Sermon - the pre-existence of Christ
During this third lockdown, my sons have been leading me on a journey through the Marvel Universe which comprises of over twenty films, numerous tv series and the original comic books. The subject of these various depictions is of course superheroes with their super powers - and so the inevitable question has arisen - if you could, which super power would you choose? I can share with you that Amelie would like the ability to freeze time and William would like the strength of Hulk, Milo would like to fly, and Jasper would want telepathic powers. Me? Well, I have decided that I would very much like the ability to be invisible.
The reason I would like invisibility, is not to sneak up or spy on people, but because I hope that it would help me to better understand all the things we can’t see, the metaphysical things like angels, eternity, prayer, love … because these are the things that fascinate me very most of all in faith and theology.
The eternal and invisible things emerge rather prominently from our readings today and work hard to nudge our consciousness towards eternal and invisible things we are to grasp about Christ. There is however an irony in these readings - finite, physical and temporal creatures trying to understand the infinite, metaphysical, and eternal creator. Like a blade of grass trying to be a mighty ancient oak, yet the irony has never dissuaded humanity from trying.
The great philosophical traditions would debate and debate on the unseen things; wonderful orators using beautiful poetic rhetoric to allegorically and metaphorically hypothesise on how we came to be and where it all came from. Some of you may know that Plato offered the notion of timeless and unchanging invisible forms as the origin for all objects on earth; his thinking proposed that there was an invisible but perfect form of a dog, or a human, or a tree, and of these, the earthly physical objects are reflections or shadows. Imperfect but alike. This line of thought became more abstract as it moved to consider concepts like truth, beauty and goodness. These too have their perfect ‘form’ and objects and actions on earth reflect or share in their original form … and it is these that centuries and centuries worth of philosophers and theologians have debated, dissected, and deliberated; the realm of the virtuous forms known as ‘the transcendentals’.
Readings like the ones we have heard today - read so well by Sarah and Jane - are similarly abstract and heady because they deal in the transcendentals of God - the core Doctrines of who God is and how he relates to the world. The Gospel of John, it is often thought, was not just written for its Jewish audiences but also for its Hellenistic (greek) audiences, whose public oratories were filled with the philosophical debates on the essence of being, the origin of things, and the things we can’t see. The very debates that I have just described.
It is right into the heart of these conversations that John wants to take the message of Christ, and so as a result we have this glorious poetic and metaphysical description of Christ’s pre-existence interwoven with the metaphysical beliefs of the Jewish people.
The writer of John’s Gospel skilfully grafts his words onto the very first book of the Jewish scriptures. Recall how the first book of the bible opens up with that poetic imagery of Genesis where we hear ‘In the beginning … ‘
Where we hear how God begins creating, by speaking ‘And God said, Let there be Light’; and God said ‘Let there be day and night; and God said ‘Let the water be gathered, let the land produce, let the water teem with life;
let us make humankind in our own image’.
In the poetry and allegory of Genesis, we are given this amazing image of God expressing himself to form creation, by speaking into it. Creation is formed by speech which is the expression of his imagination, his idea, his foresight and hindsight, made manifest. God who holds the beginning and end in his eternity, utters his inner thoughts and creates.
What a glorious image - the whole of creation being brought into being by God’s speech - including you and me, spoken of in his words.
The writer of John probably recognised that humanity, with the limitation of temporal minds were likely to only grasp Christ in his historical sense - from his birth to his death, in the actions that he did in human time, in human history - narrative and anecdote rooted in the physical and comprehendible - even if miraculous and radical.…
But the author of John wants his readers and hearer to understand (as far as they can) that Christ was much much more than just another historic episode in God’s creative adventures, a page in a book, however holy, .. he wants us to see that Christ is the book itself… so he locates Christ’s existence not as the result of a divine utterance,
but as the very utterance itself,
By mapping his prologue on the opening of Genesis as he does,
John wants us to hold that when God ‘said’ let there be light; it was Christ who spoke, because he is the word. And when God said ‘Let there be day and night; waters be gathered, land produced, and human kind in our own image; yep, Christ was the word that brought it all into being, and note that Genesis inclusion of ‘let us’ in the action of creating people, indicating the co-creating relationship between son and father, God and Christ.
It is incredible. I mean spine-tinglingly incredible to realise what John does and the effect it has. Suddenly we are taken into the realms of those images where Christ sits with one foot upon the world, spinning it with each breath he takes. If you let the poetic rhetoric do it’s finest work, your mind suddenly finds itself dancing in the stars - trying to reach back even into the moment of the big bang and seeing suddenly, that there in the vast dark and space is Christ - expressing, and breathing, and sparking the whole of God’s creation into being. The one who calls each of us by name, who calls us here and now, was calling it all back then, and will be calling it all until the end of time.
Friends all this places us in cosmic Christ territory, and boy it’s a wonderful place to put your prayers. But this isn’t just an exercise of mental gymnastics - or even some random occurrence in the scriptures. Even the Synoptic Gospels, with their more grounded and measured stories, point towards these things - note the way they describe Christ controlling nature in the calming of the storms, the walking on water, the multiplication of bread and loaves …. These too are the actions of a creator who can sculpt and shape his creation.… even bread and wine here on this very altar….
And, once the believer has grasped Christ’s pre-existence, then suddenly Christ is seen everywhere - we find him
throughout the Old Testament - already there! Look at that reading in Proverbs …. Wi
sdom created in the beginning, calling and raising her voice … as a creative utterance of Christ. Think also of Isaiah.
But we are also to see his eternal presence - every moment and movement is revealed to bear the presence of Christ. Every creative action … indeed every action of creation, right into this very moment is happening by the Word of God; which means that Christ is intimately involved with it all, present, urging, calling and completing, inviting us always to see him and turn to him in that is happening and being done.
Christ is to be found in all of it, if only we remember that he is there.
But a lot of this is too much to take in. We struggle to believe in invisible things because we are equal part matter to spirit. We like to touch and taste and see and hear, which is the reason why, I think, God did not just leave his word, his idea, his spark, as a mere transcendental or ethereal theory, a topic of clever debate, or a philosophical proposition
…. He wanted his word to be understood more than that, he wanted us to know and see what the spark looks like, what they meant when they made humankind in their image, how they imagined that creation would act and behave … so that divine utterance, that breath, that spirit, beca
me like us in the hope that we would then become more like him.
What John is trying to tell us, in these opening words of the Gospel, is that we need not become invisibke, because by watching this human being, by following him and listening to him, we will certainly be led to glimpse the mind and breath and speech and imagination of God and …. Then see the place he has spoken of and created for each of us in his story.