The introduction to John’s gospel is a poem. A hymn of the early church possibly. The gospel was written in Greek, the common language of the day, and in Greek word is logos. “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God and the logos was
God.” This introductory passage is known in the scholarly world as the Logos Hymn. A Hymn to the Word, as in the pre-existing, co-creating, second person of the trinity Word.
One verse into John’s gospel and we are looking at questions of trinitarian doctrine: how are the Creator and the Savior connected. God sent the Only Son into the world, but God the Son and God the Parent are one. How does that work exactly? In the Gospel of John we hear the early church wrestling with some of the deepest questions of the Christian faith.
Written later than Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John sensed that what the church needed was not simply another historical narrative of Jesus’ sayings and doings. Standing near the close of the first century, John and his community didn’t so much want more facts to fill their heads, they longed for a story that would stir their hearts.
“How did we come to be this community of the faithful?” John seems to wonder. And as he unfolds his gospel, you can tell that he was writing for people who had been Christ followers for a long time. His story is aimed at people who know how the Jesus story ends—in the brightness of Easter’s resurrection light. Over and over John the narrator leaves his story hanging to speak to his readers directly, like a mother reading to her children looks up from the text every now and then and offers a brief explanation to help the children understand what is happening.
Jesus in John is different. He talks a lot, for example. Sometimes he speaks for more than a chapter. He even prays for an entire chapter. John is filled with Jesus’ soliloquies, like Hamlet stepping to the corner of the stage and speaking to no one in particular, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Except with Jesus the prayer in chapter 17 is spoken to his Abba, and those lengthy monologues are directed toward John’s readers, the church. Jesus in John is bent on helping us understand ever more deeply who Jesus was and what he was doing and how it all fits into God’s plans for the world.
“Air for Two Voices,” by Frederick Buechner* (John 1:1-16)
There are two voices in this extraordinary text from John. The first of them is a voice chanting, a cantor’s voice, a muezzin’s voice, a poet’s voice, a choirboy’s voice before it has changed—ghostly, virginal, remote and cool as stone. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” It is sung not said, a hymn not a homily. It is a hymn to perform surgery with, a heart-transplanting voice.
The second voice is insistent and over-earnest, a little nasal. It is a voice that wants to make sure, a voice that’s trying hard to get everything straight. It is above all a down-to-earth voice. It keeps interrupting. The troublesome confusion about just who the Messiah was, the second voice says: Not John the Baptist, certainly, whatever may have ben rumored in certain circles. It is a point that cannot be made too clearly or too emphatically. It was not the Baptist. It was Jesus. Right from the beginning Jesus was without any question who it was.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of people. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” the first voice sings far above all sublunary distinctions, the great Logos hymn.
And then the second voice again. Yes, it says. Only to come back to the Baptist for a moment. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light. He was not the light but came to bear witness to the light, the perspiration beading out on the upper lip, the knuckles whitening.
“And so the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the cry soars up to the great rose window, toward the Pleiades, the battlement of jasper and topaz and amethyst: dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
And that is true, says the second voice. The Baptist made it absolutely clear when he said—I remember the very words he used—”He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.” The Baptist said so himself.
It is good to have both the voices. The sound the second voice makes is a very human sound, and you need a very human sound to get your bearings by in the midst of the first voice’s unearthly music. It is also good to have the interruptions. There should be interruptions in sermons too: the sound of a baby crying, someone sneezing, another coughing—something to remind us of just what this flesh is that the Word became, the Word that was with God, that was God. What it smells and sounds and tastes like, this flesh the Word buckled on like battle dress. Glory and humanity. Word and flesh. The New Testament itself is written that way: the risen Christ coming back at dawn to the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus with the mystery of life and death upon him, standing there on the beach saying, “Have you any fish?”
Have you any fish, the risen Christ wants to know? Precisely. The Christ and the chowder. The Messiah and the mackerel. The Word and the flesh. The first voice and the second voice. It is what the great text is all about, of course, this mystery, this tension and scandal; and the text itself, with it’s antiphony of voices, is its own illustration.
Somebody has to do the vacuuming. Somebody has to keep the accounts and put out the cat. And we are grateful for these things to the second voice which is also of course our own voice, puny and inexhaustible as Faulkner said. It is a human voice. It is the only voice the universe has for speaking of itself and to itself. It is a voice with its own message, its own mystery, and it is important to be told that it was not the Baptist, it was Jesus—not that one standing over there bony and strident in the Jordan, but this one with the strange north country accent, full of grace and truth. Behold, the Baptist said, that is the lamb of God. Not this one but that one. We need to know.
But it is the first voice that prevails here, and the first voice that haunts and humbles us—muezzin, cantor, Christ Church chorister—and it is a voice that haunts us at first less with what it means than with how it sounds, with the music before the message, whatever the message is; with cadences and chords, the silences. … It hardly matters what it means at first…. It hardly matters what it means any more than it matters what the sound of the surf mesa, the organ notes winging like trapped birds toward some break in the gothic dusk. “And from this fullness we have all received, grace upon grace…. He was in the world,” the voice sings, “yet the world knew him not,” and John says, “Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
Shout “Fire!” Cry “Help,” or “Hallelujah!” A siren in the night. A trumpet at sun-up. … When you hear it, what happens is that the pulse quickens. It is the sound simply that stirs the heart, literally as well as figuratively stirs it. The sound of the word sung or shouted, its music, literally as well as figuratively stirs it. The sound of the word sung or shouted, its music, literally makes the heart beat faster, makes the blood run quicker and hotter, which is to say the word stirs life. Whatever it is at the level of meaning, at the level of sound, rhythm, breath, the word has the power to stir life. And again this is both what John is saying here and what with his own words he is illustrating: that the Word stirs life even as his own words stir life, stir something. It is hard to hear this prologue read in any tongue without something inside quickening.
The Word becomes flesh. As the word of terror in the night makes the flesh crawl, as the word of desire makes the flesh burn, as other words make the scalp run cold and set the feet running, in maybe some such way this Logos Word of God becomes flesh, becomes Jesus. Jesus so responds to this Word which is God’s that he himself becomes the Word, as simple and as complicated as that.