The Light for Those Who Choose
Today’s passage from the gospel of John is powerful in its poetic imagery, and yet it should also remind us of a potential sticking point for many.
When the writer of the gospel of John likened the life Jesus brought to humanity as the light of life he never got anywhere near saying “mission accomplished”. Another John, John Newton, the one-time slave trader who himself had fallen about as far from grace as it is possible to fall before he woke up to what the coming of Jesus actually meant, put it this way: “There are many who stumble in the noon-day, not for want of light, but for want of eyes”.
John’s notion that Jesus was the personification of God encountered in creation is indeed an imaginative way of saying that Jesus, through his very being, presents a new revelation of the mysterious God forces behind the universe. It is of course a view restricted by human limitations. Notice that by having Jesus constrained in the flesh to represent God, should not disqualify our efforts to attempt to better glimpse new dimensions of our reality in what the astronomers might one day be able to show in a faraway heaven. Nor for that matter, do we need to insist that Jesus is “divine” in the traditional sense. Instead, John and the other gospel writers go on to present Jesus as a man whose life has the potential to make total sense within our human centred world of time and space.
For the gospel writers, Jesus does this through the way he lived, the way he acted and the way he died. And yes, John’s poetic revelation introduces new ideas which take us beyond the prophets. But Gospel writer John in his imagery has noticed something else as well, which I guess we would prefer to gloss over. Most Christians make a big thing of the way Jesus is welcomed while he is still in the manger. This is what Christmas is all about. Yet when we think of the subsequent teachings and attitudes Jesus came to represent, not everyone welcomes the light….and sometimes this includes the very ones who claim to represent Jesus.
What was it John wrote? 10He 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.
When the dimly understood God of the Old Testament is “Earthed” in the form of flesh and blood, there is a real but we should also note only a potential transformation. The Jews in Old Testament times had assumed that in time God will accomplish everything and all we have to do is sit back, carry through the rituals of worship and follow the rules.
That things in those days often didn’t come right was seen more as a failure to get everyone to conform in order that they might get back into favour with God…. and if outsiders needed to be hurt in the process, well that was just the price the outsiders had to pay for being non believers.
When Jesus brought his hope of peace and love, or at least hope for those who would listen, he turned this around and gave the responsibility back to those who would accept his teaching. His was an ethical faith. As Ian Harris once put it, “The human (and not just the human Jesus) became the locus of the divine”. He took the emphasis away from the supernatural, and, in the process, encouraged personal responsibility.
Harassed by enemies? It isn’t an external God that will need to deal with that situation. Rather look to your personal patterns of forgiveness. Obsessed with worries about self? – love your neighbours. The Gospel insists the rich man has nothing if he cannot care about the poor man Lazarus at his gate. Jesus’ was a light that could search out humanity in the prostitute, see the good in the heretic, reach out to touch the untouchable leper and even care about the thief on the neighbouring cross. Do those of us who would follow him think he would expect less of ourselves and our attitude.
These were radical ideas. They are still radical ideas. The light was uncomfortable for many who would be followers and they were all to ready to return to the comfortable conformity which insists on a passive admiration of Jesus who might then become progressively other worldly and too divine to have anything to do with daily living.
Perhaps we should be more insistent that we notice the illuminated bad as well as the illuminated good in what we as the Church have accomplished and are continuing to accomplish. Of course there is the helpful application of Christianity in freeing slaves, encouraging charity and saving our communities from the worst of their excesses. Those enjoying human rights, health, and education have much to thank Christianity for. But there are also those nasty bits where Christians have steadfastly refused to allow the light to shine.
Our Church histories tend to gloss over the realities where many of Jesus’ followers have not reflected his light in their actions. When for example the first Roman Emperor to insist on the importance of the Christian Church, Theodosius, it was a case of become a Christian or else. When he had the pagan statues destroyed he even executed children who played with the broken fragments. And I am afraid that the previously persecuted Christians all too often then became the persecutors.
A useful Internet reference for those prepared to open themselves to acknowledge past and present weaknesses of those claiming Christianity as a faith is one called “Victims of the Christian Faith” by Kelsos, which lists the countless groups of victims of violence in the name of Christ over the centuries, and it is simply an uncomfortable fact that the so called Christian perpetrators were committing these crimes against a wide variety of people whose only real crime seemed to be that they were different.
Among this sad list of multitudes murdered in the name of Jesus were those who followed different versions of Christianity, those who were reluctant to convert, those falsely accused of witchcraft, Jews, Muslims, pagan worshippers, indigenous tribes and, what is more difficult to accept, all probably only killed because the perpetrators were certain Jesus the Son of God would have approved. It is a very dark and extended chapter on a history we would prefer to forget yet I am not sure that we are wise to do so.
I would encourage those with internet connections to read this sad summary of human blindness – The name again: Victims of the Christian Faith by Kelsos, and while you do so, just reflect on the truth in a simple statement by Martin Luther King who said:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
There is one absolute certainty and that is if we wait for God to accomplish all those tasks we have set aside for the too hard basket, this New Year will be pretty much the same as last year. It is not our assurance to others that Jesus, God of Very God is the answer to their very human problems that resonates, it is our personal human response to such problems ourselves that will be the significant witness. The old African Proverb should give us pause for thought: “I cannot hear what you are saying because of who you are.”
Yet if on the other hand we allow the full light of Christ’s teaching to show up the path ahead, then we can start to understand why John talked about those who received him seeing his glory.
As the population has grown and the potential to use the world’s resources has increased the options for our future, it should not be just the negatives we see. That which truly honours Christ is not – and probably never has been – the declarations of belief, the slogans of faith, wish lists in prayer – nor indeed, even beautiful church music. Surely it is more important that the light has the potential to bring changes in the emphasis to our relationships and responsibilities. Amongst us as we know there are those whose daily lives are a witness to these changes.
Just as Jesus widened his mission to include treating all about him with respect and consideration, we are invited to do the same. How we treat our fellows, regardless of gender, of position, regardless of religion or ethnicity or country of origin, will show how just much the light we reflect is the authentic light of Christ. How we treat our environment and the efforts we make to ensure that our world is passed onto our next generation in better condition than the one we received will say far more about the values of our faith than the form of our worship or size of our Churches.
John tells us the divine has become incarnate, and by implication the confining walls of our everyday existence are momentarily parted to let in the shafts of a new light. This light transforms – allowing us not only to see Jesus in a new way, but if we will but look, see ourselves in a new way.
In John’s words, the word became flesh and lived among us. In this season of new beginnings, is this true for me? And will it be true for you?