There have been times when I have been watching the television or a movie and I'll see someone depicted as a Christian, and inevitably, when it happens, I'll cringe. I wonder if you have had the same reaction. I want to say to whomever is watching what I am watching that what they are seeing does not really represent most of us.
The depictions of Christians are always a little cartoonish—never enough to be truly disrespectful, but often verging on disrespectful. I'm not bringing this up because I want to preach against Hollywood. That's not my point. The question is, how could you really depict authentic Christianity?
Well, let's see. You could show someone at prayer—someone kneeling beside their bed, or at a prayer desk. But you know, every religion in the world has prayer. Unless you heard the prayer, and recognized it as Christian, but even then, prayer is not meant to be a show.
You could depict someone in meditation, but every religion has meditation—and you don't even have to be a person of faith to meditate. I regularly see self-help sections of the Readers' Digest suggesting meditation as a stress relief—no mention of any relationship to God there—just meditation.
How can you depict an authentic Christian? You could show someone serving the poor—maybe working in a soup kitchen. Or maybe visiting the sick, or visiting people in prison. But you don't have to be a Christian to do that. In fact, there are many, many people with absolutely no religious affiliation who serve the poor and visit the sick.
What if you depicted people doing it as a group? Well, that's an interesting idea, except that there are many organizations that are not affiliated with any religion who do incredible things for humanity—some more so than the Church, quite frankly.
Well, what can you do to show a Christian is a Christian? I don't know. But it is something I was thinking about when I was thinking about today's Gospel reading. It is what is known as the Prologue to John's Gospel. The word "Prologue" comes from the Greek, prologos. Pro meaning before and logos meaning word—so, before words.
The intention of John's first chapter is set the stage for his magnificent Gospel. I don't know anyone who doesn't love John's Gospel; it is simply beautiful. Some of the most eloquent phrases can be found in John. It is loaded with beautiful imagery and symbolism and theology…gracious. If you want theology line by line, then read John. You almost can't preach on a reading from John; you almost have to narrow it down to a verse.
So the Prologue is intended to set the stage, or to frame the context for the story John is about to tell, which is the story of the life of Jesus. Now if you compare it to, say, Matthew, you will see that John is coming from a much more mystical place when he writes. Matthew begins with a geneology that traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Abraham. It's an amazing feat to do that, but many people just skip the list. There are some interesting characters in Matthew's geneology, but that's another story.
What I'm saying is that Matthew begins with "the man Jesus," but look at how John begins: "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."
It's beautiful, and it's very dense theologically, but what John is saying is that Jesus transcends the geneology. Jesus is the eternal Word of God—he was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him—even though he was not yet born a human being.
He is the light—the true light. You look up in the sky and see the sun or you see the reflection of the sun's rays brilliantly coloring the distant mountains, but that's just what you can see with your eyes. Jesus—the eternal—the original light is the true light. The one who illuminates the hearts of people—the one who, whether you know it or not—created you and knows you better than you know yourself.
John writes that when Jesus was on the earth, his own people did not understand him or accept him. This is an important piece of the prologue, because John wrote his Gospel long after Jesus had left the earth. John is saying, "Folks, the Messiah was right here in our midst and we did not receive him—we did not know what we had."
"But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God." So—in other words—if you are able to receive Jesus as the Son of God, the Anointed One, the Messiah, then God has given you power to become a child of God. Therefore you no longer exist simply because of your parents' birth; you are born "from above" "anew." Because, as John writes, this eternal Word became flesh and lived among us.
The eternal Word, present at the beginning of time, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and was made a living breathing person just like you and me. He had to eat and drink, and learn to walk, and stub his toes, and cut his fingernails and experience pain and loss—God became a human being.
So you see that what John has written here, as a Prologue to his Gospel, is really the prologue of our lives as Christians. John has spelled out for us what the birth of Jesus means, and how it makes Christians Christians.
Let me put it into the simplest language I can. If you are able to accept Jesus as the eternal Son of God made flesh, then you have been given the power to become a child of God.
And that's why it's impossible to depict Christianity on the silver screen. Because even though being a Christian is about prayer and serving the poor and all those demonstrable things, it is fundamentally about being a person who has been given the power to be a child of God. And how that makes us different is not able to be seen with physical eyes.
I mean, you can wear a cross, but that doesn't make you a Christian. I heard about a woman who walked into a jewelry store and asked to see a cross necklace, and the sales lady brought out a selection of plain gold and silver crosses. And the woman responded, "Oh, no, I want one with the little man on it." She didn't know who the little man was.
I wear a clerical collar. Do you know how the collar became the symbol of clergy? Back before they made shirts that had the collars sewn on them, you could by collars with with flaps, and you could buy just plain collars that had no flaps. Usually if you couldn't afford the flaps, you couldn't afford a tie either, so it became a clear sign of under priviledge if you couldn't afford a fancy collar and tie. So clergy adopted that manner of dress so that they could identify themselves with the poor. It's ironic now, because a clergy shirt is around forty bucks and a regular shirt from the Clothes Closet is around fifty cents!
But I wear a clerical collar because it identifies me as a priest. I wear it for the same reasons that a waiter wears an apron, or a police officer wears a badge. But the collar doesn't make my deeds more Christian.
The thing is, you can't see the power we have been given to become children of God. You can't see the inward assent of the heart that we have received Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. It's not able to be visible in ways that distinguish us from anyone else.
When you are a Christian you are born from above—you are a child of God—and when you meet someone else who is also a child of God, then it's like the Holy Spirit in you can sense the Holy Spirit in that other person, and you know that person is a Christian. (Pause.)
But there is another facet of John's Prologue that I want to leave with you today. John has written these words to set the stage for his Gospel, but really, he has explained something that is absolutely fundamental. You see, when the eternal Son became a human being, God ennobled all humanity. God reached down in the person of Jesus, humbled himself to a stable and a manger, and in so doing God said humanity is worthy to hold my presence. You and I and everyone else who bears the name of Jesus, who believes in his life, death and resurrection as the pivotal truth of existence—we are not just people who, as St. Paul wrote, "are blown about by every wind." Christians are people who are grounded in who Christ is and in who Christ has made us to be.
We are not people who get worked up about bad news, or become overwrought when calamity strikes. We believe in the eternal Son of God, who has made us sons and daughters of the same God. And like Jesus, we too can go to our own crosses, believing that resurrections will follow.
To us who received him, who believed in his name, God gave us power to become children of God—children who have learned to rest in the fatherly care of the Almighty, knowing that storms come and go. Things are up and things are down. But our relationship with God never waivers. It is a constant, daily reality, that we are children of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842, and
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664