2nd Sunday after Christmas
Texts: John 1:1-18;
Eph 1:3-14; Jer 31:7-14
IS THERE A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC?
It’s now been two years since they discovered a new COVID virus in China — this COVID-19 virus that within 2 months became a global pandemic casting a shadow over the entire human family. It’s also been a year since we’ve had an effective vaccine to stop this virus in its tracks. So, with the Omicron variant now racing through our population, infecting even the vaccinated, what happened? Why are we still needing to alter our living patterns to avoid this virus? I’m back to hesitation over the slightest things — like waiting to get a haircut because it can be a dangerous thing to do. (I called this week for an appointment to find out my barber was out all week sick.) We’re all just plain tired of it! It is so tempting to simply go back to our pre-COVID lifestyles, trying to pretend that it’s not here. Or simply giving in and hoping we don’t get very sick, if we do get it . . . which is quite likely given the hyper-contagious nature of Omicron.
Or . . . or is there another option provided by our Christian faith? Can the revitalized Christian message that we’ve been exploring help us to understand and to better cope with this pandemic? Can we even, as we talked about at the end of Advent,1 find hope and joy and love in the face of such challenges?
We have an ideal passage this morning which steps back to look at the bigger picture. John’s Gospel doesn’t give us a story of a baby born in Bethlehem; it gives us a glimpse at the entire history of creation: namely, that everything and everyone, at every time and every place, has one source of being. That one source is the Word of God’s love, which has also become flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This Word which is the source of all things became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. It’s truly one of the more breathtaking and spectacular passages in all of the Bible.
To catch its full impact, though, it might help to know the Greek word behind the English. The Greek word translated as “the Word” is Logos. In the first century that word Logos was sometimes used to stand for something deeper than just a word. In Greek philosophy, the Logos was talked about as the foundational principle of the universe. We can read John 1 and get a definite sense that that’s exactly how John is using the word Logos. He is telling us that the foundational, creating principle by which the universe exists became a person in history. That’s quite different than the philosophers!
To understand why John would do that, it’s helpful to know what some of those Greek philosophers thought, so that we get a sense of why John is making this contrast. Perhaps the most famous of the Greek philosophies about the Logos was that of Heraclitus of Ephesus (yes, the same Ephesus to which Paul wrote his letter). Heraclitus said of the Logos as a founding principle, for example: “War (or conflict, polemos) is the father and king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as humans; some he makes slaves, others free.”2
Let’s cut right to the chase here. What I think is happening in John 1 is that John is making a contrast with the Logos of Heraclitus in order to show two different ways of being human. When you look at human history, Heraclitus seems to be right: the most basic way of being human seems to depend on division and conflict. Everything is based on divisions into two, like gods and humans, slaves and free. For Greeks and Romans, everyone else was a barbarian. For Jews, everyone else was a Gentile. In short, the most basic way of being human seems to be based on Us vs. Them. Can you see that tendency still strong today? What are all the ways we currently divide up as Us vs. Them?
John, however, begins his Gospel with the Logos as a person who comes into the world to show us not further division but rather to be the true source of unity that God intended from the beginning. Jesus was the Logos-made-flesh so that we could see, and live-into, another way of being human based on unity, harmony, and peace — rather than on division, conflict, and violence. The philosophers look at our human history and see a Logos of violence. John tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth and sees the redemption of our human history by the Logos of Love.
We hear the same message from St. Paul in our Second Reading today, especially in one spectacular verse: “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of [God’s] will, according to [God’s] good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” A plan for the fulness of time. To gather up all things in him. God’s plan from the beginning has been for creation to come to completion in unity. A unity made up of the wonderful diversity in creation. Given that human history has instead been about division and conflict, God sent Jesus Christ in the fullness of time to launch a real working project toward that end of unity.
In the very next chapter, Ephesians 2, Paul sums this up with what has become for me the most important passage in Scripture, the one that most succinctly tells us what our message of salvation in Christ is all about. “For Christ is our peace;” writes Paul, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. . .” (Eph 2:14-15). Listen again: That Christ might create in himself One New Humanity in place of the two. One. New. Humanity. That’s our message of salvation to bring to the world!! We human beings have remained trapped in a Logos of Violence based on two, based on Us vs. Them. God in Jesus Christ is giving us a new way to be human based on being one human family caring for the whole creation. It’s all about the flourishing of life! “In him was life,” says John, “and the life was the light of all people.” In John 10, Jesus will himself say, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Working3 to help all life to flourish, that’s what it’s all about.
So what happened with this pandemic? We return to our opening questions. Do we give-in to this pandemic? Or with our faith in Christ as a resource, do we face it with hope, joy, and love? First, can you see how a pandemic itself is an ideal opportunity — though a dangerous one, to be sure4 — to see all people as one human family? The pandemic makes us just so! One human family! None of us are safe from this virus until all of us are safe from it. If you or I are vaccinated, it might not protect us for long if others around us are unvaccinated and letting the virus continue to generate new and potentially more deadly variants. Like Omicron. So we either battle this virus as one human family, or we are bound to fail and have it drag on and on. That’s exactly what’s happened, right? Instead of experiencing this pandemic as an opportunity to live into the new way of being human — where we experience our unity as a human family in caring for one another to promote the flourishing of life — instead we have fallen back big-time into the old way of being human based on division and conflict. We have cemented our divisions into two groups so that even when it comes to the pandemic we have split into two: those who wear masks and those who refuse; those who get vaccinated and those who refuse; those who follow the science and those who follow conspiracy theories that continue to pit us against one another as Us vs. Them.
With that mention of science vs. conspiracy theories, I’d like to add one further element to our understanding this morning, the role of scientific truth as part of the Christian story. In John’s Gospel, we begin with the Logos as our invitation into a new way of being human. Near the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus promises a helper, an Advocate — Paraclete in the Greek — whom Jesus will send to us as a guide and helper in this project of becoming human in a new way.5 We can’t live into this new way of being human on our own. We need help! This Paraclete, the Advocate, is also known as the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. I propose to you that part of that journey into truth is represented by the advent of modern science. Let me briefly explain how.
Several weeks ago,6 I introduced you to René Girard, whose work represents a clarification and elaboration of how God in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, is helping us to become more truly human. In Girard’s book titled The Scapegoat, he begins with a pandemic: the bubonic plague in 14th Century Europe. He gives us an example of how the pressure of that pandemic caused Europeans to make the same mistake we have made in the 21st Century. Blaming and scapegoating. Instead of seeing the pandemic as an invitation to care for everyone, Europeans of the 14th Century instead fell backwards into conspiracy theories which led them into falsely accusing and scapegoating others. They blamed Jews living on the outskirts of town; angry mobs rose up to kill them, burn their homes, and drive them out. They found old women to accuse as witches and burned them at the stake.7
Girard begins with this pandemic in order to show us how the Gospel represents the opposite of this. The climax of the Christian story is the Passion of Jesus — exactly this same kind of event, namely, the accusation of a scapegoat who is then lynched. But this same kind of event comes to have opposite meanings: for those living in the world of conspiracy theories, lynching a scapegoat justifies their being right. For those who live in Christ and the truth of the Paraclete which he sent, lynching a scapegoat is revealed as wrong. It’s the Sin of the world which the Lamb of God comes to take away.8
In the final chapter of his book, Girard ends with the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of truth, from John’s Gospel. The Paraclete in Greek culture was akin to the Defense Attorney. The Paraclete is the Advocate who defends those accused in conspiracy theories. The Paraclete defends the scapegoat — those who are deemed as Them when whoever is Us rises up against them. And then Girard writes this remarkable proposition: “The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit . . . is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text.”9 In other words, scientific truth is part of the truth that’s being revealed by the Holy Spirit. It’s part of God’s plan.
How so? Because scientific truth begins by intentionally bracketing out conspiracy theories. It refuses to use a lens of Us vs. Them in order to blame someone — which is precisely the kind of truth that the Holy Spirit is working to reveal since Jesus let himself be blamed. Jesus let himself be charged with false conspiracy theories and scapegoated, letting himself be executed. And Easter morning is the beginning of God forgiving us for that whole game of Us vs Them. Pentecost is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit so that we can begin to find truth without the Us vs Them lens. We can begin to simply see and examine and learn about God’s creation without all the judgments of good and bad that come from playing Us vs Them. When we stop doing things like blaming Jews and burning witches, we begin to seek a truth that shows us the interconnectedness, the unity, of all things. If creation is not yet a harmony, it is a unity made out of diversity.
Here’s the bottom line: With scientific truth, we stop seeing everything in terms of divisions between Us and Them, good and bad. For example: If we suspend our judgment that a hurricane is bad, and that someone must be behind it trying to harm us, then we can see how a hurricane is simply part of creation and seek to understand it better. With better understanding, we can do something about it, like predict their paths and help all in their way to seek appropriate shelter. The same is true of viruses like COVID-19. If we suspend our judgment that it’s bad, seeking to blame someone for its appearance, then we simply examine it for what it is and learn to contain it through things like wearing masks and getting vaccinated. We follow the science instead of getting caught up in conspiracy theories that lead to violence against others. So, yes, scientific truth is God’s kind of truth! Its advent in our world is part of the work of the Holy Spirit.
That may seem surprising since it’s part of our history that many religious people see science truth in competition with religious truth. Many Christians have decided that if scientific truth seems to contradict religious truth, then it must be wrong.10 I’m not going to get into that whole debate this morning, but this issue of apparent contradiction highlights a very important aspect of the revitalized Christian message: namely, that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion, in the first place. Let me say that again: Jesus did not come to start a new religion! No, religions, in fact, including the Christian religion, have fallen prey to the deadly game of Us vs Them. Religions have tended to cause division. Christian vs Muslim. Lutheran vs Catholic. And on and on. So, if God in Jesus Christ is making one new humanity in place of all our two’s, then God didn’t want to make another new religion to divide us. No, God sent Jesus to create a new way to be human! A new way to be human that leaves behind all the Us vs Them stuff so that our religions, too, might stop getting caught up in those deadly games of division.
So let’s bring this home: What if this pandemic, instead of getting caught up in the old way of being human, such that it becomes part of our deadly games of conspiracy theories and division, causing even more death from the pandemic — what if this pandemic could be seen as a dangerous opportunity to step more decisively into God’s new way to be human in Jesus Christ? What if we resisted any conspiracy theories and instead followed the science? What if this pandemic became the opportunity to truly see all the people on this globe as one human family, so that we learned to take care of one another in order to get through it together? I submit to you that a revitalized Christian message can be a key to facing such a crisis. And with all the various crises facing our children’s and grandchildren’s generations, I believe that such a revitalized message is the key to welcoming them back.11 Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, January 2, 2022
2. Quoted in Anthony Bartlett, Theology Beyond Metaphysics, p. 69, in an excellent section on the Logos of Heraclitus vs. the Logos of John.
3. “Work” (ergō) is a key term in John’s Gospel. When Jesus heals in John 5 and 9, he talks about doing the work of his Father, i.e., the work of creating.
4. Interestingly, the Chinese character for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. A crisis is a dangerous opportunity.
5. John’s Gospel first has Jesus introduce the sending of the Paraclete in John 14:16ff. John uses the term five times altogether in John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 John 2:1.
6. I first introduced the work of René Girard to these two congregations in the sermon for Advent 3C.
7. From this point onwards, this manuscript version expands upon the sermon that was given.
8. John 1:29: The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” For more on violence as the Sin that Jesus takes away, see the recent sermon for Proper 28B.
9. René Girard, The Scapegoat, pages 204-5.
10. The quintessential historical debate between Christians and science is that between Creationism and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. This debate goes all the way back to Copernicus and Galileo mapping out the solar system. More recently, it shows itself in denial of climate change and several elements of the COVID-19 virus. For more on how science and faith can live in harmony, see many of the works of Brian McLaren, for example, his most recent two: The Galápagos Islands and Faith After Doubt. Here, I am making it clear that my own view follows the thesis of Girard that scientific truth is a development of the Gospel and should generally be trusted. (With the qualification that the scientific theories are properly “peer-reviewed” and supported by a large percentage of the scientific community.)
11. The theme of revitalizing our basic Gospel message for the sake of our children and grandchildren, and the world we are leaving them, has been the predominant theme in my preaching at these two congregations, beginning in November 2021 with the sermon for All Saints B.