During Advent we hold three Thursday evening "Breathing Space" Communion services at 8pm, in the candlelit Lady Chapel. This is the talk from the first of those services, which will all be based around the theme of "The Word became Flesh", and what that might mean for us. The second and third of these services take place on Thurs 8th and 15th Dec.
Breathing Space 1:
“In the beginning was the Word,” says John’s Gospel. There are no shepherds, wise men or angels at the start of his account of the life of Christ. It is just straight in with the theology – beautiful theology, it’s true, but harder work than stories of mangers and starlit journeys.
But there is a big clue in John’s opening line to help us understand what he is telling us, because we’ve heard something very like this before; back in the book of Genesis, in fact, where it all began. “In the beginning” was how that story started too, with the creation of the world and everything in it. All it took then were some words. “Let there be light…”, said God, “and there was light”.
People who study words and the way we use them call this a “performative utterance”, words which make something happen. A marriage vow is a performative utterance. It’s saying the words “ I, N, take you, N, to be my husband, to have and to hold, for better for worse” which actually makes you married. In English law it’s not signing the registers which does this, it is saying the words. Once you have said the words, everything is different.
God’s performative utterance in creation “Let there be…” brings into existence the sun and moon, the land and sea, the elephant and the earwig, and everything else, including us according to the book of Genesis. When John echoes these words, “in the beginning” he is trying to tell us that God is about to speak again, to utter a new Word in the person of Jesus who will bring about a new creation, a new kingdom, a new beginning for anyone who is prepared to let his life take root in them.
But what kind of word is Jesus? Words are expressions of ourselves, our wishes, our opinions, our beliefs. The kind of words you can write on a page can be precise and unambiguous. But a Word made flesh – a person - is a very different thing. There’s no way you can fully describe another human being. You have to meet them to know them, and in any case, people are different at different ages and in different situations, different with different people.
You can understand a word on a page. You can pin down what it is saying, but you can’t do that with a person, a Word made Flesh. That’s why the lawyers around Jesus were so frustrated by him. They loved words, and they loved to be precise with them. Jesus baffled them. What was he saying? What did he mean? What might God be saying through him? What they didn’t realise was if you really wanted to hear this Word, God’s Living Word, you had to get to know him. It was the relationships he built with all sorts of people which really spoke the loudest about who he was. In meeting him they discovered they were loved and precious – they became a new creation because of him.
God’s word changes the world, not by giving us a new rule to keep or a new set of beliefs to subscribe to – dead words on a page - but by inviting us into a new relationship with him. He speaks to us in a Son, says the letter to the Hebrews, a Son who comes to show us that we are all God’s children, part of his family. Through his life, his death and his resurrection Jesus shows us what that means. We are ultimately safe in God’s hands. God does not give up on us because, like the best of loving parents, he just can’t. It is impossible, unthinkable for him. Because of that we can be sure that we have an enduring place in his family, room to be ourselves, to grow and change, to get it wrong and put it right, to become that new creation he wants us to be.
In the next two Breathing Spaces we’ll be exploring a bit further what it means to call Jesus the Word made flesh, but for tonight I’d like to leave you thinking about that family of love into which we are called through Christ. Are you confident of your place there, or do you hang back, peering through the windows and wondering if it really means you? Come on in, says God, through his Living Word – it’s a whole new creation and it is for you.