Text Study for John 1:1-18 (Pt. 2); January 2, 2021

In and Among

“And the Word became flesh and tabernacled in us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the Only-begotten from the Father, full of gracious truth” (John 1:14, my translation).

Translation requires choices. The old Latin proverb is “Traduttore, traditore” – “The translator is a traitor.” As long as we can stick with the original language, we can maintain the ambiguity, double entendre, the multivalent and multivocal meanings of particular words.

But the moment we translate, we have to choose. There is rarely an absolute one to one correspondence without remainder between words in different languages. And that lack of correspondence is often biggest in the littlest words.

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In John 1:14, the phrase in Greek is “en hemin.” It is usually translated as “among us.” This is the translation preferred, for example, by the NRSV. It’s an accurate and acceptable translation, but I’m not sure it’s adequate. The most basic meaning of the phrase is “in us” rather than “among us.” I think that most basic meaning is the more helpful translation at this point.

Why does this matter to me? I think that “among” shades pretty quickly, in our minds, into “with.” The Matthean declaration that Jesus is “God with us” colors, I believe, our understanding of the Incarnation as described in the Johannine prologue. And “with” leads many of us to focus on the Divine accompaniment of the cosmos – God alongside us, keeping us company, reassuring us when we feel alone.

I’m not criticizing that understanding. It is certainly part of what we Christians mean to say when we talk about the doctrine of the Incarnation. But I don’t think it encompasses what the Johannine author seeks to communicate. I would suggest that in the Prologue we meet the Incarnate One who not only accompanies but always empowers us. The Incarnate One is not only among us but in us.

I would suggest that this is one of the reasons the Johannine author uses the verb, “skenoo,” here. Elizabeth Johnson, in her workingpreacher.org commentary notes that “the Greek verb translated ‘lived’ in this verse is skenoo, which means more literally, ‘pitched his tent.’ Just as God traveled with the people of Israel in the wilderness by means of the ‘tent of meeting’ in their midst,” she continues, “John announces that God has chosen to ‘tabernacle’ among us in an even more radical way, by the Word embodied in human flesh.”

In the Exodus account, the living presence of God moved from Sinai into the Tent of Meeting (which becomes the Tabernacle). Certainly, the living presence of God was “among” or “in the midst of” the people, although the Tent of Meeting was really located outside the camp. More than that, however, the living presence of God was powerful in and through Moses and the people and led them on the way.

It seems to me that an emphasis on the Incarnate Word as tabernacling “among” (with) us, tends to focus exclusively on the “Person” of Christ. Thus, it leads us to sermons about the nature of the Incarnation and descriptions of Trinitarian relationships. By noticing the “in” character of this presence, we can focus on the “Work” of Christ to empower disciples to put their trust in him and to participate in the mission of the Church.

I don’t think this is an either/or conversation. All I’m saying is that translation forces us to choose one word where several probably would be better. Let me move to the end of the Johannine gospel to illustrate what I mean.

When Jesus appears to the disciples the first time in the locked room, they rejoice when they realize that their Lord is with them again. That is the beginning of the interaction, however, not the end. Jesus then breathes into them the Holy Spirit which empowers them to embody the Divine Life in their relationships with one another. The Word takes on flesh in them and in their reality as community.

I think that the Johannine intertextual reference is obvious here. Just as God breathed the Breath of Life into the nostrils of the first man in Genesis, so Jesus breathes that Breath of Life into the disciples, and they are put on the path to full and flourishing humanity. That gift is certainly among them, but it is also in them. They become walking, talking tabernacles, or as Paul would put it, temples of the Holy Spirit.

It is, therefore, no accident that the Gospel of John is the primary anchor point for the Christian traditions that emphasize theosis (divinization) as the path of the Christian life. These, primarily Eastern, traditions, call us to see not only what God does for us and with us in Christ but also what God does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift of truth to which we are called and into which we grow for now and for eternity.

As I have noted in other posts, this perspective finds a home in Lutheran theology in the notion of “Christ present in faith.” Tuomo Mannermaa reminds us that when Luther discusses the theology of faith in his Preface to Romans, he refers to our passage as an illustration. “Faith, however,” Luther writes, “is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God…” (Kindle Location 467).

Luther continues his description thus. Faith, as this divine work, “kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men (sic), in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.” Then comes the sentence that is often quoted without this theosis context. This faith “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,” Luther writes. “It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly” (Kindle Location 472).

In the Incarnation, Jesus is filled with the gracious truth of the Father. Colossians 1:19 would tell us that in him “was pleased to dwell all the fullness [of the Deity].” Luther argues that Christ “lives and works in us, not speculatively but really, most presently and most effectively” (Kindle Location 480). “According to Luther,” Mannermaa writes, “faith is the right way of becoming a partaker of God because it possesses the whole fullness of the essence of God in Christ” (Kindle Location 489).

The logic of the Reformer’s thinking is as follows,” Mannermaa concludes: “In faith, human beings are really united with Christ. Christ, in turn, is both the forgiveness of sins and the effective producer of everything that is good in them” (Kindle Locations 675-676). The gracious truth we receive from the Incarnate One is that we are restored to full and flourishing humanity and are called by God in Christ through the power of the Spirit to live according to that humanity.

The Incarnation is, therefore, both “comfort” and “call.” We can receive that call or reject it, as we noted in the previous post. Receiving that call makes us children of God who put our trust in His name. That call doesn’t come from any human agency but rather from God, present in Christ through faith.

I rejoice in the presence of the Incarnate One among us as the source of comfort and hope. I rejoice all the more in the presence of the Incarnate One in us as the source of good works that embody that presence and shape me more and more in the likeness of the Incarnate One.

References and Resources

Johnson, Elizabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-3/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-9.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification Kindle Edition.

van Deventer, Cornelia. “Performing John: the participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel.” Neotestamentica 53.3 (2019): 517-534.

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