January 3, 2016
Do you like a good mystery? A few years ago, my younger son was having some trouble deciding what to give his mother for Christmas. With a little help from his Dad, he found my amazon.com wish list. My son could have chosen the book on Atonement Theology by Scot McKnight, or Catherine Brekus’ book about women preachers in America during the 19th century. But instead of those lofty tomes, he selected the entire Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. He couldn’t have made a better choice!
What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good mystery novel. I love the twists and turns of a well-crafted plot, the clues hidden in the smallest details, and the challenge of putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle. Sometimes, an author leaves a few loose ends dangling at the end of the story, and the unanswered questions act as a teaser for the sequel. This story’s mystery may be solved, but another riddle appears ready to present itself in the next book. It’s like an end-of-season cliffhanger for a television series, “… to be continued…”
Maybe it isn’t solving the riddle that hooks us, so much as the experience of mystery itself. Maybe there is something in us that hungers for the unanswerable question, the unsolvable riddle. It’s good to be reminded, now and then, that we don’t know everything. But mystery can also be unsettling to us. We can easily be frustrated when the clues are obscure, or the dangling threads can’t be neatly tied together.
At the end of the first century, the Christians in and around Ephesus were looking for answers. Things hadn’t turned out exactly the way they’d expected them to. Most of Jesus’ original twelve disciples had died, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and Jewish Christians had scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Jesus had not returned as promptly as these Christians had hoped, and some of them were beginning to wonder if they’d missed an important clue, a vital detail in the story they’d been telling each other for decades. If they were honest, some of them had to admit that – well, they were beginning to have their doubts. It was in this context that John, their pastor, wrote his Gospel account.
Using simple, but carefully crafted words, John writes about the profound mystery of faith, and he offers a few keys to unlock this mystery. He begins his gospel account with familiar words, “in the beginning,” but he turns the creation story in an unexpected direction: “In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was Life and the Life was the light of all people.” In a few short verses, John presents the mystery of the incarnation to his readers. But the keys to this mystery lie in the second half of his introduction. Let’s pick up the story, beginning in verse 9 of the first chapter.
9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 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. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him know.”
The urgent question bothering John’s fellow Christians was a simple one: Was it true that Jesus was God? Or had they been believing a lie all these years? John the Baptist had sent disciples to ask Jesus a similar question: “Are you the one we’ve been expecting, or should we look for another?” And now, decades later, the question persisted. But where the Baptizer’s disciples had asked with a glimmer of hope, the first-century Christians were beginning to admit their doubts and fears.
John confronts these fears immediately by invoking the Creation Story from Genesis, and reminding his readers of the role Christ had in that story. All things were made through him. Nothing that was made was made apart from Christ. And if that isn’t enough to convince the first century skeptics, John calls on the witness of John the Baptist, who announced “Here is the one who comes after me, yet ranks before me.”
But John asks a more important question of his readers than the simple, “Is it true?” Assuming the story is true, what does it mean? Why did Jesus take on human flesh, become one of us and invite us into the reality of God with us? What does it mean to become a child of God? To answer this question, John points us to Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God. The clues are all there in Salvation’s story. To unlock the mystery, we have to use the right keys.
First, John tells us that Christ was rejected by his own people. He came into the world that had been created through him, and that world did not recognize him. The story of God’s saving work goes back to creation, but that story has a plot twist almost from the beginning: by force of our own will, we humans reject God’s goodness just as surely as Adam and Eve rejected God in the Garden of Eden. Throughout history, the people of God have repeatedly turned away from God to pursue their own desires. Even when God became flesh, when the Word took on tangible human form, the very people who had been longing for God’s redemption failed to see the salvation that was standing right in front of them. If the world would not accept the Son of God, how much more should we expect to be rejected by the world as true children of God?
Though many failed to recognize him as the Son of God, some accepted him. And all those who received him were given power to become children of God. Not by the sacrificial blood of a goat, not as a by-product of lust or the result of marriage — in short, not by human act or intention — but born of God. This is the central key to John’s prologue. It is also the focus of John’s whole gospel story: All those who receive him, all who accept Jesus as the Son of God, are given the power to become children of God. In Chapter 20 John writes, “all these things are written that you might believe, and believing, have life.” He’s talking about life as a fully participating member in the family of God. But even this key truth needs a little unlocking. What is this power? And how do we claim it?
The word translated here as ‘power’ appears as ‘authority’ elsewhere in John’s gospel. The Greek word exousia refers to the power of choice, the liberty of doing as one chooses, it is the power given with permission, the authority that combines privilege with responsibility, much as the key to a door allows the bearer to enter freely, but also holds the bearer responsible for what is inside. And all who accept Jesus as the Son of God receive this authority to become children of God. We who believe are adopted into God’s family. We become joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). Even more, John says that Jesus, the Son of God, shares with us his intimate knowledge of the Father. We are given permission to know God fully, as Jesus knows God.
At my mom’s farm in Oklahoma, there is a stone building out behind the house. Inside that small building, there is an old pie safe, where my mom stores her canning and freezing supplies. In a special place among the plastic freezer containers and jar rings, is the key to my mom’s back door. All of her children, and many of her grandchildren, know where to find the key. In fact, I think all the members of her church, the man who rents out mom’s pasture, and the neighbors on either side of her farm know where to find the key. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the population of Craig County Oklahoma knows where to find the key to my mom’s house. Over time, as she has come to trust people and invite them into her life, she has shared the location of that key to her house. You never know, someday she might be locked inside and need help, and she’d rather you know where her spare key is than break down the door to help her. Over time, mom has adopted her neighbors, the members of her church, and maybe even the guy who rents her pasture, into our family. We are still her own children, but we share access to her home with all these other people she knows and trusts. They all have the same authority to enter her house as we do. And everyone who knows how to find that key also bears responsibility for my mother’s safety and trust.
Jesus was the only Son of God, but we have been given authority to become children of God. What do we do with this authority, this power? We have permission to enter into the intimacy of our heavenly Father’s love for us, but we also bear the responsibility of loving and serving others in Jesus’ name. Just as Christ came to serve, binding up the broken hearted, healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor, so we are called to do these things as children of God.
John writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.” Jesus came to earth as a tangible, fleshed out, skin-covered human, in order to reveal to us the God we could know no other way. Our task, as children of God, is to continue that revelatory work, showing God to the world around us in all we say and do. We must be prepared for the world to reject, ignore, and even mock our efforts. But we must also be prepared to accept any who are willing to receive this ‘grace upon grace’ that Jesus makes available to all who believe.
Much later in John’s story, Jesus will tell his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16 ESV).
“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21 ESV).
What does it mean to be given power to become children of God? It means that we have been given permission to enter into God’s household, but we have also been charged with opening the door for others, welcoming them into the family of God. As we gather at the Lord’s table, let us come with humble hearts, accepting the grace upon grace that Christ offers to us. Let us go out from this place to serve, bearing the responsibility as true children of God to make God known to others. Amen.