In the beginning was the Word, 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. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in 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. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of [the] father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
How is the Church to speak coherently of the relation of Jesus Christ to the one true God? Yesterday’s reading in Philippians 2 indicates that from the beginning Christian communities, somewhat paradoxically, offered divine worship to a young rabbi who grew up in Nazareth and was crucified outside Jerusalem. Written some forty years later the prologue of John’s Gospel presents us with a rich conceptual narrative of that relation. It dramatically declares that at the very beginning there was one existing alongside God, who was the active agent of creation and the source of all spiritual life and light. John describes this divine being simply as the ‘Word’. And it was the ‘Word’ who in the fullness of time assumed human flesh (was incarnated) and lived among us as an itinerant Galilean preacher and healer.
The power of the prologue is not that it explains the relation of the ‘Word’ to God but rather that it offers a way of conceiving God as one being, who is distinguishable but not separable from his own voice. And this voice is personified by John as he who freely takes to himself human form. The prologue does in poetic narrative what later Trinitarian language seeks to do in more abstract formulae, that is, to offer a conceptual account that recognises both the unity of the God of Jewish faith and the legitimacy of the Christian practice of worshipping Jesus Christ as divine.
The sad irony suggested in the prologue is that when the divine Word, agent of creation and source of all life, humbled himself and came among us in human form, he was not recognised. We, his own people, chose to close our hearts and exclude him from our lives. But to the curious, to those open to his truth, who believed who he was and what he said, he graciously gave the power to become children of God. And this power is not that of human strength or human ingenuity or human diligence. It is, as we shall later see in this Gospel, the divine power of the Holy Spirit.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new… Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, But am betroth’d unto your enemy; Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
(John Donne 1572-1631, Holy Sonnets)
The Rev’d Dr Alan Spence is a retired minister and Convenor of the Faith and Order Committee.