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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Text Study for John 1:1-18; January 2, 2022

Getting Into the Act

I think I am making a gradual return to the land of the living after a week and a half of cold and flu symptoms. I am wondering about what performance criticism methods may have to tell us about the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

We have learned to pay attention to the first-person pronouns in gospel accounts. These are cues that the text is directed toward us as audience and is seeking to engage us as participants. Notice that in John 1:1-13, the pronouns are all third-person. We are spectators at the beginning of the account.

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All that changes in verses fourteen through sixteen. The pronouns all become first-person plural: us and we. Cornelia van Deventer reminds us that this first-person plural move is also found, for example, at the end of the Johannine account – “This is the disciple, the one who is testifying concerning these things and the one who wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24, my translation).

The “we” in John 1 and John 21 seems a bit slippery when I read the verses. On the one hand, the “we” certainly refers to the community which has received, and which communicates the testimony of the Beloved Disciple. On the other hand, the “we” also invites us as the audience and/or readers to become a part of that “we.” Do “we” know that the Beloved Disciple’s testimony is true? And, if so, will we live that way? That is the challenge of the Johannine account.

Remember that the purpose statement of John’s gospel is a direct invitation to us as audience and reader. “But these things have been written in order you (plural) would put your faith in the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in order that as you put your faith in that fact you would have life in his name” (John 20:31, my translation). The Johannine account is written in order to call forth an active response on the part of the hearer/reader.

Cornelia van Deventer argues that this and other purpose statements in the Johannine gospel urge us as listeners to become a “participating audience” and to enact that participation “by performing what [we] have see and to experience the life that accompanies such belief. The Gospel, therefore,” she declares, “contains a dimension of experiencing, participating and ultimately performing” (page 1).

Van Deventer seeks to describe the “implied audience” of John’s gospel in order to come to a deeper understanding of the author’s intended call to action. She sees the Johannine prologue as a critical part of that call to action and a place to begin to understand that implied audience. The Johannine prologue sets up the audience with a framework for understanding the action that will follow in the body of the drama.

The “we” in verses fourteen through sixteen might refer exclusively to the author and the community which supported that author’s work – including others who might have experienced firsthand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, the use of the “we” also creates what van Deventer calls a “porous” group identity – that is, a group identity that can invite and accommodate us as well. She notes that the “we” in verse sixteen is expanded to “we all” with the effect that the audience is included in the text (page 5).

We, as audience, therefore, have insider information as the gospel account unfolds “The audience is initiated into the Johannine story with a revelation of [Jesus’] divine glory,” van Deventer notes, “the perspective that the ‘we’ brings to the table” (page 5). This first-person plural includes us as listeners/readers and seeks to persuade us that we too witness the glory of the Logos and the truthfulness of the story.

Van Deventer observes that this invitation is extended to all of humanity in verses four through nine. The question is whether people will embrace that invitation or reject it. Those who embrace the invitation are called “children of God.” They are the ones who are continuing to believe in the present and into the future. For the Johannine author, the time for responding is now. And the scope of that response is into God’s future.

The drama of the story is whether the characters will be “receivers” or “rejecters.” That drama is then offered to the implied audience as a personal drama as well. The gospel is filled with stories that enact this drama at very personal and intimate levels. The drama is culminated in the testimony and response of the Beloved Disciple, the real model for the faith response the Gospel author seeks to elicit.

“The reality is, however,” van Deventer writes, “that the Johannine audience has not simply been empowered to evaluate the ethos of the various characters in the story, but, according to the purpose of the author, they have the mandate to now evaluate their own” (page 13). That’s an interesting and challenging preaching focus on the first Sunday of a new calendar year. We, who have been believing, are invited to reflected on whether we will continue that life of faith into the future.

“The Fourth Gospel, therefore,” writes van Deventer, “supposes an audience of individuals who were intended to become,” in the words of another scholar, “participators and propagators” of Jesus’ life and words (page 13). That’s what it means to “perform” the Gospel – or in the words of the Johannine author – to continue to put our trust in Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

The Johannine account leaves room for doubt, struggle, questions, thick-headedness, and even rejection on the part of the listeners. We shouldn’t assume that this “believing” comes easily or is merely a once and for all sort of decision. We have only to read the gospel accounts to see that this is an ongoing challenge for any and all disciples.

“The participatory nature of the Fourth Gospel,” van Deventer observes, “is therefore a double-edged sword: it is both encouraging and challenging” (page 14). “We” are invited into the drama as participants. The “fourth wall” of the gospel theater is “porous,” as van Deventer names it, and we can find ourselves passing through it and on to the stage. If that happens, the gospel account has done at least a part of its work.

“By pointing its finger to the audience,” she continues, “the Fourth Gospel makes it clear that it has not fashioned an audience of uninformed bystanders, but an enlightened audience of performers: what they now perform is entirely up to them” (page 14).

I wonder if one simple way to make this experiential in worship is to turn the reading of the Johannine prologue into a sort of call and response experience. Perhaps the liturgical reader could “solo” on verses 1-13 and 17-18. And perhaps the congregation could read/perform verses 14-16. This might be most effective if the participatory and performative nature of the gospel account were pointed out to the listeners in advance of the reading.

Van Deventer offers these conclusions. She “argues that the Fourth Gospel creates a self-conscious audience from the prologue and that this audience is invited to become performers of a certain ethos through the creation of an ideal and porous group of receivers of the Logos and his revelation” (page 14). In addition, the gospel account creates and offers various characters who perform that belief, culminating in the Beloved Disciple. And the gospel account climaxes with the purpose statement that poses the challenge of continuing to believe directly.

This perspective offers a refreshing alternative to tortuous dissertations on the nature of the Incarnate Logos. And it challenges us as preachers to allow the gospel text to do what it was intended to do – to call and recall listeners to active and ongoing trust in Jesus as the Source of abundant life for us and for the cosmos.

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.

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