The Politically Incorrect Jesus (John 1:1-18)

John Stackhouse of Regent College, Vancouver, wrote an article a few years back entitled “Two Cheers for Political Correctness”—meaning, political correctness is good in some ways, but is not really good enough to warrant three cheers! So, when an aboriginal woman athlete lit the Olympic flame in Sydney this week, there will undoubtedly have been those who rolled their eyes and said, “Political correctness again!” But for followers of Jesus, that’s a good kind of political correctness: Christian faith at its most authentic has always given special honour to the marginalized and powerless, as Jesus himself did.

So is Jesus politically correct? As so often, Jesus doesn’t fit our tidy categories: somehow he makes our questions seem naïve and silly, as if they’re not the important questions, and Jesus in return asks us much harder questions. The first chapter of the biography of Jesus which is generally called The Gospel of John is a classic example.

John begins his book with a wonderful poem about spiritual realities. It is one of the most famous passages from the Bible, and it resonates for many people.

Verse 1: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

The biographies of Jesus were written in Greek, and the Greek word for Word here is Logos, a very profound and important word in John’s day. It may not seem to be a particularly familiar word to us today but in fact we use the word logos every day without realizing it: “logos” gives us the words logic and logistics and logarithm; it is found in prologue, analog and captain’s log; it is at the heart of all those words which end in –logy: analogy, apology, biology, chronology, psychology and even theology. Even today, surprisingly enough, we depend greatly on the idea of the logos.

So what does it mean? In the ancient world, almost anyone who read John’s book would attach a meaning to this word.

• Jewish readers would think of their Scriptures, and the way they describe God as creating the world by speaking, by his Logos. The Logos for Jewish readers means word–yes—but a dynamic and immensely creative word, a word that is almost a deed. So they would read this and say, Yesss! That’s my kind of spirituality.
• But Greek readers would also recognize this word but to them it meant something a bit different: to them Logos was the mind that lies behind the beauty and order of the universe, Logos is the rationality that holds the universe together, gives it the shape and meaning that scientists can explore. So they would also read this and say Yesss! That’s my kind of spirituality.
• But it’s not only in the ancient world that this passage was meaningful: Lesslie Newbigin, who worked in India for many years, says Hindus love this text—at least, at first reading—and that it could almost be taken from the Hindu scriptures. According to him, Hindus could read this and say Yesss! That’s my kind of spirituality.

John, it seems, has deliberately chosen a concept, the Logos, which is a major bridge between intellectual and religious traditions, including the two main ones of the ancient world, the Jewish and the Greek. The idea of the Logos was something which reached across people’s divisions and brought them together.

So far, so good. Everybody votes for the Logos, it seems. This is what we need in our world. Bring all the religions together. What a great idea. Now that’s very politically correct. John goes on:
Verse 4: In him was life and the life was the light of all people.

Light is what we need to live our lives by, to find our way. Actually we still use the imagery of light in this way today.  When we understand something, we say, “I see” or “That’s clear now”—metaphors of light; we talk about “shedding some light on the subject”; we say “my eyes were opened”; we say an idea is “illuminating”; we say “a light bulb went on in my head.”

Well, says John, that light, the light of truth and good, the light of life, the light of hope–all that comes from the Logos of God. All our longings for life and truth and goodness are to be found in the Author of those things. And Jews and Greeks and Hindus and all people of goodwill say “Right on! Wow. You Christians are much more broadminded than we thought.  What a relief!”

The same is true of verse 5: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

John reminds us there’s darkness in the world, but he also reassures us: the darkness has limits. The darkness is not going to win in the end. The darkness cannot say no to God’s yes for ever. But again, who can argue with this? It’s a wonderful thing to put your faith in. Now, John hasn’t so far given us any reasons for supposing that the light will overcome the darkness (that will come later), but it’s a beautiful idea. Good will win in the end. This too would be acceptable to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and New Agers.

But then a slightly strange thing happens in John’s line of argument. Listen:

Verse 5: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

Now John is talking about a specific historic individual, known to history as John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. He’s moved away from abstract philosophy and eternal issues, from talk of light and dark, and he’s talking now about a weird guy who came along in the year 30 CE, a man who wore only a rough camel skin fastened with a leather belt, who ate nothing except locusts and wild honey, a man who preached on river banks and baptized people. It’s a funny transition, isn’t it? Do you feel it? –like a philosophy lecturer who in the middle of talking about Plato and the Idea of the Good suddenly starts talking about the department janitor. Isn’t there something a bit incongruous about it?

But maybe it’s OK. After all, all he’s saying is that John is a witness to the light. Doesn’t every culture and every religion have witnesses to the light? All the way from Socrates to the Dalai Lama. And they’re all saying the same thing, basically, aren’t they? Look for the light, get away from the darkness. That’s the heart of every religion, isn’t it? You and I can do the same—be witnesses to the light. This is no big deal.

But what is this that John says next? This is very strange:

Verse 9: The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

“He was in the world?” Shouldn’t it be “it” was in the world? the light was in the world? Who is this “he”? Then John gets even more mysterious: the world did not know him; his people did not accept him. Once again, John has switched into this very concrete mode. It’s as though someone (he hasn’t said who) arrived home one day and his folks had changed the locks and wouldn’t let him in the house. So what and who on earth is he talking about?

Verse 12: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

Again, this is different language. Power to become children of God? But that would imply (a) that some are not children of God, (b) that it is possible to become so, and (c) that you become a child of God by believing in someone’s name. Bizarre. Isn’t everyone a child of God? Doesn’t everyone try to follow the light (except the Hitlers of this world, of course)?  And surely it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere? John’s political correctness is wearing pretty thin here.

Now comes John’s explanation. Now he will tell us what this mystery is all about. Now he will make clear why he has shifted from the very general statements about spirituality to very specific ones about a man named John. Here it is: one of the most sublime statements in all of literature—but also perhaps the most controversial:

Verse 14:   the Word became flesh.

• That powerful, creative word by which (Jews believed) God created the world . . . took on a body.
• The rationality of God which (Greeks believed) keeps the universe together . . . turned into a man.

How can we understand such a claim? To a Muslim, the statement is offensive, blasphemous—and I can see why: to suggest that the great, eternal, creator God could take on human form. It’s too much like those stories of Roman gods who sometimes took on human form, trying to seduce some naive human being.

But it’s not like that, either. If it were that kind of claim, then the Muslim would be right. It is actually a more sophisticated, more subtle, more breathtaking claim than that. C.S.Lewis put it like this:

Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The “Shakespeare” within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation.

If Shakespeare should want to communicate with Hamlet, he couldn’t do it, because Shakespeare and Hamlet live in different worlds, different universes. Shakespeare is a real person, Hamlet exists only in the world of the play. So how could genuine communication ever be possible? Well, Lewis is saying, what if Shakespeare wrote himself into the script of the play—created a new character, called William Shakespeare, who would speak and act in the same way that the real-life Shakespeare spoke and acted? Then Hamlet could know Shakespeare: we could even say that Hamlet could have a personal relationship with his creator.
So with God: Christians believe that God has written himself into the text of the human drama, giving himself lines and actions that demonstrate to us what God is like in terms we can understand, and making it possible for us to relate to God in a way that simply wasn’t possible any other way. And the Christian claim—John’s claim–is that when God did that, the name by which he was called was Jesus.

So John goes on:

Verse 14: the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

We saw his glory. God’s “glory” is simply God’s essential character, what we would see and experience God to be like if all the barriers could somehow be stripped away. Well, says John, what you see when you look at Jesus is precisely God’s glory. And what is that glory like, what is that character like? It’s grace and it’s truth, says John. The best way to understand those words is not to check a dictionary definition, but simply to read the rest of John’s story. Then you’ll see what he meant by them. If you have never read it, or not read it recently, you owe it to yourself to check it out. You will find, for example:

• In chapter 2, Jesus rescues a wedding from failure by making gallons and gallons of new wine. The Logos of God brings joy and celebration to the world: that’s God’s character: that’s grace and truth.
• In chapter 3, he talks with a man called Nicodemus, and tells him he is too religious and not radical enough in his spirituality. The Logos of God challenges religiosity in the world: that’s God’s character: full of grace and truth.
• In chapter 4, he talks at the side of a well with a woman who has been much used and much abused, and who is thirsty for self-worth and for intimacy, and he talks openly with her about sex and religion in a way that was considered proper only among family members. The Logos of God begins to create a new kind of community in the world where people’s thirst for reality can begin to be quenched: this too is the character of God: full of grace and truth.
• In chapter 13, Jesus gets on his knees, takes a basin of water and a towel, and washes his disciples’ dirty smelly feet as if he were their servant. The Logos of God models a radically new kind of leadership in the world: this too is the essential nature of God: full of grace and truth.
• In chapter 19, Jesus suffers the death penalty at the hands of the Romans, coming back to life in a new, joyous, indestructible kind of life. The Logos of God completely changes the world’s perception of sin and suffering, of life and death: this is also what God is like: full of grace and truth!

In the beginning of this chapter, then, John is anxious to establish as much common ground as he can with other faiths, other worldviews. But at this point in the chapter, the Christian story parts company with all other stories. Nobody has any problem with generic, no-name-brand spirituality. But the things that John says about Jesus—not only Jesus’ words but also his actions–were never said of any other religious founder, of Buddha or Mohammad or Baha’u’llah or the Dalai Lama. These things he says are either outrageous and should be suppressed—or they are true. But they are certainly not politically correct.

In light of what he’s said, we have to go back and re-read those opening statements (1-5) in the light of who John says the Logos is. At first, John deliberately didn’t give a name to this Word of God. But now he has tipped his hand: we know who he is talking about. So we can translate those first sentences like this:

In the beginning was Jesus and Jesus was with God and Jesus was God.  Jesus was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Jesus, and without Jesus not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Jesus was life and the life of Jesus was the light of all people.


What does this mean if you are a follower of Jesus?

What you believe is scandalous in a society like ours whose primary value is tolerance. I don’t see any way around it. The Jesus you follow is not politically correct.

Does this mean then that you have to condemn all other forms of spirituality? Some would say yes, but John doesn’t think so. He has boldly established common ground between Jewish faith and Greek philosophy and Christianity. He affirms it strongly and eloquently. But he does also say that those other faiths don’t go far enough: that their yearnings can only be fulfilled in this man Jesus. A Christian student said to me recently, “The more I talk to my New Age friend, the more I think she and I are talking about the same God.” And I replied, “That’s quite possible. But only as a follower of Jesus will she find the fulfilment of that search for God.”  A Muslim, who became a Christian some years back, explained his conversion like this:

“I am a Christian for one reason alone—the absolute worshipability of Jesus Christ. By that word I mean that I have found no other being in the universe who compels my adoration as he has done.”

If you are a follower of Jesus, affirm everything that seems to you good and true in other spiritualities, but don’t feel embarrassed to say, “You know, I respect your beliefs, but I have to be honest and tell you that I think there is something unique about Jesus Christ that’s not to be found anywhere else. Why don’t you check him out.”

And as you do your studies, remember that the “logos” in your biology, your psychology, your sociology, your anthropology, your archeology, your theology—that logos is Jesus—whatever truth you find there is the truth of Jesus the Creator. And be glad.

And what does all this mean if you are not a follower of Jesus?

In John’s biography, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6).
• He knows there are ways of trying to go through life which look attractive but which will turn out to be cul-de-sacs and lead nowhere: he says he is the right way. 
• He obviously believes there is such a thing as truth, and its opposite which is falsehood: he says he is truth.
• He knows too that there are many lifestyles which promise life but in fact lead to death of one kind or another: he says he is the real life.

Why does he say this? Because he is on a power-trip? Not at all. Read the stories: he’s not that kind of person.  No, he offers himself as way, truth and life simply because he cares deeply about people and wants them to know who they are in God’s world. He offers himself as way, truth and life because he is the creator, and he knows what we were made for and how we work, far better than we know ourselves.

Maybe we do want to ask Jesus if he is politically correct. But he wants to ask us rather bigger questions: Do you know who God is, what God is like? Do you know who I am, and how I am different? Do you know who you are in this world? Do you know what life is all about? Jesus longs to work with us on those questions. But he waits, as he did so long ago, for us to invite him into the house which is our lives:

Verse 12: He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God.
Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto           

September 17, 2000