John’s Christmas is different. There is no Mary and Joseph, no manger, no shepherds. But John’s Christmas brings a gift to us in his prologue: “To all who received him, he GAVE to them the right to become children of God. In a sense, John’s Christmas is about us being born to new, true life in Jesus Christ. As we are “becoming” children of God, what does our new, true life look like? In the gospel of John, Jesus teaches the disciples the meaning of true life. It’s not a secret or a mystery any longer because true life is revealed in Jesus Christ: True life is being “for others”.
If John’s Jesus is teaching the disciples how to be “for others”, why does he begin in such a mind-boggling, grand way? “in the Beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…” John begins this way to show us how our thoughts about God, our trying to know who God is or who we are, our existential questions, are not to be separated from our physical bodes. We should not separate our physical being from our spiritual being. Questions about God are only meaningful if they are joined – inseparable – from our physical being. John is bringing two seemingly opposite “worlds” together: that of our intellect/mind and that of our body/flesh. Greeks of his day spent a lot of time contemplating the world. They valued reason and thought. That is why John begins his prologue by using the word “logos” for Jesus. Logos, which is translated as word, really means everything BUT a single word: It means thought, reason, or meaning. John uses this word, Logos, to describe Jesus. He begins by giving a grand, moving picture of the universe: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” The “was” that John uses three times, is not accidental but very deliberate. The “was” does not mean an event or an occurrence as in “the baby was born”. We are to see the “was” as an incomplete action, one that is in it’s course but not yet brought to it’s intended accomplishment. The “was” is un-beginning, un-ending, God. And only God is “was”. Nothing else. In the Old Testament when Moses asks God “Who should I say you are?” God answers “I am.” Or better translated, “I will be what I will be.” John takes that image of a moving Logos God – the unbeginning, unending, I will be what I will be – and sets him down on the earth as FLESH.
“And the word became flesh and lived among us.” The word “lived” in Greek means to make one’s abode, to dwell, to tabernacle, to pitch a tent. “And the LOGOS became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” A tent is a fragile shell – easily folded up or knocked over. It is a vulnerable dwelling. Someone that lives in a tent is going to be out and about. The Creator, the “I will be what I will be” the reason the thought the logos came to live in a flimsy tent and be out and about teaching fishermen. John, more than any other gospel, shows Jesus spending the majority of his time with the disciples. He is teaching them how to live as his disciples – how to love one another – how to be “for others”. He teaches them that love is not a feeling but a way of living sacrificially. And he teaches by example: He bends down to wash the disciple’s dirty feet (even the feet of the one that would betray him!) and then tells them to wash one another’s feet. He teaches them that the ultimate way to be for others is to lay down your life for your friend. John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The word “lay” in Greek is “Tithame”. It does not mean to put down, but place down. Place implies a careful, purposeful act. From the very beginning of John, Jesus’ mission is clear: he will teach the disciples how to be for others by example and this means he will lay down his life. The other gospels show Jesus in the garden before his death asking for the cup to be taken away- not so in John. In John, the whole reason Jesus comes is to lay down his life.
In John, and only in John, hanging on the cross, Jesus cries out, “It is finished.” This word finished is not the same tense as the word “was”. It does not mean an incomplete action not yet brought to it’s intended accomplishment. No. Finished means the action is completed and can’t be any more completed. Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice. It is done. There is no more to be done. He laid down his life to give us life! He was being for others so we can be. And there is only one way to be: being for others. John 15: 12 says “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” That is what John’s Jesus wants to teach his disciples: look what I have given to you – life – and life is only life if it is for others. Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “Jesus and the two disciples, with others soon following, share a life. For all of them the following of Jesus entails a commitment to a mission that requires them, like their master, to pitch camp in the midst of human history and there give witness to the Father’s love.” (41) That is full, abundant eternal life: a life lived not being for ourselves, but being for others.
Listen to what Justo Gonzalez writes about Jesus’ for-otherness: “As we read the story of Jesus in the Gospels, the first thing that strikes us is that he is entirely for others. At his birth, the angel announces to the shepherds that “to you” is born this day in the city of David a Savior…In John, “For God so loved the world that he GAVE” …The cross toward which the entire gospel narrative moves is not an accident but the result of Jesus actively giving up of his life: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it up again”. At the cross itself, Jesus is still the One for others, praying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Even his return to the Father, which in a sense is the seal of his victory, is for others: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
And here is the icing on our Christmas birthday cake: Jesus’ for otherness is the Glory of God. Glory is not seen in a king sitting on a throne. Glory is not seen in a president sitting in the oval office. Glory is seen in a king bending down to wash dirty feet. Glory is seen in a king hanging on a cross. Glory is seen in Jesus’ for otherness. “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us and we looked (with our physical eyeballs!) upon the glory of God”. Years ago, I taught at a small Mennonite school in Lancaster Pennsylvania. One afternoon, one of my students got sick and threw up all over the floor in the back of the classroom. I called the office to get the janitor to come clean it up. A few minutes later, in walks the principal wearing rubber gloves and carrying a bucket. He must have noticed my shocked expression because he said quietly, “The janitor isn’t here so I came.” And he walked back to the mess and bent down (pause) and cleaned the floor. I’ve had many principals in my years of teaching, but I will never forget that act. That act was being for others. When we see a need and act – that is being for others. Glory shines when one bends down to be for others. Becoming children of God means that we have true life. And true life is our whole being – our minds and our flesh – united as one in being for others. Any other way is not “being” at all – it is darkness. And Jesus came to be the light and to give us light. Amen.