir at the end of his 9th Symphony, it was considered so outrageous that debate on this revolutionary combination raged for years in music circles. However, that was nowhere near as outrageous as when Stravinsky debuted his piece ‘The Rite of Spring’ 90 years later. The audience were so shocked by what they were hearing that they reportedly started a riot, smashing up the auditorium!
Now that’s properly outrageous!
You may have noticed that I have avoided mentioning anything too controversial from recent years or recent (especially political) debates, but it is fair to say that we have all heard outrageous statements from politicians around the world over the last few years (something to do with the Coronavirus and bleach comes to mind) – and I’m sure we could all think of an outrageous quote or two associated with sport.
But I like to think that there has possibly never been anything ever written or heard that was as outrageous as the first part of John’s Gospel – John 1.1-14.
To know why, we have to be able to understand a little of how some of those words would have related to the debates and controversies that would have been around at the time. So bear with me whilst I name drop a few Greek philosophers…(I’ll try to be brief)!
It is suggested that it was Heraclitus – a Greek Stoic Philosopher from roughly 500BC who first wrote of the Logos Spermatikos – the divine spark that started everything… Logos, of course being ‘Word’. You see, Christians did not invent the idea of The Word. Far from it! The Logos – ‘the Word’, was a popular idea if the Greek speaking world of the early part of the first millennium where the latest Philosophy was discussed – as it were – in the pubs and on the street corners, rather than just amongst the ‘intellectuals’ of the time. Ordinary people would, apparently, talk about and discuss ideas such as ‘The Word’ (the Logos – the divine speak or first principle from which all things are derived) and how other beings, and even the whole world somehow emanated from the Logos in a divine act of creation.
You see, the Gospel of John wasn’t speaking into a vacuum – it was expressing the divinity of Jesus in the language of popular debate and discourse of the time. It wasn’t inventing terms, but rather perhaps re-purposing them, and doing so with breath-taking nerve.
I’ll (briefly) try to explain why our verses today from John 1 were so outrageous in the culture where they would have been first heard.
We can see in the writings and teachings of such as Plotinus (circa 200AD) that at this time there was a sort of ‘Neoplatonic’ school of thought which had developed over centuries, and which had imbedded in it a hierarchy. A sort of spiritual hierarchy where all of life and existence itself was on a sort of ladder – from the lowest to the highest.
In the world that the writer of the Gospel John was addressing there was a strong sense that all that was highest and purest was thought, and reason, and a sort of disembodied way of thinking and being that tried to rise above the messy distractions of the world.
The messy distractions of the world, all that was base and low was known (in this way of thinking) as ‘The Flesh’ – (Sarx in Greek).
So ‘Word’ and ‘Flesh’ were complete opposites!
Word and Flesh were fundamentally opposed opposites in the popular thinking of the time. One represented everything that was purest and highest and most spiritual (Logos – ‘Word’), the things that everyone should aspire to and move towards, and the other represented everything that was lowest and basest and everything that good people should try to move away from (Sarx – ‘Flesh’).
We might risk a brief analogy - Depending on your football preferences, you might imagine that one was Derby and the other was Forest. Or that one was Liverpool and the other Everton. Perhaps that one was City and the other United (feel free to insert other teams / sports / fundamental oppositions here!).
And so when the gospel of John declared…’And the Word became flesh and lived among us’ we have to remember that this would have been deeply, almost unimaginably shocking to the people who heard it! I mean, can you imagine the shock if you heard that Derby County and Nottingham Forest were going to merge into one team and have one manager and one ground?
It would be outrageous!
But of course, the point I really want to make today is not just that these extraordinary words from John 1 were shocking or revolutionary. The point I really want to make is that, somehow, inexplicably, after living with and reading about and celebrating the idea of the incarnation (and the Word becoming Flesh) for 2000 years, we still seem to get something wrong!
Even after celebrating the birth of Jesus in a dirty, ‘fleshy’ stable, Christians still seem to fall into the trap of thinking that in order to experience and connect with God we have to be deeply ‘pure’ people who spend hours in silent or mystical mediation, perhaps in a monastery or convent, on a mountaintop or even in a dignified and solemn Cathedral service…
But of course here we are influenced by the long Christian tradition of thinking that we need to ‘get away’ from the world and all its messy and fleshy distractions in order to be close to God. All the way from St Paul himself (who used the term ‘Flesh’ to mean sinful desires or something like that) through to St Augustine, through to the early Christian mystics and ascetics, through to Aquinas and into modern times Christians have been tempted to think that Spirituality is best done through detachment – through getting away from distractions and by focussing on God alone.
And there is no doubt that ‘getting away’ from all distractions can be a powerful way to allow people to focus on God, and to meet with and experience God. As mentioned above, the Christian tradition is absolutely packed full of people who thought like this!
But what if we take absolutely seriously the shocking idea that the Word did indeed become Flesh?
What if we were absolutely serious about the idea that Jesus coming to earth (in that dirty stable) means that we should expect to meet God in the midst – absolutely in the middle – of all of the mess and distractions of our daily lives?
What if God really can meet us in the ordinary?
I mean, where do you expect to meet with God? Just in church? On a mountaintop? By a riverside? In silent prayer? In ecstatic worship?
What about in the kitchen when doing the dishes?
What about when watching telly in the Lounge?
What about when at the football?
What about when in Asda?
What about meeting God in the face of a person? After all, Jesus said ‘Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me…’
If the Word became Flesh, we need to take seriously the idea that God will be present in all of these places and all of these things.
If the Word became Flesh we need to allow ourselves, perhaps a little like the first hearers of John’s Gospel, to be shocked by the idea that God is not ‘above and beyond’.
We need to allow ourselves to be shocked by the idea that God is not ‘above and beyond’ all that is ordinary or commonplace or everyday to us.
We need to remember that God is present in all that is everyday or commonplace or ordinary to us – because the Word became Flesh. If the Word became Flesh we need to expect to experience God in the ordinary.
This year at St Paul’s, I want us to focus on Experiencing God. The first part of our vision statement says that we will aim to be a community and place where people can Experience God.
And as such, I want us to be a place where people – where we all – can expect to meet God in the ordinary. To experience God in the ordinary.
I really do believe that we can learn to look for the invitation and leading and ‘footprints’ of God in each of our daily lives.
‘How?’ – you might ask. Well, two ways.
The first way is simply to learn to expect God to be active in our ordinary days and our day-to-day lives. The second is to actively seek and search for what God is saying to us through our day-to-day lives.
And if you want to learn more about how we might do that, well, I want to be a little cheeky and say Come and find out more by joining in our Lent Course this year!
‘Experiencing God in the Ordinary’ will be the theme of our Online Lent Course for this year. On Thursday evenings in Lent at 8pm we will gather via Zoom and think about how we can experience God in the ordinary, and therefore how our ordinary can become extraordinary – because the Word became Flesh.
I really hope and pray that you will be able to Join us!