Sunday, January 4, 2015

Believe and Receive

Believe and Receive
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 4, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 1: 10-13; 17-18

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. 11 He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. [1]

So as we continue this morning, with the second sermon on our journey through the Gospel of John, it seems that much of what we are doing at first is to get a grasp of John's vocabulary, first, because already he has introduced us to a number of concepts that will become important as we go forward. Last week we talked about the idea of Word, like in the beginning was the word, the word made flesh, all that stuff, and we talked about how that is translated from the Greek word, Logos, and that we probably went a little too far and technical into it, but basically we looked at the idea that it very much connects the Greek Philosophical landscape of the Roman World in the time of Jesus with the Old Testament Hebrew/Jewish ideas, that from the very first paragraph of this Gospel, John is already combining traditions, and showing how Jesus is very much at the center point of them both. We also looked at the idea of Darkness and Light, looking at how this concept of light, and wisdom, and illumination are very much present here, that God is in control of the darkness as well as the light, and that God is constantly bringing light from the darkness. These themes which are very much important to John's Gospel as it goes forward have already been introduced as well here in the first paragraphs.
And now another crucial idea is being introduced, again also in this little prologue before any of the action begins. . . Believing and Receiving. . . and how these two things, these two simple words, somehow relate to the concept of being born again, born anew, into a new creation, not of the flesh or will of man, but of God. . . whatever that means. Now I want us for awhile as we go through this Gospel to try each week to build from the previous weeks of course, but I also want us to try though to erase the rest of what we know about Christianity from our minds, at least to some extent, if it is possible, to come at this text, and these words, these concepts without being influenced elsewhere, by other points. . . . so at this point in reading this idea of "believing and receiving" we don't have a great understanding of the crucifixion, or the rest of the story of Jesus, but instead are hearing this "good news" for the first time, seeking to try to have it revealed to us as the Gospel writer John would have us get it, the order that he prescribes for our learning. (I know it is difficult, but let us try to do that). Because right now we have a concept of what believing and receiving is all about. We've been taught it forever in church. We've heard about it from the beginning. It is very central to our doing, but what are these concepts in their truest barest forms? Is there some insight we can gain by stripping it down? Can we clarify some of the cloudiness? Can we frankly create some more blessed cloudiness, refreshing the glorious mystery, that heightened clarity hides? (How is that for a paradox?)
Imagine you were reading this for the first time, that you were a regular gentile from the time, and somehow you got your hands on this text. . . you have some background in looking into the Old Testament Scriptures, and a good elementary knowledge of basic Philosophy, not much, but enough to know that you have a sense that there is universal truth in the world, and you are out to seek it. You come across this Gospel and it is describing this light, this primordial light, this light and word, that have existed since before the beginning, and came into our world, but most didn't know him, even those who were close to him didn't know him, even those from the same town, didn't know him, but there were some who did, and those who did, "believed and received," and now they  have been given the "power" to become "children of God." 
Now if you aren't blown away by that, or at least intrigued to go forward, you haven't gone far enough away from your knowledge set yet. I mean this is really intriguing stuff. Already being laid out is a claim on transcendent truth. . . and now there is a sense that by believing and receiving we can become Children of God. The other gospels all start much differently than this. . . Luke's Gospel says he is going to set out an ordered account of what really happened. . . Mark gets right into the narrative and then never looks back or takes a breath from there, and Matthew's starts out with a Geneology of all things. . . . but here we have some real claims, and some real questions being laid out, like this one, that there is now a way, it would seem for people to become "Children of God," at least some have become that way, it would seem the writer of this Gospel is one such person. Is it possible for me too?
How was this done before now? How did one become a Child of God before now? How was it done? Most would probably assume that it was done by birth, that is the typical way that you become a Child of something, or maybe it is the family, the race that you were born into, maybe just those of a chosen race, but not here, there is a sense of believing and receiving, creating this relationship. . . again we first have to ask the question, believing in what? receiving what? I would guess we would have to read more to find out. And we will, but not yet, not today. Today we are just finding the questions. . . . what are our active reading questions going into John's Gospel? What do we want to learn? find? come to receive and believe in? and how?
Now let's think about what it means to believe and receive? We all jump beyond this to our own Sunday School thoughts on what we been told, but at the basic level. The receiving is a word in Greek, is one that talks about owning, taking, carrying like it is your own. Elabon auton, received him. . . but it does say, and it comes through in the Greek, is that it is "all who receives him" which is used to parallel and go against the idea that there were some who didn't. . . so in the receiving there is the fact that it is the opposite of the people who didn't accept him. To be exact it is actually the same word used, only the first time with a negative prefix on it. Often translations into English use different words for some reason. I don't get that. But already it seems that there is a choice to make here. . . and it is a choice that is open to "all" but within the "all" there is also a "some." So there is an edginess to this reception. . . like it isn't a definite. Some just don't get it, for whatever reason they don't. . . talk about a hook. No one wants to be on the outside of something like that.
And then the next is "believe" the Greek Word is "pisteo" believe, which also can have a noun form, just like English, with believe, having the idea of faith, but it can also mean to be committed to, or to put your trust in. . . obviously commitment to, is a big piece left out of our English word for belief. . . and something important probably in this context. . . and now I think also that trust has a different connotation than belief. . . and maybe one that is helpful to us, for it says belief/trust/"pisteo" in the name of. . .nomos. . . but nomos, can mean the deeds, or the laws even of. . . because to many ancients you were your deeds, the idea that your name, your identity, and your being, your personhood, your daily life, would be disconnected is foreign, like the idea that your word is your bond. . . your nomos, your name is yourself. . . so it believing, or putting trust in the "Name", of this Word made flesh, this light, has depth, real depth. There is alot that we need to find out about this Word made flesh to understand and begin to start knowing even, let alone start receiving and believing, because there were many who "knew" and that fell short, at least it seems to land you in the "some category" the left out "some," not the Children of God, "All."
And that brings me to the next thing I thought was really intriguing here is it says that they, the all, got the "power to become children of God," which is an interesting modifier, not they became Children of God, which seems natural, but instead they got the power to become. . . and the Greek word there is the word from which we get execute or executive from. So by receiving and believing we can execute the being a child of God. . . like the being is actually a doing. . . something you have power to execute. So there really is a sense here that this receiving and believing is active doing, since receiving means, taking it along with you, and it all gives  you the executive function of being a child of God.
Now in some ways I feel like a novel writer, who is building up characters that will develop and grow. They will. These words are foundation for everything that comes later. John's Gospel is a little different as we can see from the others. Luke and Matthew and Mark are usually called "Synoptic" in that they tell the story of what Jesus does. John's as we can see already is doing something very different. It is bringing up Theological and Salvation ideas even from the beginning. Claims are being made here, ideas introduced, even before anything else, even before Jesus as a character comes. So you may feel like you've already got this, that there isn't much to this mornings sermon. That there is no practical thing to do. . .no go out there and be. . . it is framework. . . so I want to give you some homework. I originally wanted to title this sermon I before and after E, because I wanted to give you something cute to remember Receive and Believe because I want  you to remember them. I want you to Think about these words we're looking at in these first few weeks, for you to write them down somewhere. . . and over the next few months see if your thoughts on them change and develop. "Word/Logos, Light/Dark, Believing, Receiving, Child of God." I even did the work for you. I put them on the insert in your bulletin and with them some others.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:16-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.