God created heaven and the earth. Quickly he was faced with a class action suit for failure to file an environmental impact statement. He was granted a temporary permit for the project, but was stymied with the cease and desist order for the earthly part.
Appearing at the hearing, God was asked why he began his earthly project in the first place. He replied that he just liked to be creative.
Then God said, “Let there be light”, and immediately the officials demanded to know how the light would be made. Would there be strip mining? What about thermal pollution? God explained that the light would come from a huge ball of fire. God was granted provisional permission to make light, assuming that no smoke would result from the ball of fire; that he would obtain a building permit; and to conserve energy, would have the light out half the time. God agreed and said he would call the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” Officials replied that they were not interested in semantics.
God said, “Let the earth bring forth green herb and such as many seed.” The EPA agreed so long as native seed was used. Then God said, “Let waters bring forth creeping creatures having life; and the fowl that may fly over the earth.” Officials pointed out this would require approval from the Department of Game coordinated with the Heavenly Wildlife Federation and the Audubongelic Society.
Everything was OK until God said he wanted to complete the project in six days. Officials said it would take at least 200 days to review the application and impact statement. After that there would be a public hearing. Then there would be 10-12 months before . . .
At this point God created Hell. (source unknown)
Stories of the creation are common and even in contemporary settings they are revisited in order to make a point, albeit at times in a more humorous vein than was intended in the original. But why begin at the beginning when writing a Gospel? Why not begin with the birth stories as Luke and Matthew did, underlining the prophetic credentials of Jesus? Or with the preaching of John, the work of the Kingdom’s predecessor, as the Gospel of Mark did?
Part of the answer lies with the original setting of John’s Gospel. John’s contemporaries differed widely on the way in which they defined the work of Jesus and, not unlike modern believers, much of what they did and did not believe depended largely on the assumptions that they brought with them into the church. Among the earliest adherents to the gospel in John’s church was a group of believers described as gnostics. Their name is based upon the Greek word gnosis, or knowledge, and refers to the fact that the ancient gnostics believed that only “special, revelatory knowledge” could, in the final analysis, save them. Believing that the material world was, by its very nature, evil and the spiritual world was, by definition, good, the gnostics believed that the only way in which one could be delivered was somehow to free oneself from the world, either through self -denial and asceticism or by denying that conduct in this life is, as such, of any significance. As a result gnostics were often either great ascetics or great libertines.
They also found the notion of incarnation all but impossible to accept. To believe that something already acceptable and good would move from a perfect, spiritual state to a deeply flawed, physical form made no sense to them at all. So, the gnostics often contended that Jesus only appeared to be here or they argued that Jesus had been adopted, shortly after his birth and before his death, cutting out the two most objectionable elements of human and physical existence—birth and death.
In response, John opens his Gospel by asserting that from the beginning the divine Son not only took flesh but had a direct and creative role in shaping the physical order. In that way, he argues for the incarnational understanding of the Christ event that dominates the church’s theology today.
But by using the poetry of Genesis and the language of beginning to shape his readers’ understanding of the person and work of Christ, the evangelist also rooted this world in the transcendent and timeless. In so doing, John emphasized that the world is not “worthless and base” as it was in Gnostic circles but was and is of value in God’s eyes, the product of creation and the object of redemption.
Two millennia later John’s juxtaposition of the time-bound and the eternal remains a common feature of Christian vocabulary. But our ability to plumb the depths of the contrast’s significance remains limited. In part, this state of affairs can be traced to the significance that the time-bound has for us as created beings. As one Italian proverb puts it, “Man measures time and time measures man.”
Indeed, such is the mystery of time that thinkers throughout the centuries have debated the role it plays in shaping our lives. Is it fundamental or incidental to human experience? Is the passage of time a good thing or the “millstone” of human existence?
John’s Gospel does not provide us with all of the answers, nor was it written in a way that will allow us to use it in answering every question of this kind. But for people of faith John’s prologue, as the introduction to the Gospel is called, provides important clues to at least some of the answers.
First, John affirms the divine role in creating the world in which we live. Rightly, this world is the arena in which we are called to live and serve. To be sure, asceticism or self-denial may be a discipline that from time to time can, in some form, help us to put life back into perspective. The tyranny of the urgent and our own appetites can lead us to take a superficial approach to life. But spiritual disciplines that insulate us completely from the world are foreign to Christian understandings of life; and spiritual disciplines that separate us from human life and need hardly serve God’s purpose for us. A spirituality of nitty-gritty engagement with the world’s need is fundamental to who we are as a people of faith. The movement inward spiritually is always matched by a movement outward.
Second, John’s prologue teaches us that time may be the arena in which we live and work out our faith, but we are perpetually in God’s presence. And what we do with our lives in this moment and the next must be measured against that larger context. Creatures of time, we are—in a sense—making decisions of eternal moment. And any evaluation of our actions that ignores this reality is likely to lack the breadth of vision and moral weight that John envisions.
Third, John’s Gospel teaches us that we live this life in hope. The experiences we encounter in time bring us very real pain and sorrow, as well as profound joy. But even the experience of pain and sorrow is cradled in God’s greater reality. As Frederick Buechner observes, the Christian lives: “with the knowledge that there may yet be hope not just beyond the dust of our world but within the dust. . . . Our very brokenness here speaks of wholeness and holiness. The emptiness we carry around inside us through the dust whispers like a sea shell of the great sea that it belongs to and that belongs to it. ‘I have said this to you in figures,’ [John’s] Jesus says, but ‘the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father.’ This is his promise, and watering the earth with the tears of our joy, we make it our laughter and prayer” (A Room Called Remember).
All three messages—engagement, moral vision and hope—are relevant for us. Written in a different setting, to a culture very different from our own, there are social, cultural and religious dynamics at work in our own society that make the juxtaposition of the temporal with the eternal relevant for us.
Living in an increasingly complex world some of us are tempted to embrace escape as a means of dealing with that complexity. For others, the great temptation is simply to embrace the dynamics of our culture without critical reservations of any kind. The options are dangerously similar to the temptations that faced John’s church. One could almost talk about the rise of a kind of neo-gnosticism, tempting us to one extreme or another. But escape is not the stuff of discipleship, even if it masquerades as a higher spirituality; and a gospel message that simply embraces our own culture is more the stuff of self-help and motivational talks than it is the stuff of discipleship.
John’s emphasis on the significance of the eternal for life in the temporal reminds us that neither is an option for the believer. On the eve of another new year, may John’s Gospel serve to remind us of the engagement, moral vision and hope that marks children of the one who in the beginning . . .