When Shakespeare’s Juliet asks, “What is in a name?” and argues that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, she is trying to justify her and Romeo’s love despite their belonging to different tribal families. But one word does make a difference. “In the beginning was the Word,” or rather “Logos” (John 1:1). “Word” does not mean the nominative identification of an object. It has a broader and even metaphysical meaning: the reason, the cosmic order, the Divine pronouncement of creation. It is the beginning of creation in Genesis 1:1 and it is the identification of Jesus the Christ as not created but begotten, which the language of the various creeds struggle with. Nowhere in the Scriptures is it more clearly stated that before Christ, nothing. And even here it is pretty iffy, as is all metaphysics to our overly logical minds. Ideas as massive as this take room – in our heads and in our hearts. In fact it is so difficult to understand that one can argue that nowhere in the Gospels or Acts or the Epistles is it made clear that Jesus wasn’t subordinate to the Father, a Son but not God. That was an issue which took over four centuries, many Ecumenical Councils, and blood in the streets to settle. In some ways we could brush it off saying it doesn’t make that much difference, and if one’s practice of religion is pretty well grounded in good works, it doesn’t. Everybody from non-liturgical Christians to those who say Jesus was a teacher and a good guy and nothing more could be satisfied with that. But Jesus as the embodiment of God-with-us (Emmanuel) is critical. It is the ground of Salvation history that made possible not only good action and righteous living, but a personal relationship with God who walked amongst us and adopted us and who continues to hold us in creation, love, and mercy. And gives the gift of redemption and life eternal. It is important.
When I read John 1:1-18 for the hundredth or more time what jumped out at me was Cousin John the Baptizer. Why John’s testimony? We have a clear proclamation by the Gospel writer of John who Jesus is. And then we have this defense of it. Why? For one, John’s followers were popular in the first century, more popular than those of Jesus. They still exist in the Middle East. We see Scriptural statements about John’s disciples questioning Jesus, and some resentment about Jesus poaching John’s people. So there were some social issues to address. But there are other reasons which draw the Word into the world. John fulfills the prophesies of Elijah preceding the Messiah (although he denies that he is Elijah), and John acts in that prophetic role proclaiming Jesus is the Lamb of God, so it is evidentiary to Jews and Jewish Christians. As well, John is very incarnate, and, except in Luke’s account of the sign of his birth to an aging mother and a father forced into nine months of silence by an angel, a normal human person. Or as normal as a wild itinerant preacher of repentance dressed in animal skins can be a normal human person. So if the Word is fully God, a person in that peculiar understanding of God as Trinity, our strength and our stumbling block to the rest of the world, he also is a human person known and testified to by a local religious prophet. And in the whole of John 1:1-18 the narrative bounces back and forth between Jesus as Word and John the Baptizer as witness. Yet the baptism of Jesus is missing, although that Gospel recounts that the Baptizer saw the Spirit descend on Jesus.
But back to the Word as we understand it. Christianity stands apart from other major world religions in the incarnation of God. Some religions suggest it, with an avatar interacting with human people, but we have testimony about Jesus’ missionary work and resurrection. It is Jesus’ humility, his kenosis as God, emptying himself into the world as a servant, that is so scandalous. And although we tend to shy away from the theology of substitutionary atonement, a bookkeeping notion of Jesus’ suffering as a trade for our sins, there is still some underlying truth in it. That shed blood and that broken body are not only a model for the Eucharist and a model for how God experienced our fragile lives, but a reality-changing event which creates a new world, a tsunami of a sea change, a precursor to the promise of the final new age at the eschaton, the End Time. Yes, we are down in the weeds of theology, but it is important to occasionally take stock at how remarkable and unbelievable are the events on which our faith rests. And part of the reason why many leave Christianity for a more rational philosophy. Secularism for one, but other religions, also. Often ones we know little about except for popular or guru-driven beliefs.
Zen was popular a few decades ago. Yet Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are complex. And while there is a promise of folding into the nothingness of Nirvana, they do not offer a personal God who cares for us, guides us, nor one who offers to ease our pain here and in the life eternal. New Age schemes and psychological therapies offer a variety of spiritual notions and activities to gain inner peace. Neo-pagan polytheisms and pantheism/panentheism offer a romantic way. And then there is self-help, with its resolutions, diets, and exercise goals. The fact that they come and go suggests that there is no real there, there. It seems that neurobiology is heading into the realm of theology as the newest scientific apologetic for religious formation. Why are we so willing to give up the treasure we have for the newest shiny promise of peace, enlightenment, and gnosis?
We owe a debt to Martin Luther for reminding us that salvation comes from God’s grace through faith. Good works won’t do any more than indulgences did. We can’t set up a salvific bank account to gain Heaven. It is Jesus’ incarnation, life, and his death on the Cross that did it. That is where substitutionary atonement still has legs. He did it. It is done. His teaching can change us, can teach us how to live by bringing his mind into ours as we grow in righteousness. But the reality is that we are fully mortal except for the divine spark of life and the indwelling of the Spirit given at baptism. And we bump against each other, interact in our very human ways, and stumble, and we are not the Word. God is in charge, always, and we are not saved except through God’s grace. And yet we are so willing to give this up. Maybe that is the reason why John’s Gospel stresses the Baptizer so much. We need evidence, logic, scientific proof. But in truth there is none except for the singing in our hearts, the love in our lives, the gifts of the Spirit in abiding with the Son of God, whom we have grown to understand is fully God, not a creature no matter how high and holy, but God. Enjoy this season of Light. It will prepare us for Lent to come. And celebrate the gift we have. We don’t need novelty when we have the real thing.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.