“The Word Made Flesh”: On Doing Theology Afresh

A Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church. No joke.

Imagine it: a Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church, back in the first century. Let’s say it’s a gathering of believers in Ephesus. And imagine that they happen to do this on the day a brand-new opening to John’s Gospel is debuted. They hear, for the first time ever, these words:

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

How would each one hear this?

Our first-century Jew might hear this as being about God’s creative command, the “word” God spoke at creation. They might hear this as being about God’s perfect wisdom, by which God created all things. They might hear this as being about God’s prophetic message, the essential “word” God has been communicating since the beginning of time.

Our Greek, however, would hear something different. They might hear this language of “word” or logos, and understand it as referring to the logical principle that under girds the whole universal order, the clear light of reason that holds everything together.

And our Roman? Well, they’d probably hear this along the lines of our Greek. But it’s possible they might hear this language of “word” or logos as the underlying rational law, the binding covenant among people, that keeps society from falling into disorder and chaos. Romans, after all, were big on law on order.

Three different people, hearing the exact same words, but hearing different things.

And all three would be right.

That’s the astonishing beauty of John’s opening prologue: the author has taken something so simple, the basic Greek word for “word,” logos, and used it in a way that makes sense in all those different ways, maybe more.

God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message. The logical principle that holds together all reality. The rational law that keeps us from chaos. All these things are the Word, the Logos, that John is talking about.

And this is what makes the sudden turn at verse 14 so dramatic: This Logos, this Word, “became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mic drop. Stunned silence. Then a flurry of questions.

Really? This man Jesus—the one that was crucified as a lawbreaker—he embodies the law that keeps us from social chaos? This Jew from backwoods Galilee embodies the underlying logic of all reality? Jesus of Nazareth embodies God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message? Really?

We’re so used to this passage we don’t even blink when we hear it. But trust me, to anyone hearing this at the end of the first century—Jew, Greek, or Roman—this would have been shocking, even scandalous. It was cutting edge theology, outside the box of any faith tradition passed on by mothers or fathers.

In a moment of creative inspiration, the author of John’s prologue has hit upon this idea of Jesus as the “Word,” the Logos. It’s such a simple thought—a common, everyday word for “word.” But it taps into the complexity of the author’s world—Jews, Greeks, Romans, and more all could hear different nuances of the word logos, and so glimpse something of the full significance of what God has done for us in Jesus.

The author of these words has used his God-given imagination to tap into ideas from the culture of his day and talk in fresh ways about God and creation, Jesus and our world—to do theology, in other words.

And it’s not just John. In fact, the Bible from cover to cover models exactly this kind of “creatively imagining God in fresh ways by tapping into the culture around us.” From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical authors all follow the same pattern.

The two creation stories that start off the Bible draw on language and ideas from other ancient creation stories—like those from Egypt or Mesopotamia—to describe what it means to say that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the Creator of the world.

The Law of Moses draws on language and ideas from other ancient law codes—like the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi—to shape the distinctive terms of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.

The Hebrew prophets draw on the patterns of poetry and prophecy from the world around them, in order to call the people of Israel back to Yahweh and point them to God’s future salvation in God’s coming kingdom.

The Gospels took a fairly recent genre of literature in the Roman world—the biography—and used it to create their own kind of story—a Gospel, a presentation of the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus himself took a common technique of Jewish Rabbis—the parable story—along with the stuff of everyday life—farmers and seeds, kings and banquets—and used them to describe God and God’s kingdom.

God did not merely plant the exact words of the Bible into the minds of the biblical authors, and then they wrote them down. God worked through their creative imaginations as they drew on all kinds of things from the culture around them to make sense of what it meant for them at that moment to live in faithfulness to God.

Of course, we’re not prophets or apostles. We don’t claim any special inspiration by God. We’re not Jesus. We don’t claim to uniquely embody God.

But we are called to look to these inspired prophets and apostles in order to figure out how to faithfully follow Jesus—including how we think and speak about God and our world, how we do theology. The biblical authors and Jesus himself model for us how to do theology in our own day and age: using our imaginations to draw on all kinds of things from our culture to think and speak about God and creation, Jesus and our world—and then to live in faithfulness to the God whom we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths.

This, you could say, is how the Word is made flesh in every generation, incarnated in every culture around the globe—including right here among us in Morden, Manitoba.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on October 16, 2016, part of a series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.