Friday, February 20, 2015

"Long ago..." (Hebrews 1; John 1)

Were the openings of either the Letter to the Hebrews or the Gospel of John to be depicted using the forms available in modern cinematography, the means to do so are obvious, I think. Imagine a wide screen depicting the silent depths of infinite space, evoking in the viewer a sense of awe. Then a great scroll of words - a “crawl,” technically - appears at the bottom of the screen, and proceeds across the field of view: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…”; or “In the beginning was the Word…"

Both these readings invoke a perspective of the widest kind, but they do so in different ways. Hebrews will go on to spend much time in a Platonizing world of ideas, exploring a timeless picture of how heaven and earth relate. It begins, however, with a reflection on the ancient rather than the timeless, alluding to that “long ago” of prophets and patriarchs. John will soon become a historical narrative, depicting the life of Jesus as a concrete set of events in human experience. It begins, however, with this eternal cosmological reflection on just how the world is.

In our own encounter with Jesus we may find ourselves also starting at one or the other of these places. There is the concrete historical person, a man of one place and time, whose teaching and actions belong to that time, but nevertheless point beyond them. And there is that wider reality of the cosmos, the mystery, beauty and curiosity of what is, whose profound reality calls us to think differently about the concrete and the specific.

Augustine, in his Confessions, says he read 'books of the "Platonists," wherein
I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the same effect... that "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” ...Similarly, I read there that God the Word was born "not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor the will of the flesh, but of God.” But, that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” was not there.
It is, however, in John, as well as in Hebrews. It is this intersection of timeless mystery and historical existence that undergirds the Gospel. These two books both tell us that the Jesus who led a concrete, enfleshed life in ancient human history is a figure whose significance transcends time; and also that time itself and the universe have mysteries whose exploration leads to back to ourselves, and to him. We can start at either place and make our way to the other; and in both journeys we encounter him who was not just “long ago,” but in whom we all find out own beginning, and our end.

[From a sermon preached at St Luke's Chapel, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Monday February 16  2015]