Monday, December 29, 2014

Close to the Father’s Heart -- Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2B

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

                No one has seen God.  So, how do you know that God exists?  All manner of effort has been undertaken to answer that question, often using philosophical speculation to find the answer, from Anselm’s “Ontological Proof” to Aquinas’ “First Cause.”  But what does philosophical speculation get you?  Consider Anselm’s proof:  “So true is it that there exists something than which a greater is inconceivable, that its non-existence is inconceivable: and this thing art Thou, O Lord our God!”  [“Proslogion,” Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., p. 151].  God is that which none greater can be conceived, and this, according to Anselm requires existence.  But surely there is more to God than this.

                If the heart’s desire is union with God, then how do we know who and what God is?  While we can speculate on this matter, it is truly impossible to fully comprehend God in God’s essence.  That hasn’t stopped theologians from trying, but ultimately we can only know God as God is revealed to us.  That is the point of the incarnation, the event that we celebrate at Christmas.  Few passages of Scripture are more forthright about this message than the prologue to the Gospel of John.  While it might at first seem overly philosophical – “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (vs. 1).  The Greek for Word is Logos, and Jewish philosophers such as Philo made much of the idea of Logos as did early Christian theologians such as Origen.  Whatever the word Logos denotes, the key point is found in verse 14, where we learn that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.   The Word of God is revealed in the one who took flesh and lived a human life, so as to reveal the true nature of God.  While we cannot know the essence of God, we can know God as revealed as Trinity in the economy of salvation.  When we move from a focus on the mystery that is God’s essence to the way in which God is revealed in the economy of salvation, we discover that the God revealed in Jesus is a relational God.  The message of the incarnation is one of invitation into union with God – God became human that we might become divine, as Athanasius put it.  In the Eastern Church salvation is understood not in a legal/juridical manner, but in terms of divinization or theosis.   As Catherine Mowry LaCugna puts it, “Theosis means being conformed in our personal existence to God’s personal existence, achieving right relationship and genuine communion in every respect, at every level” [God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Lifep. 284].

                The “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  In the person of Christ we have seen the glory of God revealed, and according to John this glory is reflective of the Father, who is the fount of this Word.  While I am quite aware of the limitations of the masculine nature of the description of God as Father and Jesus as Son, leaving the impression on many that God is male and therefore to be male is to be God, recognizing the scandal of particularity and the nature of first century thinking, the focus here needs to be on the relationality of parent/child relations.  John didn’t need to know about modern genetics to know that children will reflect their parentage.  You can look at pictures of me and pictures of my father and see familiar features.  Indeed, some would even say that I have some of my father’s personality quirks.  You can also see reflections of my mother in me, though perhaps more in my brother.  Still, we reflect our parentage.  Such is the case here – the Son reflects his origins as son of the Father.

                With this in mind we come down to the closing statement of this passage.  It is true – “No one has ever seen God” at least not in the mystery of God’s essence.  But the essence of God is seen or revealed in the economy of salvation, in the person of God’s “only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  Who is God?  Look to the one who is close to the heart of God, and there you will see revealed the true nature of God.  And what do we know about God?  First and foremost, God is relational.  While John doesn’t offer us a fully developed Trinitarian theology, the seeds are present.  For if God is relational, then this relationality is part of God’s essence.  As LaCugna asserts, “the doctrine of the Trinity emerged in the assertion that God is essentially relational.”  While the Latin West located that relationality within the Godhead – in the divine essence – Greek theology located it in the manner in which the Father reached beyond God’s self toward Son and Spirit and then to the World. [God for Us, p. 289].  Either way, the witness is this – God is relational, and therefore, the one closest to God’s heart, the Logos, the Christ, has taken flesh and revealed what is on the heart of God to us.  And what is on the heart of God is “grace and truth.”  While Pilate might ask “what is truth,” we can know the truth as revealed in the person of Jesus --- in his life, his teachings, the manner of his death, and in the resurrection.  In him we learn as LaCugna notes, that “living as persons in communion, in right relationship, is the meaning of salvation and the ideal of Christian faith” [p. 292].  In other words, in Christ salvation occurs on two planes – the horizontal (reconciliation with one another) and the vertical (reconciliation with God).  The latter occurs as we are joined in union with Christ and therefore in union with God. 

On this second Sunday of Christmas, in an age that is increasingly focused on the individual, in isolation from the other, it is revelatory that we find our true humanity in relationship to the other.  Of course, these relations are often broken, but in Christ, the one closest to the heart of God, this brokenness of relationship can begin to heal as we draw closer into the heart of God ourselves.  

And for one last time, may this be a blessed Christmas season! 


Steve Kindle said...

The problem with philosophical "proofs" is that the nature of the god proposed is elusive. Where do you go from, say, Aristotle's "unmoved mover" to its nature? Even Anselm's imagined god has no substance, only existence. The move from a "proof" to the God of the Bible is impossible philosophically.

This is why the incarnation appeals to me. There can be no other way for God to be revealed except through a person. However, I part company with those who try to explain this relationship in terms of Greek ontology. The reason it fails is because the enterprise is impossible. "I will now tell you what God's essence is." Please, don't. But Jesus can show us what God's sensibilities are. They are in Luke 4, and how Jesus lived these out. But God's essence? Attempts like these caused Tillich to declare that all conversation about God is a reduction of the true God, and the true God is the "God above God," above the God we talk about.

Certainly God is a relational God. but you don't need the Trinity to know that. You don't even need the Trinity to explain Jesus' ability to tell us about God. "The Father and I are one," is not necessarily (or at all) an ontological truth. One in purpose is how I understand this. How can this be? Because he lived his life so close to God that it brought him clarity and became a revelation to the world.

Your final paragraph is a very profound statement that I endorse wholeheartedly. On this second Sunday of Christmas, in an age that is increasingly
focused on the individual, in isolation from the other, it is revelatory
that we find our true humanity in relationship to the other. Of
course, these relations are often broken, but in Christ, the one closest
to the heart of God, this brokenness of relationship can begin to heal
as we draw closer into the heart of God ourselves. I would encourage your readers to ponder over why this is revelatory.

John McCauslin said...

God is so "other" that we can only know of God in a metaphorical sense, we can only conceptualize about God in terms comprehendable through human experience. And we must remember that metaphors are by nature incomplete, only lifting up a particular aspect of the underlying reality being depicted. And finally whatever is discoverable about God, is limited to what God is willing to disclose. Jesus, as the incarnation of God in this world, is in this sense a metaphor for the reality of God - we must always remember that God is "other" and is not directly comprehendable.

But we can know what God wants us to know about God, we can see in Jesus' life, we can hear in Jesus' teachings, we can touch in Jesus,' wounds, and we can anticipate from Jesus' resurrection, the revelation intended for us.

Steve Kindle said...

Yes, thoroughly metaphorical. The downside to this is that the metaphors are literalized and then destroy the intended meaning. This has happened from Adam to Jesus, and especially to God who has been anthropomorphized into something completely "other," and not in a transcendent way, either.

Robert Cornwall said...

Steve and John, of course, you know that I'll have to respectfully disagree on this. One of the reasons I have embraced the doctrine of the Trinity is that it offers us a way to attend to the invisible God embodied in Christ and made present to us by the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. We may not have access to the essence of God, but in the ongoing work of Christ and the Spirit we can hear the voice of God and see the work of God.

Steve Kindle said...

Bob, is it not possible that Jesus could manifest the invisible God apart from the notion of the Trinity or a high view of the incarnation?

NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY NEW: How about doing a post or series on the concept of salvation. Just what are we being saved from and for?

Robert Cornwall said...

Is it possible, perhaps. But the question is how this works? For me, I find the Trinity to be the best way of expressing the nature of God as a community of persons. As I understand the Trinity, Jesus is in essence the nexus where divinity and humanity fully meet. I would recommend reading LaCugna -- It's not a fast read, but extremely helpful.

As for Salvation -- that will be coming. I plan on doing a post Easter series on salvation that will follow up on an Epiphany series on the person of God. Should be fun!

John McCauslin said...

Even to extrapolate a number, whether, one, three or more, is to infer more than the metaphor actually invites, and distorts the core truth of the Incarnation, that is, God (as both YHWH and Elohim) with us, manifest in human form. While the Trinity is a benign metaphor, the credal compulsion to embrace it is an act of violence on the consciences of the members of the faith community not in keeping with either the teachings of Jesus or the general precepts of the DOC.