In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In this final sermon of the series I have called a ‘helicopter level’ overview of the Bible we begin with John’s enigmatic, poetic, mysterious statement. The Word of God is one way in which we refer to the Bible, but the Bible we know was not yet compiled when John wrote these words. As with any good summary statement this one says a great deal, but it is not enough. It does not, it cannot, say it all. For if the Word is God then like God it is beyond our imagination, beyond our comprehension. The Biblical words nurture our yearning to hear the Word, to know the God who knows each of us completely.
I have structured this service around the theme of credal statements. The beginning of John’s gospel is such an assertion, a summary of what, to one writer, are the most important elements of our faith. The New Testament contains a dozen or so declarations that make clear, short, bold testimonials of what, for the speaker and their community lies at the centre of the faith. Perhaps the earliest is Peter’s announcement to Jesus as recorded by Matthew, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
We began our service with the United Church’s creed adopted in 1968. Its opening affirmation “We are not alone,” points us to the centrality of relationship in the Commonwealth of God. If the death and resurrection of Jesus tell us anything it is that even in the midst of suffering when we have every reason to abandon hope, God is with us, we are not alone. If the life of Jesus, a life of teaching and healing, of reaching in many directions to connect with people, if that life tells us anything it is of the centrality of human relationships to our relationship with God.
The single hymn we sing in three sections this morning has been adapted from A Song of Faith, which was adopted by the United Church in 2006 as another statement of what lies at the core of our faith. When I saw that the creators of this document adopted the refrain from the 19th Century hymn by Robert Lowry that became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement, I was inspired to try to capture the feel of A Song of Faith in a setting that allowed us to sing it.
Whether it is John’s magnificent prologue, the Creeds of the early church or our modern statements, none of these affirmations would exist without the Bible – the collection of stories, laws, poems, laments, sayings and a dozen other literary genres, that lies at the heart of our faith. Just as our credal statements try and ultimately fail to capture everything that is at the heart of our relationship with God, so it is with the Bible. It cannot, it does not, say it all.
And that reality, the incomprehensibility of God who is vaster than all our words, is behind the power of John’s assertion that the Word is God. The apostle is not referring to markings in ink on a page but to what emerges when all these words and all the stories they tell come together, when we can sing them in our hearts and as well as hear speak them in our minds.
Let me offer two metaphors for what I think is the role of the Bible in our faith. The first is the natural phenomenon that science calls emergence. When two elements come together and a third element is formed, it is said that the third has emerged from the first two. The simplest example is water. When two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen come together, water is formed. We all know that. But think about how strange that is. At room temperature hydrogen is a gas, same with oxygen. If you have a fire going and add hydrogen or oxygen to it, you will have more fire. But if the hydrogen and oxygen are combined, two to one, you have water, which will put out the fire. Water is the substance that emerges when the other two are united.
Emergence occurs all the time in the natural world and it can involve many more than two elements. Atoms emerge when protons, neutrons and electrons are combined. Stars, planets and solar systems emerge when the swirling gases dispersed by the big bang combine. And when the diverse experiences of faithful people are told as story, law, legend, poetry, and a dozen other literary forms, the Word of God, in John’s sense, emerges. As we immerse ourselves in these words, we find ourselves encountering an ever-deeper experience of God. It is not that the Bible contains words that define, describe or detail who or what God is. This collection of words enables us, if we let it, to hear God’s song in our heart.
We don’t come to know another person by gathering up all the words that have been said about them and analyzing them to formulate a coherent statement of who they are and what they stand for. Knowing another person is not just gathering up all of the consonants, vowels and syllables strung together in sentences and paragraphs that they speak. The essence of another person, what we might call the Word in John’s sense, is known through sharing activities, sharing struggles, sharing our lives. That is how the Word is known.
The classical symphony is my second metaphor for the Bible. And it is really an extension of the first because a symphony is an emergent phenomenon. An orchestra has roughly 100 musicians arranged into four categories, winds, strings, brass and percussion. Each group plays music differently. You could never confuse the tympani for a tuba. And of course, within each group there are various instruments and groupings that play differently. Much of the time, for example, the first and second violins are playing different tunes, or at least variations of the same tune. Music happens when the composer gives them sheets of paper that have individual notes all arranged to be played in a way that creates a harmonious, or sometimes dissonant, whole.
So potentially you can have 100 different voices all going in different directions, all telling a different story. And yet when it works, under the hands of a masterful composer and a skilled conductor, a symphony creates beautiful music, music that not only allows us to hear many different voices all at once, but music that depends on our hearing all those different voices simultaneously.
Gustav Mahler, the nineteenth-century Austrian composer who wrote some of the greatest symphonies of the late Romantic repertoire called his Third Symphony, “What the Universe tells me.” In it he created a vast, sprawling experience of folk tunes, military marches, bird songs, operatic harmonies and soaring melodies of his own devising from which emerges his conception of the meaning of life.
The Word of God, in John’s sense, is like that, only with a thousand thousand more voices. God exists in each word, but what emerges from the whole is a God we can know, not perfectly, not completely, but relationally. The Word that emerges from the Bible is one Word and every word. It is a Word we can carry in our hearts and as we sing it we come to know God more deeply and the Word becomes more a part of who we are, children of the God made known to us through Jesus the Christ.
My metaphor leads me to claim for your minister the role of conductor of this symphony. That is to say that the person who preaches every week, who attempts to draw on the heritage embodied in these texts so that the God who needs to be known and sensed and felt in this time and place emerges in a way that we can hear. As my time with the baton draws to a close, I am excited to pass it to Robin Jacobson, who has come to be among you as minister of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care. With all of you, I look forward to his ministry and am confident that guided by the Holy Spirit, you and he will find the Word of God that needs to be sung in this place at this time. May it be so.
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