By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, commentary on readings for Jan 3, the 2nd Sunday after Christmas
Note: This is part of a series of Wes & Sue’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2015-16.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
John 1.1, 5, 9
To those who received him, who trusted into his name, he gave power to become children of God.
In the ongoing Christmas season, we celebrate John’s Gospel’s powerful beauty of the Incarnation: the Word of God, made flesh in the person of Jesus, the crucified and risen One. In a time of darkness—on the earth, in the world and often in our own lives—God’s unquenchable Light continually shines Life into being. That Light, in and through Jesus, is the enlightening gift offered to everyone.
A close entry into the Prologue of John might surprise us: at the center is the invitation to radical discipleship, grounded in receiving the gift of Jesus into our own flesh.
John’s Gospel is constructed like a complex mandala, via the latticework of intersecting chiasms. The word “chiasm” comes from the Greek letter, chi, which looks like an “X.” It highlights the pattern upon which the entire structure is built: the ABCBA or, as in the Prologue, ABCDCBA sequence. Our focus today is on the poetic “D” unit at the center of the Prologue:
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who trusted into his name,
he gave power to become children of God:
who were born,
not of blood
or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God. (1.11-13)
Readers are confronted with a choice of “births.” The “right answer,” of course, is to be “born of God.” But what are the other choices? Many English translations conceal the core contrasts, with renderings such as the NIV’s “ children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will” or the NAB’s “not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision.” In this case, the NRSV (above), following the King James, gets it exactly right. With each choice, the narrator introduces us to one of the themes that will resonate throughout the Gospel and our lives of discipleship. Let’s look briefly at each one and how it challenges us to deeper discernment on our ultimate identity.
Born of blood: The literal Greek here is aimatōn, “bloods” (plural). This, of course, makes no sense in English, causing confusion for some translators. The key is that the plural “bloods” in the first century was a common figure of speech for bloodshed. The related verb, aimataō, meant “bloodthirsty.” In other words, the Prologue’s first “warning is not to be “born” by the bloodshed of redemptive violence. We see this dramatized in the Gospel at the end of the story of the raising of Lazarus. An emergency meeting of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin calls for Jesus’ death so that “the nation” not be destroyed, an event which will lead not to saving the nation-state of Judea, but “to gather into one the scattered children of God” (11.50-52). It is the mechanism that Rene Girard described as “the scapegoat”: our violence against “the other” that offers to “heal” our own divisions.
We are tempted by this birth every time we identify with foundational violence. As Americans, of course, this is at the heart of our national DNA, as we celebrate the military “victory” that goes with the 4th of July Declaration of Independence. We experienced this again in 1991, when a divided nation was brought together by war in Iraq, symbolized by the blossoming of yellow ribbons throughout the land. Today, we find ourselves tempted with this yet again in the “war on terror” that would destroy our unity as “children of God” by pitting us against our Muslim sisters and brothers.
Born of the will of the flesh: Translators seem to get squeamish here at the mention of “flesh” (Gk, sarx), editing it out of some versions. But it is essential to hear precisely what John’s Gospel is referring to with its use of “flesh.” It cannot be the simplistic (and Platonic) “human fleshliness is bad or to be avoided.” If so, how can we celebrate that “the Word become flesh”? In a text that starts with an echo of Genesis 1, it can hardly be expressing an anti-creational theology. Rather, the key is Genesis 2.7, where we hear that the first human is comprised of “earth stuff” (Gk, choun apo tēs gēs) and God’s own “breath of life” (Gk, pnoēn zōēs). Later in Genesis, this pair morphs into the more common, “flesh” (sarx) and “spirit” (pneuma) (Gen 6.3). It is this pair that John’s Gospel is referencing in the Prologue and throughout the Gospel. In other words, a human being is only “in the image and likeness of God” when God’s Spirit is what animates the “flesh”/”earth stuff.” In God’s creation, humans are truly “inspired earth.” To be “born of flesh,” then, is to claim an identity apart from God’s Spirit.
We see this dramatized in the Gospel in two contrasting places. First, we hear Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus to be reborn: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3.6). If he wants to see the reign of God, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, must give up his “fleshly” identities and start all over. But he is so committed to his imperially-created, elite that he cannot even understand Jesus’ invitation. In contrast, we find the one born blind in John 9. Jesus’ anointing of the man’s eyes with earth stuff and his own saliva symbolizes Genesis 2.7: Jesus’ saliva is “living water” which the narrator has already equated with the Spirit of the Risen Jesus (7.37-39). In other words, Jesus calls the blind one to be reborn, just as he had called Nicodemus to be reborn. Unlike Nicodemus , though, the blind one washes his eyes in the “pool of Siloam which means ‘sent’” (9.7). He then witnesses repeatedly to what Jesus did to him, leading to his expulsion from the synagogue community by the very Pharisees of which Nicodemus is a member. Having been expelled, Jesus finds him and confirms his new, recreated identity in God alone.
We are tempted by “fleshly” birth every time we identify with the “glory” we gain from imperial honor rather than the glory that comes from God alone (12.43). Examples such as white and/or male privilege and “professional” and/or economic status offer many of us each day the choice of whether to cling to what the unjust status quo offers or to start over by identifying ourselves only as children of God who abide in Jesus.
Born of the will of [a] man: The final “not birth” invites disciples to reject the various “patri” forms of identity: patriotism, patronage, and patriarchy. In the Roman world, emperors were often referred to as national “fathers” that gave (some) the gift of Roman citizenship. Similarly, for many of the people Jesus engages in the Gospel, identity was linked with human “fathers.” Again, contrasting stories dramatize the choice. In John 4, the Samaritan woman questions Jesus: “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” (4.12). In John 8, Jesus confronts the Judeans over who he is and who he embodies. Defensively, they proclaim “We are children of Abraham…Abraham is our father” (8.33, 39). The Judeans refuse to give up their allegiance to the Jerusalem-centered temple system which they claim is an expression of their relationship with Abraham. The Samaritans, in contrast, accept Jesus’ call to a new identity that transcends the historic hostility between themselves and the Judeans over the divinely appointed “proper” place of worship. Jesus offers “living water” that, like the Spirit, flows where it wills regardless of man-made boundaries between peoples.
We US-Americans understand this choice all too well, especially in a time of fear-based suspicion of immigrants, refugees, Muslims, African Americans, the poor, and anyone who cannot claim connection with “our founding fathers.” This is why John, more than any other Gospel, refers to God as “Father” (112 in John of 135 times in all four): it is only birth from God that gives us our truest identity.
How, then, does the powerful beauty of the Prologue, lead us to enflesh the Word more completely? Once we begin to see how tightly our identities are wrapped in the fabric of empire, it can seem virtually impossible to completely unwrap ourselves, which is why Jesus tells his disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (15.5). As we continually discern our way out of our false selves, then, we grow in “trusting into” (Gk, pisteuousin eis) our new, true self in Jesus. We can only do this by abiding in him within the Beloved Community, where our joy in Jesus is made complete (16.24).
In this gift of a new year, as the sun’s light grows over the earth each day, may the Light of the Word made flesh, which gives Life to everyone, shine ever more brightly in and through us.