What Is This Word?
When Pilate hears the word, says John, he is afraid, since the word in question is Jesus' reported claim to be the Son of God (John 19:8). Unless we recognize this strange, dark strand running through the Gospel, we will domesticate John's masterpiece (just as we're always in danger of domesticating Christmas) and think it's only about comfort and joy. In truth, it's also about incomprehension, rejection, darkness, denial, stopped ears, and judgment. Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything's all right. John's Gospel isn't about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying "Of course! Why didn't we realize it before?" It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginationsand the darkness not comprehending it. It's about God, God as a little child, speaking words of truth, and nobody knowing what he's talking about.
You may be aware of that puzzlement, that incomprehension, that sense of a word being spoken which seems like it ought to mean something but which remains opaque to you. If that's the point you are at, the Good News is that along with this theme of incomprehension and rejection is a parallel theme of people hearing and receiving Jesus' words, believing them and discovering, as he says, that they are spirit and life (John 6:63). "As many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God's children, who were born not of human will or flesh, but of God" (John ?:?). "If you abide in my words, you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (John 8:?). "If anyone keeps my words, that person will never see death" (John 8:51). "You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you" (John 15:3).
Don't imagine that the world divides naturally into those who can understand what Jesus is saying and those who can't. By ourselves, none of us can. Jesus was born into a world where everyone was deaf and blind to him. But some, in fear and trembling, have allowed his words to challenge, rescue, heal, and transform them. That is what's offered at Christmas, not a better-focused religion for those who already like that sort of thing, but a Word which is incomprehensible in our language but which, when we learn to hear, understand, and believe it, will transform our whole selves with its judgment and mercy.
Out of the thousands of things that follow directly from this reading of John, I choose three as particularly urgent.
First, John's view of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh, strikes at the very root of the liberal denial which characterized mainstream theology thirty years ago and whose long-term effects are still with us. I grew up hearing lectures and sermons declaring that the idea of God becoming human was a categorical error. No human being could be divine; Jesus must therefore have been simply a human being, albeit (here the headmaster pats the little boy on the head) a very brilliant one. Jesus points to God, but he isn't actually God. A generation later, growing straight out of that school of thought, a clergyman wrote to me saying that the church doesn't know anything for certain. Remove the enfleshed and speaking Word from the center of your theology, and gradually the whole thing unravels, until all you're left with is the theological equivalent of the grin on the Cheshire Cat: a relativism whose only moral principle is that there are no moral principles, no words of judgment (because nothing is really wrong, except saying that things are wrong), no words of mercy (because you're all right as you are, so all you need is affirmation).