Saturday, January 2, 2010

Belief in the Word

Why Believe?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' "From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.

The final bible verse of Tim Tebow’s college career was Ephesians 2:8-10, in short: we are saved by faith that we may do God’s work. Many churches, many Christians forget or ignore one half of this truth. As Brethren, we have not and we must not. A great part of God’s work is knowing and understanding His word. I pray that we will all commit to reading the Bible anew in 2010. Today we’ve all started with the first chapter of John.

This first third of the first chapter of John explains belief in five parts. Each of these five parts has a triune aspect. These three aspects are three facets of Christianity: the literal, the personal, and the symbolic.

On the literal we have verse twelve, in which the reward for belief in the Word is given: that we may become children of God. This verse serves as a foil to the 20th chapter of John, where Thomas is made to believe.

“Made to believe” is the most correct term here – Jesus upbraids Thomas a bit – that Thomas could not believe but by sight and those who came after, “who have not seen and yet have believed” would be blessed.

Blessed by being Children of God, of course, as we are told at the beginning of John. So this chapter bookends John and its reassurance that belief in the Word will be rewarded mirrors the blessings Jesus promises at the end of the Gospel.

The next part of the literal aspect concerns translation. It might be interesting to replace “at the Father’s side” with the more specific “in the Father’s bosom” and “made him known” with “reveals” or, my favorite, “unfolds.” But what is a bit of a sticker is that repetition of God: “no one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only” seems like a bit of a tautology – you know, “boys will be boys” or something else that is both obvious and meaningless. Until we dig a bit deeper into the translation. The term used for “the one and only” is elsewhere translated as “only begotten” – that makes a bit more sense: No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God reveals Him. That is, no one has seen the Father but Jesus reveals Him.

Most times when we hit a difficult passage of the Bible the problem is in our knowledge, either our collective knowledge in the translation we use or our personal limited understanding. As always, is it our duty – the work for which we have been saved – to look deeper and cure our deficiencies.

But why? I spoke several times with my brother Matthew while he was here about why he should believe. Matthew made the argument – but why can’t I just live a good life? That is one of the most common arguments you hear against faith – why can’t I just be good and not worry about the rest?

There are two good answers. One is a bit of a pat response: we simply can’t live a good life without God. Jim has spoken to us about order in our lives and in our faith – without that order, without the guideline of the life of Jesus, we are gone astray. The second is perhaps the better answer for some – that we exist in order to learn things. Were this not true, were we merely here to replicate ourselves we would have no call to live past forty or fifty – by that time we could ensure the health of our children and grandchildren. But we don’t – we live to seventy or eighty or ninety, long past the time when we are able to be primary or even secondary caregivers – why? What is the purpose of this extended life other than to learn and to discover? And once we have mastered all the science of the world we are left with mystery. Perhaps mystery, then, is where we should begin.

Which takes us to the third of five parts: Jesus the Christ as the Word of God. Obviously this is a central part but it is so simple and fundamental that it might require only the briefest of mentions this go round – Jesus is the Word, not the Bible. That does not detract in the least “one jot or tittle” from the Bible but it does remind us where our focus should lie – we don’t worship pages, we don’t worship sages, we worship the ageless Word of God who was made flesh and dwelt with us and died for us.

And, to bring us to the fourth fifth, by whose power creation was made. As both a teacher and a writer, I am witness daily to the power of words. There are even philosophers who have decided that our only existence is through words. These thinkers are close to grasping the camel but they’ve got the wrong end. It’s manifest to us that words are powerful because The Word is power. Just like God uses rainbows to remind us that rains end and flood waters recede, each time we are struck by the power of language we are reminded that through the Word God created everything. Genesis 1:3 can’t really be any clearer – all is formless until God speaks, until the Word of God is loosed upon creation. Using this language – these words, John tells us exactly what creation is and was and who was responsible.

The last part of belief explained in the beginning of John brings us back to mystery. John deliberately uses repetition and ambiguity both to connect Jesus to the Father and to tell us that there is more in that connection to understand than we may ever have understanding. “No one has ever seen God but God has made him known.” Even at its most literal English translation – no one has seen God but the only begotten God unfolds Him -- it traps us, it snares us on the words to make us, like Thomas is made, to poke and prod at the Word until we understand, until we believe, until we know.

So in this first third of John chapter 1, John has taken us through five literal levels of belief:






These five levels also extend to the personal level.

The discourse on faith and the rewards for belief – when set up against the negative example of Thomas at the end of the Gospel succinctly describe the nature of belief – especially the dichotomy of faith versus not works but visceral knowledge. Thomas was not blessed as we are because he had to, not only see, but touch to believe. We, on the other hand, have only our ears and our minds and our hearts with which to build belief. We and Thomas both are given access to the Word – but it is in our acceptance of the Word, our belief, that we are blessed to become the children of God. The nature of belief is an acceptance in that which cannot be proven but does not need to be. I love my wife, I love my children – they don’t need proof of it other than my life, at least I hope not – God’s love for us is made manifest in both creation and in the grace that waits for our belief. The reward not for “living a good life” but for believing so that we can live that good life – so that we can do those great Ephesian works for God.

The problems inherent, inbuilt even, in translating from Greek – which is itself a translation of revelation are, on a personal level, those problems of the outside world – of the seed sewn on weedy ground. No, this translation is wrong – no, that translation is wrong – no, use this version of the Greek – know this, brothers and sisters – the Word is not subject to translation. The Word speaks the language of your heart and mind and flesh; when you trip on words in the Bible remember that they are words of men – the Word will never trip you – Jesus is no trap; pray for clarity and pray for revelation and do the work for which you were created and you will build understanding; do not fall to the arguments of men that quibble over the placement of a comma – God has everything ordered and the Word is not chaos. When the world is calling you, remember that the Word is your calling.

Which leads us to simple faith, which on a personal level is that spark of interest that finally reaches your heart – whether it is music or friendship or good coffee, the part of the life of Christ that you are unable or unwilling to resist. It is as plain and powerful as “the Word was God.” For me, and probably the reason I love this passage so much, is the acknowledgement that my chosen vocation – for first of everything I am a writer – taps into the same energy – the same force – by which I came into being. I think the fact of Jesus as the Word is irresistible to any writer – and similarly I believe that there is some part of the life of Jesus and the life of the church that will speak to everyone; as we reach into the second decade of the twenty-first century think back on your calling – what drew you to the church? What can you do to be drawn anew? What can you do to draw others?

After simple faith we experience the power of God – we develop in our belief and faith – perhaps so that we can move mountains – but certainly so that we may, as Paul clearly states in Ephesians, do the work of the Lord. When we are fresh in our faith we are like children, but as we grow, so grows our responsibility. We are no longer simply called by the Word to faith but called by the Word to works – we are now God’s children and it is our duty to continue the work of creation.

Finally, after faith and work we are left with contemplation – the power and truth of the beginning of the Gospel of John has washed over us and we are still left with the mysteries encountered by the patriarchs of the church – and, as they did, we – as mature believers – contemplate the mysteries. This fifth step in personal belief is not reached by all at the same time – indeed, to stretch the edge of belief and to contemplate the nature of God by trying to understand the fine distinction between the Only God and the Only Begotten God can be terrifying – certainly simple faith is more comforting and the work we have been called to fills us so that we do not have to dwell on such difficulties; but we do. In this way we go beyond the nature of belief – the doubt of Thomas – we don’t ask “do I believe” but “why do I believe” – and this is a question that can not be asked too soon. That’s a phrase that’s often misunderstood – the question “why do I believe” cannot be asked too soon because it must not be asked too soon – the immature believer will never be able to answer that question to his or her own satisfaction; one thing that Jewish mystics get right is a gradation of study systems – you ask a certain set of questions and have access to a certain set of knowledge before you get to go on to the next part. Because of the nature of post-Catholic Christianity, we’re often left adrift on a sea of belief because no one realizes you can drown in belief – brothers and sisters don’t let a young Christian drown; be there for them to guide them in the Word.

So as our guide to belief, John has given us the five phases:






that become, on a personal level,

what belief means

the interference of the outside world

the irresistible call of the Word

the development of our calling in God

and a maturity of belief

These five aspects of personal and literal belief also mirror five parts of the life of Jesus – as foreshadowed by these first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John.

First we have a definition of what Jesus is – Jesus is the Word and the light of the World. John says in four verses what it takes Luke, what, four chapters to get through? But it is important to the story of how belief is made – for that’s what the New Testament and especially the Gospels are, are they not? – that we have a clear definition of what Jesus, the Word, the fundament of our belief, is.

Then we have the purpose of Jesus’ life – the struggle on a literal level against the persons of the outside world – the light in the darkness that is not received by his own; John spells out clearly what Jesus is and what He will do. As Jesus was not caught up by the outside world – even beating death, so we are reminded that our struggles have already been fought and won.

John then gives us the story of the Baptist – the announcing of the coming of Jesus; what is this but the irresistible call given to the entire world? As John the Baptist preached to those on the banks of the river Jordan so must we make the whole world our river Jordan. We must have the faith in our calling to repeat it to the world as children not of desire or of families – but children of God.

Creation was the first ministry of Jesus. Creation is the only ministry of Jesus. Creation is the ministry of Jesus. That is, as we see in John, it is the work of God to continue and care for his creation and we, as his children, are the stewards of his work. As Jesus, the Word, created all and died for all so must we give our lives to the work of God.

Finally we have the revelation of God through Jesus the Word. Before the Word God the Father was unknowable – through the Word God the Father is revealed, unfolded, made known – it is as if Jesus reverses the doubt of Thomas through God – if we have the faith to abandon the desire of Thomas to know – if we can instead believe, then it is God who places his hand in our wounds – it is God who knows us and we who know God through Jesus, the Word.

On a symbolic, personal, and literal level we are made and sustained through the Word of God; we don’t need preachers to tell us this, we don’t need buildings to proclaim it, we can see it clearly in the imperfect translation of a two-thousand year old text – out of more than 30,000 verses we can see the entire truth of what faith is, what OUR faith is, and what the life of Jesus means to both in a mere 18 lines. A half of a tenth of a percentage of the Bible can tell us everything we need to know about faith and how Jesus works in our faith; how much knowledge is waiting for us in that other 99.95%? As I said at the beginning of the message, I pray that in 2010 we will read the entire Bible and begin to contemplate its mysteries. Will you pray with me?

Heavenly Father,

you have given us the Word

so that you may be revealed to us

and that we may become your children.

Give us the strength

and the time

and the will

to read the record of your Word

to understand it

to write it on our hearts

and to take the Word into ourselves.

In Jesus name we pray,


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