2nd Sunday of Christmas
Texts: John 1:1-18;
TESTIFYING TO THE LIGHT
How is it that a guy is executed by the State, dying horribly on the Roman instrument of torture and death — and then, within 50 years of this disgraceful ending, his followers are placing him at the beginning of time as the Creator of the universe? Executed on a cross . . . the Creator of all things. How does that transformation happen? I mean, really? These are such familiar ideas to our Christian faith. But have you ever really pondered how such a far-fetched transformation could ever take place? That someone duly and shamefully punished by death could become identified with the Creator of the universe?
So here’s rock-bottom for me: such a transformation of belief could never have happened without Easter. Unless this crucified man arose from death and appeared to some of his followers, they never would have begun believing in his connection with the power of life itself.
And so we believers in Easter give testimony, as John says. (1) We have come to believe in the power of life to create and transform, and so we simply have to tell others — certainly with our words, but even more importantly with our lives. Because the sooner we all come to believe in God’s power of life over the powers of death, God’s transforming power begins to make us more and more alive. It begins healing us from all the effects those powers of death have in our lives. It means that in spite of the continuing existence of those powers of death, you and I come to believe even more in the transforming power of God’s power of life.
Think of that most memorable verse from John’s Gospel, John 3:16. Say it with me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The words “eternal life” have come to signal for us that after we die, we go to live with God in heaven forever. But those who study such things are now telling us that this is only part of the story for John. The words “eternal life” actually point to a Jewish idea of God’s reign of life coming from heaven to earth. That someday will come a time, an era, when God’s power of life will reign completely over all the powers of death. (2) So John 3:16 is actually testifying to this: that for those who believe in Jesus, the time of God’s power of life begins now! Today! We can begin living into that time and thus find our lives changing for the better. Believing in Jesus begins transforming our lives in the here and now.
That’s why John begins his Gospel in this way. He takes Jesus’ testimony to God’s power of life all the way back to the beginning of time. In Jesus we see that God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all. And that light is the power to give life! So in Jesus we come to know that with God it is always and only about life, never death. This is huge! I don’t think we can comprehend just how big this is, and how much trouble we have understanding it and accepting it. John tells us that John the Baptist witnessed to it, and that Jesus lived it, but we still had a lot of problems accepting it. We tend to reject it. We have trouble believing just how transformative this all is.
So let me give my testimony to the best of my ability this morning. Let me tell you how this message of light is transforming me. The most painful thing in my early life was how much alcoholism affected my family. It caused a great deal of pain and shame in my life. It led me to try to cope in the best ways I could at the time, but in ways that were ultimately unhealthy. It was in seeking help that I first came across what spiritual teacher Richard Rohr calls the greatest spiritual movement of the 20th century. (3) I’m talking about the Twelve Step program of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. I came to it through Al-Anon, the program for families of alcoholics, and then later through programs for Adult Children of Alcoholics. Alcoholism was a power of death that greatly dimmed life in our family. It’s through the A.A. communities that I came to experience firsthand and to believe in God’s power to transform life out of death. This message I believed in wasn’t just about what happens to me after I die. I found that it truly can bring new life in the face of deadly powers like alcoholism. It can begin to transform lives in this earthly realm. I didn’t have to wait until after death. I can believe in God’s power of life to heal, even in the face of death.
My friend and colleague Pastor Walter Hermanns died a month ago, from the M.S. that struck his life 20 years ago. (4) He’s the one who testified to me, that I may testify to you, that, “There may not always be a cure, but there’s always healing.” Pastor Walter was able to live that faith in God’s transforming power of life, even in the face of a terrible disease robbing his earthly body gradually of life. To be sure, my testimony to you definitely includes the fact that Pastor Walter now has a life beyond that of his earthly body. That’s an essential part of our faith! But it also includes the testimony that believing in the final victory of God’s power of life begins to change our lives here and now. Pastor Walter was able to live in support of life with every breath he was granted on this earth. He was able to live for that time of God’s ultimate victory over death by living courageously and with hope in the face of the terrible disease that racked his earthly body. His faith didn’t cure his M.S., but it healed his ability to live for life in every moment. It helped him to not give-in to death.
But let me conclude with the part of my personal testimony that has become most important to me as a religious leader, a spiritual leader. If we come to believe that God’s power of life is beginning to transform everything, to transform even all the powers of death into life, then that also includes our religion.
I have come to believe with all my heart that one of the most important things God sent Jesus to redeem was religion. That’s why John begins his Gospel in such dramatic fashion. He knows that human religion had largely been about the gods being able to wield greater powers of death, so he makes it crystal clear that the God we meet through the Word made flesh is all about life. The powers we human beings had come to worship most of all throughout our history were the powers of wielding death, not life. The whole business of religion was to believe in the gods on our side who both saved us and wielded more powerful powers of death on those bad guys over there. Think how much that picture of God has remained entrenched for us, even after Jesus! If you don’t believe me, read the Left Behind books in our library, which sold tens of millions of books. In the last book, Jesus comes back to earth to slaughter people by the millions. (5)
Now, perhaps you and I have grown up with a gentler version of the Christian faith. Maybe we’ve come to emphasize the loving God in some healing ways. But haven’t we also continued to hold in reserve at least some parts of God who wields powers of death from time to time — like on those unbelievers over there? Jesus came to his own people, says John, and we’ve continued to reject him, haven’t we? At least in part? I’m convinced that John’s Gospel is testifying to a God who is always and only about life, and never death. That’s why he tells this story about an executed guy who comes back to life, and he opens the story by going all the way back to the beginning of Creation.
And that’s why it takes a guy letting himself be executed! He has to give himself up to our belief that God wants us to kill the bad guys. Why? To divest us completely of that view. To redeem and transform our religions about gods who kill, and who order us to kill, once and for all.
Brothers and sisters, do you see how important this is? How big would it be for the world to have all religion redeemed that involves any kind of killing? What would it mean to our politics and economics if first in our priorities were something like making sure no one dies homeless and hungry on our streets? In other words, until we come to know a God in Jesus who is always about life and against death, will we ever clearly testify to knowing this God in our lives? We will ever come to stand wholly and completely against the powers of death in everything we do?
My testimony is this: God coming to redeem our religion is the key to everything. It’s the key to things like A.A. transforming the lives of addicts instead of shunning them in church. It’s the key to believing that we can end things like hunger and poverty. It’s the key to believing in things like nonviolent resistant to injustice. Unless our experience of God is wholly and completely about life and never death, neither will our lives become more and more about life.
Yes, this is a huge transformation I’m talking about. We can’t expect it to happen overnight. It will take a lifetime and beyond to have our experience of God be so wholly redeemed. But the invitation begins right here and right now. You and I are invited by the one who hosts this meal of his body broken and blood outpoured so that we might begin living wholly and completely for life. That you and I might begin living in the light in ways that testify to the light. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 5, 2014
2. You will find this throughout modern scholarship. For more, see Exegetical Note #2 on the webpage for this Sunday.
3. You will find this comment in numerous books by Richard Rohr, but especially in his book specifically on the Twelve Step spirituality, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps.
4. Walter Hermanns died Dec. 12, 2013, in Racine, WI, at age 54. We were ELCA clergy in Racine together 1994-2006. Here is an article in the Racine paper that celebrates his life.