The first Christians were Jews. They came from a small backwater in the Roman Empire. A seemingly irrelevant outpost in a bustling and cosmopolitan world. They faced a big question. How could they help people throughout the Greek speaking Roman world engage with Christian faith? How could a faith which was initially expressed in the framework of the Jewish culture be comprehended by people of very different cultures? Throughout the book of Acts we see people like Paul, Peter, Silas Barnabas, Timothy, James and others struggling with these questions – they knew what Christian faith looked like for a Jew living in Palestine, but what should it be like for a Greek intellectual in Athens?
Their situation mirrors our own. Just like they did, we wonder how we can make what we believe intelligible to people in today’s world who have little or no experience of Church and who see Christian faith as largely irrelevant, who enjoy Christmas as a traditional event but who believe little of the content of the story.
Our Gospel reading today is the gospel writers= attempt – at the beginning of John’s Gospel to relate his Christian story to a world that was alien to it. A world which was culturally very different from that of the gospel writers. How could they convey the Gospel to the Roman and Greek world – the good news which was so bound up with Jesus’ divinity and humanity. They had experienced Jesus as both divine and human. How could they explain to others that a divine being became human? How could they help people understand? As they reflected on this they realised that their scriptures – the Old Testament had at least a couple of ideas that would help them.
We meet the first idea that they used in Genesis – in the story of Creation – God spoke and something happened. God only needed to say a few words and a whole world and universe came into being. Words for God were not just things to say, concepts to express or write down. Words were effective, they achieved something. God’s Word was God at work in the world.
The second idea came in other parts of the Old Testament. There they found passages about Wisdom. In parts of their bible, our Old Testament, “Wisdom” is spoken of as a personality, a person, who existed before the worlds were created. Wisdom at God’s side as he created. Wisdom as the craftsperson moulding creation and delighting in what was made.
Listen to these words from Proverbs:
“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? … The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago. … Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth. …When he established the heavens, I was there, … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker” (Proverbs 8)
As Jewish Christians were asked about Jesus by their Greek neighbours. As the first theologians tried to explain the events of the first Christmas, how God could be born as a baby in Bethlehem. They saw something in the Greek culture that would help them to explain better to Greek and Roman people, just what they meant by Jesus being the Word and Wisdom of God, both divine and human.
The word for “Word” in Greek is “logos”. Greek philosophers used that word “logos” in a special way – by the time of Christ – they used it to refer to the ordering principle of the universe. Sometimes they used “nature” and “logos” interchangeably. What they meant was that there was an organising principle behind all of nature. The principle by which life held together – perhaps “wisdom.” And as Greek philosophers talked of “logos” they almost gave it a personality.
Christians realised that here was a way of explaining to Greek and Roman people just who Jesus was – and the first verses of John’s Gospel were born. John gives the “Word,” the “logos,” a central place. He describes the “logos” as God, the Creative Word, who took on flesh in the man Jesus Christ. … “God active in the created world” = “logos.” … God’s Word expressed as a human being. However difficult it is for us to understand today, those Christians successfully managed to translate the story of the incarnation into a form that Greek and Roman people understood.
The challenge to us is similar. … To find ways of expressing what we believe, in ways that people in today’s world will understand. We cannot just say, it worked in the past so it will work again. We cannot just do the things we have always done. We cannot continue to use only the words that we understand. We cannot continue to be just the church we have always been. Words and customs move on. Meanings change, hopes and fears change. The world is shrinking and ideas from the four corners of the world now influence the values of every society.
You only need to think of the way that the meanings of words have changed.
‘Comfort’ – what does that mean now? But on the Bayeux Tapestry it means something completely different. …. There is a picture of Bishop Odo ‘comforting’ his troops, so the legend says at the bottom of the tapestry. The picture does not show a team huddle like we sometimes see on a sports field, rather it shows Bishop Odo with a spear behind his troops urging them forward as he pushes the spear into their rear ends – really comforting!
‘Organic’ – until very recently that was a group of chemicals which contained Carbon – a mixture of different substances both noxious and benign. Now we use it to mean wholesome food, untainted by many of the chemicals which would naturally have fallen into the ‘organic’ grouping.
You’ll know many other words which have changed their meaning over the years. Those changes are like small snapshots on what has been happening in society – a process of change which is accelerating not slowing. And if we don’t change we will be increasingly misunderstood and become increasingly less and less relevant – having little or nothing intelligible to say to people who need to know the love of God.
As we participate in a process of change we do just what Jesus did ….. The Word, Jesus, became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. God changed, God became human, God learnt new things, expressed himself in different ways, felt tired for the first time, experienced limitations for the first time. God changed so as to bring his love to his creation. The early church changed its rules, expressed itself in new and different ways, so that its mission to the Roman world might be effective. And we are called to do the same to look for new ways to communicate the Gospel to those who live around us but who have none of the history of Church involvement that we have.