Text: John 1:1-18 (the Word become flesh)
“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” So says the song “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music.” Except, we never do get to start at the very beginning, do we? When we’re born, we join a family with a history and existing relationships. As children, we come to consciousness in a particular time and place. We struggle to discover the gifts of the past and to avoid its pitfalls.
I once read an article by Vancouver School of Theology professor Sallie McFague that suggested the big theological question was not “Why do we exist?” but rather “Where are we, and how do things work here?”
Today is a new beginning for me and for Mill Woods United Church. But we are starting somewhere in the middle and not at the very beginning. Over the next while, we will discern where in the story we find ourselves.
It is not that Mill Woods is all that old — only 40 years. But 40 years is two generations, and a lot happens in two generations. And beyond the context of Mill Woods and this congregation there is all that is happening in Edmonton, in Alberta, in the United Church of Canada, and in the world.
Each one of us also brings our personal story to the table. One of the privileges of ministry is telling one’s story against the backdrop of Scripture and tradition, and listening to the stories of others in the community. Who are we? What needs and yearnings bring us together? What work can we accomplish together in worship, mission, and mutual support? What is beyond our grasp at present?
So now that we are all swimming together in a fast-moving stream with its own history, let us begin . . .
I am grateful that you have called me to Mill Woods United Church. Although I am in my 50s, ministry is new to me. Seven years ago, after a career as a librarian and database content manager in Toronto, I decided to pursue ordination. In 2009-10 as part of my training, I worked as a student supply minister in Didsbury Alberta. For the past two and half years, I have been the minister of Borderlands pastoral charge in Saskatchewan, 150 km south of Moose Jaw.
My late father was a minister in the United Church of Canada. However, I left the church as a teenager and only returned 12 years ago. As a result, I lack experience in church as well as in life, not least because I am divorced and have no children.
I love the challenge of congregational worship, pastoral care, and outreach. What better place to wake up to life and love than in a community that is trying to follow the path shown to us by Jesus the Christ? Thank you for asking me to join you.
We meet on the first Sunday of a new calendar year, the second and last Sunday of the Season of Christmas, and with the opening of the Gospel of John.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That is its famous and challenging first sentence.
The unnamed author of this text, who by tradition we call John, is echoing the first verse of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Unlike the writers of the other three gospels, John puts the life of Jesus in a cosmic setting. The earliest gospel writer, who by tradition we call Mark, provides no backstory to Jesus’ ministry. The gospel writers known to us as Matthew and Luke provide the two Bethlehem birth narratives.
But for John, Jesus is not just the new Messiah or King of Israel, but also God’s self: “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 all humankind.”
Jesus was born about year 1 and was crucified in Jerusalem about the year 30. John’s Gospel was written in the 90s, more than sixty years after the crucifixion. Because the church canonized his Gospel, we consider John’s statement that Jesus is the Word become flesh as . . . “The Word of God.”
So today, I speak a little about the Word of God. According to Genesis, God creates through speaking. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” and so on. But do we still think of God’s Word as a creative force given that science teaches that the cosmos and life are products of natural history? Do we still consider the various books of the Bible — written between 3,000 and 1900 years ago by scores of mostly unnamed Jewish men — as the literal Word of God? Do we agree with John that Jesus is the Word of God become flesh?
In my mind, the opening of the Gospel of John sits alongside the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis. Their story in the Garden of Eden tells of the origins of civilization and consciousness. Genesis says that consciousness comes from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Civilization comes with agriculture, which increases the productivity of labor and makes slavery both possible and inevitable.
When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God banishes them from the Garden of Eden. He curses them with pain in childbirth — which historically arises with the growth of the human brain such that the head becomes too large for the birth canal — and with agricultural toil, which is the basis upon which the first priests and kings enslave us.
The Gospel of John begins with the Word. Human consciousness is associated above all with language, which is the key product of cultural history and the main tool with which we build our minds and communicate with one other.
Together, the poetry of Genesis and John paint a picture of the problems of our lives and what we hold sacred. We are cursed with pain and slavery. Our language-based consciousness wakes us up to the fearful reality of individual mortality. Human consciousness is what makes each of us a bearer of the image of God.
Genesis and John describe origins “in the beginning.” But the Bible no longer occupies a central position in Western culture. With each passing year, it diminishes in importance as do the fortunes of Christian churches.
Worship still seems to be universal. Everyone holds something close to our heart as an ultimate concern. Unfortunately, we often worship idols — things like nations, sports teams, wealth, or power. Even within the church, many of us seem to worship denominations, church buildings, or the books of the Bible themselves more than the God who is Love.
John’s prologue can be helpful in the latter regard. It suggests that the books of the Bible are not God’s Word. Instead, John assigns that role to Jesus the Christ.
Of course, we learn about Jesus through the gospel accounts of his ministry, death and resurrection. But as important as those texts, I believe, is the Christ we meet in each other and the new life in Christ we experience in the many crucifixions and resurrections of life. With grace, these resurrections bring us into God’s eternity to which we give the name of our most sacred value, Love.
I don’t know yet how we in Mill Woods will engage the Bible, each other, and our neighbours. But I pray that it will be a continual journey from idolatry to the God of life, consciousness and love. May the stories of Jesus guide us on the road to the cross, a place where all idols painfully die, and where we rise to new life within the God who is Love.
Just what happened “in the beginning” may always remain a mystery to us. I am OK with this since we are not at the beginning but in the middle of life and ministry. We are a Christian congregation with strengths and weaknesses, and with our personal stories, which are sacred gifts we can share with each other.
We may not know the origins of everything, but we do know where we are going. With God’s grace, we are travelling on a pain- and joy-filled road to Love, which is the only thing truly worthy of the name God.