Sunday 4 January 2015, 11.00 am Morning Prayer
In the Gospel reading this morning we have heard again the opening words of St John’s Gospel. These words are so familiar to us, yet on each hearing we can find new and deeper thoughts and ideas which can transform us and draw us closer to the heart of God. It is like opening a box full of much loved, treasured things, beautiful, amazing. And all these treasures are for us. As John makes clear at the end of his Gospel, the most valuable treasure is belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John says:
“There were indeed many other signs that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. Those written here have been recorded that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may have life through his name.” (John 20:30-31) John is saying that those who believe in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God share his life and become one with him. In this way the eternal life of Jesus becomes a reality in the life of those who believe. And it follows that those who share in the life of Jesus, share also in the life of God his Father.
This is treasure indeed. We are not without hope or help, we are not like little boats tossed about on an uncaring sea. And at this time of year, with its tradition for many of giving and receiving gifts, it is a good moment to reflect on the nature of God’s giving to us and how he offers his gift.
You may have noticed in our readings that the word “grace” occurs several times. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we have “to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6) and “In him we have redemption through his blood … according to the riches of his grace”. (Eph. 1:7). In the Gospel reading we have “the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16) and “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The Greek word used in each case is “charis” which means on the part of the doer grace, kindness, goodwill, mercy, towards someone. It is the origin of our word “charity” – meaning a gift which is freely given without thought of payback to the giver. And that is essentially the meaning of the word grace. It is a kindness freely given and which implies no pre-condition. At the heart of our culture is a different idea: the idea that you don’t get anything for nothing, or very rarely. On our shopping trips we see special offers: “buy one get one free”. But we all know that the shopkeepers are not really giving us a free gift. All it means is that the price of other items will have to be bumped up to pay for it. Or we don’t see that love cannot be earned by possessions or position. It can even be quite difficult for Christians to accept the idea that salvation is not something which can be earned by good works, prayer and a blameless life, although such things are marks of the good Christian.
God’s grace, his favour, his love, is different. It is freely given: it cannot under any circumstances be earned and it cannot be bought. It is an indication of God’s infinite love for us that we don’t even have to be lovable ourselves for him to love us. How do we know this? The beginning of St John’s Gospel unfolds this mystery for us and time and again St Paul returns to the same idea.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). God is eternal and so is his word. By Word John means God’s providence, his wisdom, his loving care all of which existed before the creation of human beings. In other words God loved us before we loved him. But God’s love is not static or inert. It is an active, creative force which created the universe and humankind. “In him was life and the life was the light of men.”(1:4) It shone like a light through the world and on his chosen people, the Israelites. In his love, God gave them his commandments by which they should live good and righteous lives and they promised obedience. But human nature was too frail, and they fell away.
Faithful to his love for human beings, faithful to his Word, God brought to birth a totally new creation. His Word, his grace, his mercy his gift came into the world as a man, a human being, like us – a gift to all humanity, not just the Israelites. God’s word became incarnate in his only Son. Jesus, the word of God, took on our human nature in its totality and so was truly God and truly man. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (1:14) This was God’s amazing gift of grace to us. He gave his only Son, in a sense, Himself, for our redemption. By ourselves we cannot save ourselves. We have need of God. And Jesus comes to us “full of grace and truth”. And the truth is that Jesus took on our human nature while at the same time his body was also the dwelling place of God. He was not an apparition or a phantom, but a living, breathing human being.
Perhaps the most wonderful gift of all is that through Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love we can become the children of God. “To all who …believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God” (1:12). Through Jesus who shared our human life, we are enabled to share in the eternal life of God. As St John puts it “The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known to us”. (1:18) God is no longer unknown to us and unknowable. Through Jesus, God’s gift of grace to us, we can draw near to him, understand more clearly his will for us, come to know him and so, above all, to love him. And there is no end to God’s grace because we have all received “grace upon grace” as St John puts it (John 1:16). Like God himself, God’s care for us is eternal.
So in Jesus, God has given us a gift beyond price. How will we thank him? As we will shortly sing in our final hymn:
Tell out, my soul, the glories of his word!
Firm is his promise, and his mercy sure.
Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord
To Children’s children and for evermore!