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God for Dummies

Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18
Dr. Shane Berg
January 3, 2016

The prologue to John’s Gospel is a Bible nerd’s paradise. The first three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — reflect a mostly narrative approach to telling the story of Jesus. These Gospels are primarily concerned with showing Jesus’ significance in the history and tradition of Israel, and their storytelling style has many touch points with biblical books like Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, and Judges.

But John’s Gospel is another kettle of fish. The opening line about the “word” and its relationship to God indicate an interest on the part of the fourth evangelist in the philosophy and metaphysics of the time. And the references in those opening verses to the creation of the world do not resemble the anthropomorphized stories of creation in Genesis but rather the thought-world of second century Platonic cosmology. Only a few verses into this Gospel, we realize we are dealing with a complex and multi-layered piece of writing.

As the prologue continues, we find further refinement and sophistication. In the first three Gospels, John the Baptist is a fiery apocalyptic preacher; in John’s Gospel he is a contemplative theologian who expounds on the significance of Jesus as the “light” coming into the world. The incarnation of Jesus is described not in the earthy, messy terms of Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem but in the abstract language of the “word” descending to earth and taking on flesh and exhibiting “glory,” “grace,” and “truth.”

In many ways John’s Gospel is a work of poetic genius. Writing a generation or two later than the other Gospel writers, the fourth evangelist is able to step back and see the traditions about Jesus in a different perspective. The author recontextualizes the entire story of Jesus as Israel’s messiah in a cosmic framework and puts it into conversation with popular philosophy. And while the first three Gospels employ a narrative style that draws on biblical models of storytelling, the Fourth Gospel appropriates narrative devices and motifs from Greek tragedy and other genres of Greco-Roman literature. The imaginative and sophisticated and layered literary creation we call John’s Gospel is indeed a paradise for Bible nerds.

I could keep going on this trajectory for the rest of my time. The prologue is a rich vein and we could mine it endlessly. But you might rightly ask: after such a bruising year for our society and our world, and given all the challenges and crises we face in the new year, do we really want to fritter about ooh-ing and ah-ing over the abstract thought world of John’s Gospel? The role of God in our lives and our world is complicated enough to grapple with and think about as it is; do we really need to have the theological waters muddied even further by the philosophical gymnastics of the fourth evangelist?

I think it is a fair question. If the Gospel of John cannot offer us more than a self-indulgent exercise in a scholastic reinterpretation of the life of Jesus, then we should rightly discount it and get back to the Matthew, Mark, and Luke to guide us in a difficult age. But let’s hang in there with the prologue just a bit longer; there is a brief clause at the end that will make quite a difference, I submit to you, in how we view John’s contemporary relevance.

A former CEO of a major tech firm recently made a distinction for me between two kinds of simplicity. There is a simplicity, he explained, on the near side of complexity. It is a dangerous simplicity that does not take into account the best of human learning or sophisticated insights and methods or complex reasoning. It is an uninformed, sloganistic, intellectually lazy sort of simplicity; if you want to see it on display, tune into the presidential primary debates.

On the other hand, a simplicity on the far side of complexity is incredibly valuable and important. It is a simplicity that acknowledges, understands, and is shaped by complexity. This sort of simplicity is crucial because there are times and places when we cannot remain among the dense trees but must come out and see the entire forest as a whole. We need a simplicity on the far side of complexity in order to provide reliable summaries on how we should live, think, and act in a world in which we cannot master everything ourselves. We see this kind of simplicity in great popularizing teachers like Bill Nye the Science Guy. Some of our greatest thinkers, like Albert Einstein, have emphasized the importance of simplicity on the far side of complexity; Einstein is often quoted as saying that if you couldn’t explain an idea to a six-year-old, you didn’t know it yourself.

For simplifying complex matters, I myself remain a fan of the “for dummies” books (e.g., computer programming for dummies, personal finances for dummies, classical music for dummies). The really good ones are invaluable in providing simple summaries of complicated material. As my wife Corrie can tell you, I from time to time become interested in tackling some new area that interests me — in past years it has ranged from photography to wine to woodworking — and I typically begin by reading a “for dummies” book on the subject. I appreciate the way vast bodies of complex knowledge and practice are presented in a straightforward way — simplicity on the far side of complexity.

Now it might seem contradictory to you if I suggest that John’s Gospel has a “God for dummies” quality to it, but it in fact is quite true. The fourth evangelist certainly relishes the complexity of theorizing about what it means for God to become incarnate in Jesus, but there is distinct evidence in the text itself of simplicity on the far side of that theological and philosophical complexity. The first indicator of this interest in helping us understand what the incarnation means come at the very end of the scripture passage for today in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God, the one who is God the Father’s most intimate companion, that one interprets God the Father for us.” The evangelist refers, of course, to Jesus — the Word made flesh, the only-begotten son of God — as the one who can make God known to us, who can reveal God to us.

At several points in the Gospel of John Jesus further underscores the point that he is the one who reveals the identity, nature, and character of God the Father. In 12:45, Jesus asserts that “whoever sees me sees the Father who sent me.” In 14:6-7 he elaborates this idea further, stating, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” At these and other points Jesus makes it quite clear that “seeing” him means “seeing” God the Father. And since in the Gospel of John “seeing” is word that means “know and understand,” what John’s Gospel is saying is that if we want to know what God is like, we simply need to look at Jesus. We might even say that in the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is the simplicity on the far side of divine complexity.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of the implications of this audacious claim that in Jesus we know God fully. It means that whatever we might say or think or speculate about God, we must do so in reference to the incarnate son Jesus. Whatever we say about the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe must square with what we know of Jesus of Nazareth. And so this leads to the $64,000 question — what does Jesus tell us about who God is? what is it about God the Father that Jesus makes known to us? The answer is remarkably simple: that God loves the world and wants us to love one another.

In the first three Gospels, Jesus and the disciples finish the supper and immediately depart to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus is arrested. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus gives a long and detailed set of teachings to the disciple, often called by scholars the Last Supper discourse. In this long set of speeches, Jesus spends a great deal of time discussing love. He emphasizes that his heavenly Father loves him, the disciples, and the whole world. Jesus explains how he embodies this same love and that his entire purpose is to exhibit this love to the world.

And crucially, Jesus expects his disciples to show the marks of love in their fellowship; in 13:34-35 Jesus offers the following marching orders: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In the following chapter, Jesus again asserts the relationship between loving one another and knowing God: They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (14:21). At several other points in this last teaching session with his disciples, Jesus drives home the necessity of love for knowing God fully.

And so in the end, despite all the rich complexity regarding God’s cosmic being, the Gospel of John gives us an insight that is profoundly simple, straightforward, and easily comprehensible. God loves the world dearly and sent Jesus to make this love known to us. We demonstrate that we understand this divine love not by writing dissertations about God or by endlessly theorizing about God but by loving our neighbors. Nothing could be more simple and powerful and needful in an age all too bereft of love. To grow in our knowledge of God, we turn not to our books but to a broken and hurting world that needs our love and compassion.

In one of the most famous passages in John, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” At this table, the simple signs of bread and wine remind us of the sacrificial love of Jesus that fully reveals God’s love for the entire world. Amen.

© 2016 Shane Berg