Word in Time
January 3, 2010
(Reading: John 1, 1-18 )
“In the beginning was the Word”.
In John’s theology, before the coming of human beings who measured time, before the creation of the earth and the planets and the sun and the other stars by whose movements humans count the passing of time, before the light of the stars of the furthest galaxies came into being, the Word of God already was. The memra, the creative power, the reason, the wisdom, the Sophia, the Logos existed before and outside time – and had the character and quality and essence of God.
And once the universe came into being, the Word is the creative force behind it, the Word is the pattern that underlies it, the Word is what gives it light and life.
Our western part of the world is hung up on the word – but not on the Word of God. For most of the last 2000 years it has been obsessed with human words, written and spoken. It delights in definitions and reasons. It tries to control human bodies and minds by laws, by creeds, by articles of religion. It seeks to contain God within written scriptures – a selection of the sacred writings of pre-Christian Jews and an even smaller selection of the writings of first century Christians. But, as a civilisation it has largely lost contact with the Word of God.
Our Western civilisation has tended to replace faith in the Word of God with the idolatry of the human word. The French sociologist and anthropologist, Jean Danielou, writing an introduction to a study of Hinduism, said that the West accuses Eastern religions of idolatry, because they have things that humans have made to represent the divine – but he accuses the Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – of being equally idolatrous, because they worship the words which represent the divine.
We in the West find it so easy to forget that our words are just approximations, representations of reality as we understand it. They are one means by which we seek to impose order on our experience – but they are not the experience itself. All words are human constructions, we share them with others, and we come to them with the assumptions of our own time and our own people. We cannot do otherwise.
Words from other times and other peoples may be translated for us – but translations are inevitably imperfect, because people in different times and in different places do not think in the same way. We never have perfect understanding of others. So there is always a tendency for us to be like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass – “When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean.” Which is why it is dangerous for any of us to try to impose the words that convey our understanding of experience, especially religious experience, on others.
The Word of God is outside all of these human limitations – but unfortunately we can only understand it through human words
The Western world, especially the contemporary Western world, is also hung up on time. We mark the passage of time and celebrate anniversaries as no other people have done. We are especially obsessed with round numbers, like the Millennium, or the beginning of a new decade like 2010, investing them with a significance that is beyond reason.
But again, we tend to forget that time is, like words, a human construct, another attempt to impose order on what is beyond our control. And again, it only works if we share our understanding of time with others. At the lowest level, this means that spies and soldiers have to synchronise watches before setting out on a mission – a scenario we know from innumerable films! At a higher level, it means that societies have to agree on how to measure time. We do not measure days in the same way as the Jews of Jesus’ time did – they counted days from sunset to sunset; we do it from midnight to midnight. We measure years from different significant events. It also means that when such agreement changes, we may lose time – as we seem to have done with the measurement of time since the birth of Christ, who was probably not born in what we think of as the year zero.
But differences of human understanding of time go deeper than that. In the Greek of the New Testament there were two different words for time, conveying different understanding. First there was chronos – clock-time, weeks, months and years time, time like an ever rolling stream, which had no significance except to mark human mortality. But then there was kairos, significant time, eternal time, the time for decisions, the time that can change things. In the understanding of the Gospel writers, the life of Christ was when chronos and kairos intersected.
Both word and time are only of significance when they are embodied, enmeshed in human life, in a particular place and a particular people. This is what the evangelist John asserts happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
“And the Word of God became flesh, and lived among us.”
The eternal power and reason and wisdom of God became a human being and so part of the human world in all its reality – messy, sinful, confused; subject to the influences of human psychology, social forces, illness, imperfect knowledge, and mortality. Above all, the word became subject to change.
All living things are subject to change – both renewal and decay and death. They cannot avoid it. Those humans who seek to deny change become ridiculous – mutton dressed as lamb – or dangerous. The main thing that has stayed with me from my first teaching practice are some words of the teacher in whose class I worked. “Some teachers”, he said, “say they have had twenty years experience; but what they have really had is one year’s experience twenty times over”.
That is not just a danger for teachers. It is also a danger for other professions, and for societies, for religions, for any individual. We are all subject to time, to chronos, which faces us with a series of kairos events, when we have the opportunity to change or to stagnate. And because “The Word became flesh” it is true also of the Word of God.
Outside a local evangelical church near my home a notice has appeared over the last few days. “Happy New Year”, it says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.” I don’t believe that is a very helpful way to express our belief. Christ is no longer embodied in the same way as he was. Two thousand years ago, he was embodied in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth; now he is embodied in a multitude of different people, who believe that he carried the Word of God for them. Their belief will be affected by the understanding of all those who have embodied the Christ down through two millennia, from Jesus himself, through the first disciples, the theologians of the Patristic Age, and the Reformers, and also by their experience of life in the modern age. All those understandings will be subtly different, and it is a mistake to try to confine valid understanding to the words of one time, as people have tried to do through defining writings as Scriptures and by Creeds.
“The Word became flesh, and lived among us. And we saw with our own eyes his glory, full of grace and truth”.
We will only see the glory of the eternal Word of God if we see it with our eyes, the eyes of our own flesh and our own time. We will only share the glory and truth of the Word with the world if we speak of them with the words of our own time, with our own understanding of what it is to be a human being, and of what brings life and light and love. The only way the eternal Word of God will make an impact in our world is through those who receive the Word, meditate on it and reflect it in our own time and in our own words.
But it needs to be a reflection in kairos not just in chronos. John the evangelist recognised the coming of the Word as a challenge to our understanding of time and of words, a challenge that demanded change in those who received it.
The Biblical writers of the Old Testament understood the Word of God not just as sound, but also action. If we really receive the Word of God, it demands action from us, action to embody the Word, and reflect it in what we say and do in the world. The epistle of James warns us against being just hearers of the Word, and not doers.
It is only when we act in obedience to the Word that we can ensure that God’s time and God’s eternal Word have entered once again into our time and our world, and that we are receiving still its grace, and truth, and light, and life.