Love Was the First Motion (John 1)

At our church for Lent we’re reflection on two interrelated questions “Who is Christ?” and “What Canst Thou Say (about this Christ)?” So there’s an inner tension in these two questions: what has been said about who Christ is? Who does he claim to be? Who do we say he is? And How have we experienced Christ? Who has this Christ been to us experientially? There’s a lot here to unpack, but here are our guiding queries:

  • Who is this Jesus that the many authors of Scripture portray?
  • Who is the Jesus we encounter in God’s Spirit?
  • Who is this whom we gather around and worship?
  • Who is this we attest to follow?
  • Who has Christ been to you?

So to start off the series I preached on the well-known John 1 passage “In the beginning was the word…”

It seemed like a good place to start. And then as I read the passage I got the knot in my stomach that has become pretty common for me. Questions arose: How do I explain such a difficult concept as the ‘incarnation?’ What is the message that God is speaking through this to us?  How do we understand this in a meaningful and compelling way?

I don’t propose to have answered these questions, but they were the ones that got me started. And then as I thought more and more about this passage some ideas came to me.

First, instead of me preaching for my usual 20-25 min. we did Lectio Divina around this text. Instead of trying to explain it, I invited the gathered community to experience it. This went a long way to helping us connect in a different way around this text. Then after that, I shared a few reflections.

“The light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not overcome it.”

In other words, God enters the world and affirms human culture and creation. Even in its dark moments God’s light is still present. This light is stubborn, it refuses to go down without a fight. It is not overcome by the darkness.

“The light that enlightens everyone…”

You can begin to see a theme here. No wonder early Friends loved this passage so much. There’s lots of stubbornness and light here, enough for everyone! This verse (v. 9) is a classic Quaker text. Margaret Fell, the mother of Quakers, quotes this verse time and time again in her letters to both friends and foes of the Friends movement. For Friends, there is universal access to God. No special education, no amount of wealth, no particular ethnicity, or gender, or religious affiliation will get you to God. God is available to ALL. This access is not human driven, as John 1 attests to. Instead, the incarnation tells us that “WE do not bring God to people, GOD brings God to people.”

So in this way we may begin to think about Jesus as missionary. “Missionary” here emphasizes the movement toward us, not a colonialization but an accompaniment (or as Everett Cattell once said and Identification) with. In this mode, there are no such things as “heathens” that we bring God to. Instead, because God affirms human culture in the incarnation God is not brought but already present in all places, thus all places are potentially holy and all people are endowed within something of God already in them. The light is at work, the best we can do is help “mid-wife” it along.

“But to all who receive him…”

Here we see the tension between hospitality and inhospitality. Jesus, in his day, is literally received by some and not by others. Some people have him over for dinner, some chase him out of town. This passage is less about a doctrine of God (As the saying goes: “I receive Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.”), and more about a challenge for us to be open to God in whatever form God may arrive in. Thus, the Gospel shows us that there are some who create space for God and some who refuse it.

Finally, “The word became flesh and lived among us.”

That word “lived” is connected to the Hebrew word for “tented.” Drawing on the Hebrew Bible’s imagery around the Ark of the Covenant dwelling in a tent. A paraphrase of this text would be “The divine became human, moved into the neighborhood, and made us neighbors.” This kind of movement expresses the divine love for humanity. How do we know? Because God lived among us. Not only did God became a human being, but taught us what love really looks like, gave us a taste of real hospitality.

To put all this very simply the incarnation means “Love was the first motion.” This is a version of the Quaker abolitionist John Woolman’s favorite phrase “motion of love.”   This isn’t about some lofty doctrine of God. As Vincent Harding says “Love trumps doctrine” and this is the point of the incarnation. God left the heavens and moved in next door. God’s first motion is/was love.

“The mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way–to love the world as God did and does.” – Parker Palmer