The Transforming Word

15 April 2019

Opening sentences are important:

  • they can capture the imagination
  • or set the scene for that which is to follow
  • or they can be a real turn off.

My opening words to Karen on a circuit youth Weekend at Barnes Close in February 1981 was not the best chat up line in history, but I managed to rescue it and make amends.

There are some wonderfully captivating opening lines in literature:

My favourite has to be from L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Or how about this? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens of course, A Tale of Two Cities.

I love the whole sentence “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Wow! How about that for a commentary on the present state of our nation and society?

 Then there is arguably the best known opening sentence in any of the New Testament books – John’s account of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Not only is it captivating but it is packed with meaning and sets the scene for all that is to follow. Just a few verses later is the following:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

This notion, this deeply significant theological insight, I would argue, carries right through the Gospel account to the very closing episodes: the Word had become flesh so that flesh might proclaim the Word.

The Word had become flesh so that flesh, yours and mine, might proclaim the Word.

The incredulity of those who knew Jesus best must have been utterly indescribable.

There is a misconception that the witness of the women was the root cause of the disbelief on the part of the male disciples. Jewish scholars tend to dismiss such a suggestion. They argue that if a close friend, executed before their eyes, could somehow have appeared after death and spoken to those who first arrived at the burial place it would surely have been sufficiently mind blowing for an enormous level of doubt and disbelief to ensue. Whoever first conveyed the news would have been viewed as suspect or delusional, whether they be male or female.

So who can blame the disciples for their reaction?

When we receive news that challenges all our preconceptions we can do one of a number of things, including:

  • Ignore it and shrink back into our little world.
  • Dismiss it vehemently with a counter claim.
  • Or investigate further.

The Gospel accounts tell us the latter approach, investigating further, tended to be the option chosen by the first believers.

And that investigation led to surprising results.

  • Dashing to the tomb and finding it to be indeed empty.
  • Walking along a road a familiar voice opens up that which they had been overlooking.
  • Meeting together in a well-used room where the wounds were on full display.
  • Going about their daily business the teacher somehow draws near and together they share in a conversation over food.

Speaking personally, the more I investigate the revelation received by those of a different perspective, culture and story to my own the more I am enlightened by their experiences.

Most of us have found this to be so through the ecumenism of recent decades. We have come to see that Anglicans and Catholics are not as bad as our spiritual forbears claimed, not always! Indeed their practices and insights have taught us much and contributed to our own practices. And today, those of us who interact with believers in a faith other than our own discover we still have much to learn. When I first heard and read of those who made such claims I was incredulous. It was as if they had come rushing back from the encounter with surprising news, news that I couldn’t wholly accept as true. I could have ignored that news, or challenged it with unfounded prejudice or investigated it further. I chose the latter and I’m glad I did.

I am glad that I have engaged with those who have a different story to tell. I didn’t quite run to the tomb, it has been three decades of encounter, engagement and enrichment. But I have now come to believe that just as no single denomination has a monopoly on Jesus, so no single religion has a monopoly on God. Each has their own theology of God for sure, but there is, after all, only one God. Nevertheless I still believe that God speaks uniquely through events in first century Judea and Galilee and that these events are as incomprehensible as they are undeniable. 

My own conviction is that the resurrection is an endorsement, an endorsement of the fact that despair and darkness are overcome by hope and light, and an endorsement of the fact that even death does not have the last word.

The words of the Galilean Jesus and the last words of the resurrected Christ inspired the words of those closest to him: those who would go to the ends of the known world to spread the news; those who would write letters that would convey the developing understanding of the new movement; those who, like the one they followed, spoke of forgiveness and life as their death approached.

From letter writers to song writers, from poets to preachers, well-chosen words have conveyed the Eternal Word and still do to this day:

  • the hymn that lifts the soul,
  • the sermon that speaks of grace,
  • the conversation that enriches our lives.

All these methods of communication are valid in the conveying of the Gospel’s everlasting truth.

Yet we also know how words have been used to diminish and destroy:

  • those who have an axe to grind,
  • or a limited and naïve political perspective,
  • or a cause without historical context are prone to speak in ways that divide, disfigure and destroy.

The propagandists who believe in their own self-righteousness are an inherent danger to truth. From Goebbels to online trolls, from political extremists to religious fundamentalists, humanity has often faced a barrage of lies.

But perhaps there has never been a greater threat to truth than today:

  • facts are dismissed,
  • historical and scientific investigation scoffed at
  • and the old prejudices have risen to the surface in an explosion of hate, much of it masked in a quest for justice, the promotion of human rights and the overcoming of perceived wrongs. 

It is said that whoever holds the story holds the power.

The story we, as Christians, convey has to be evidence-based, tried and tested over time, one that stands up to any level of scrutiny and above all one that impacts upon our lives, community and world in as positive way as any other.

Those who first heard the news of resurrection may have been incredulous but it is clear that additional encounters and their own personal experiences would prove the claims to be true. The tomb was empty, how, God alone knows. But the impact is plainly undeniable.

  • The flesh that walked the Galilean hillsides is now the Word that invites disciples to the shoreline.
  • The flesh that stilled a storm is now the Word that reassures a doubting brother.
  • The flesh that ate a Passover meal is now the Word that chats over breakfast.
  • The flesh that turned tables is now the Word that unpacks scripture along the road.
  • The flesh that appeared in what was for anyone other than a member of the Jewish community a pretty insignificant place is now the one who draws near to us, here and now, as the Word that speaks through the bread and wine of sacrifice, forgiveness, renewal and meaningful purpose.

The Word did indeed become flesh so that flesh, even our flesh may convey the Word.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: