All stories have a beginning, a place where the hero begins a journey or the world changes or something just happens. Faith is no different. Some people like to call these faith stories a walk with God or salvation story. Some are part of our shared faith and have been recorded in the Bible for all to read and others have been simple stories of friends and family who lived their faith in ways that inspired just as well. Some see faith as a collection of ideas and propositions and others see it as a set of rules to follow with strict attention. I like to think of faith as a journey, a living story that, as long as the person lives and breathes, continues on regardless of the person’s awareness of its happening.
How about an example from my own life, an origin story if you will.
Two weeks before the end of my freshman year of high school, I was trying to figure out how to go to a party, one that promised plenty of opportunities to ‘sow oats’ as my elders used to say. For all my cajoling and threatening and pleading and whining, I found myself standing in the driveway of my parent’s house. Instead of looking into my friend’s beat up 1970 something Chevy rattletrap, I was looking into a church van where one family of brothers and sisters waited for me to join them. I had as much interest in getting on that bus as I had in running over my foot with a lawnmower. They were going somewhere that spoke of heaven though, at the time, I thought it hell. My mother was insistent and in the end, I went.
I tried to ignore the people I was with, a group of teenage siblings that I saw as boring, out-of-touch, and generally as uncool as listening to disco in 1986. I looked for a way to get away from them, but the youth leader with us was watchful and not about to let me wander. I had to settle for sitting on the end of the row of folding chairs as a concession of freedom. I began to reason from my petulant perch that I could not be the only teenager brought to this place against my will. I had been going to church for a year and noticed that plenty of the kids in the youth group were no different than the kids I knew at school or in the neighborhood that had never darkened the doors of a church. That being so, I surmised that there had to be a girl somewhere in the crowd who was as disinterested in the evening’s proceedings as I was.
I was no Casanova, but I was a fairly nervy kid and away from any school kids I knew, I had no social repercussions to fear. Across the aisle, on the end seat opposite me, I found another sullen soul, this one more attractive and of the female persuasion. We could not talk because of the service but we could flirt since our youth leaders were engrossed in the spectacle that is an a southern, early summer, preparation for youth camp, youth service/guilt trip/cognitive readjustment session. So, flirt we did for the better part of an hour while people around us yelled, cried, waved their hands, and generally ‘carried on’ in the way that their forebearers had taught them.
The flirting was looking like it might end up making for an interesting conversation or maybe a date Saturday night. I was thinking that my weekend might be getting better when I heard a loud bang from the front of the tent. Up to that point, I had been ignoring the ranting and raving of the guest preacher who in following the standard sermon script for his kind, was ‘holding us over hell on a piece of sewing thread’ as the old adage goes. This was nothing new. I had heard this in one version or another every Sunday and Wednesday for the last year and frankly, for a fifteen-year-old male, the girl was a lot more interesting than ‘lakes of fire’ and ‘eternal damnation’. Besides, I was prone to nightmares, things that would make Stephen King drool if he could write them down and I could remember them, so hell was not much of a motivator for me no matter how hot and fiery it was preached.
Yet, something happened after that meaty hand slap on a wooden lectern. It got my attention. Not for long but long enough for me to pay attention to next part which was a change from the regularly scheduled program. You might call it a ‘holy interruption’. I missed a lot from the pulpit over that previous year but in that moment, I heard a message I had never heard from a preacher, minister, or anyone else of the faith: you are loved. The God who called the flowers from the ground, the clouds into the skies, who stretched the edges of the universe to their zenith, loves you. Through this idea, a complete unreserved, unabashed, expression of love, I came to begin my faith journey. I never got the girl’s phone number, but I got out of the evening with something greater though it would take years to begin understanding it: spiritual belonging. I ‘went to the altar’ and ‘prayed the sinner’s prayer’ with a guy named Tim that I had never seen before and haven’t seen since. The boring church kids became for a time, close friends. My journey of faith had its beginning, my story with God was taking its first steps.
I can imagine that at this point some people might be thinking “What does this have to do with the Fourth Gospel, the story of John?” For me, quite a lot. I was one of several hundred people who experienced that night in 1988, packed into a massive circus like tent outside of Carrollton, Georgia. Mine was only one perspective of the events, one interpretation of the ‘way things were’. Ask any of the other people present and they will have a set of details, some the same, some similar, some perhaps contradictory. For some, they left energized with a new desire to live their faith. Others, like myself, found something new, a starting point on a road that took life in a different direction. Others still heard nothing to ‘shift their paradigm’ so to speak and went to the party on Saturday. These different accounts of the same story are much like two friends walking on a country road and seeing the same thing, yet perceiving it differently.
Here’s another way to see it. My father, a photographer, used to carry a camera bag with multiple lenses. There were fish eye lenses that gave photos a ‘bubble’ effect or telephoto lenses that allowed you to see clearly from half a mile away. Why? Because each lens allows you to see the world around you a little differently, from details on a poplar tree at the edge of the horizon to a panoramic shot of everything in front of you. And that is the intent that I have with this commentary, or if you will, conversation, about the Gospel of John; that we can look at the text we call John through a number of lenses in order to get an idea of how we might understand the message within.
The first verse of John starts with the words, “In the beginning”. This harkens back to the words of Genesis, where God is calling from the primordial chaos a sense of order. Those words, in the beginning, signal that this is where the story opens and in that place, we step into the tale being told and take our place. We interact with what has been, what is, and what will be as it relates to the greater story. As John’s Gospel echoes these words from the past, it is no different. It calls us to step into a time and place, to live and breathe with those called to follow, those being healed, those afraid to begin their journey, those in opposition to the Message and the Way. It is truth told through story, a truth that transcends time and place by reaching into the heart, beyond the clutter of our lives, to connect to something greater than ourselves and our existence.
In the beginning is an ancient idea, one wrapped in a noble art passed through generations for thousands of years: the art of the story, the oral tradition. Almost everything in the ancient world began as a story passed from one person to another, an idea that was born in the mind and heart of someone willing to share it with those around them. Some have called these stories myths, others call them legends, and sometimes they are even regarded as history. According to the historian and theologian Ernst Breisach,
“Oral traditions carried authority and evoked few doubts in their listeners, partly because they always fitted so well to the perceptions and ideals of the audience…Once written down, however, narratives lost that elasticity and frequently confronted other, competitive accounts of the past.”
Other writers have commented on the idea of oral traditions as well. According to Ludwig Noack, John may be the first gospel writer to ‘put oral tradition into writing’, though given the dates of composition for the gospels and the general dating of Jesus death being the beginning of the third decade of the first century I find it highly unlikely that any gospel was written without a wealth of oral tradition as its source material. That said, a story is the first expression of any religion, history, or culture. It is the way that we convey truth and understanding from one generation to another and find some semblance of common words to cobble together a sense of who we are and who we want others to see us as. It is the recounting of our corporate journey through the individual journeys that make up the greater story.
Our conversation, the one we will have about the Gospel of John, is part of your journey, a journey you either started before now, are starting now, or perhaps may wait to start later. That journey, like all journeys, has a beginning, a place where the anticipation of the road is met with the reality of the moment. It is a place where J.R.R. Tolkien spoke of the in The Fellowship of the Ring when he said,
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
That is both a warning and a prayer in my opinion. It is a warning in that if you are comfortable with your understanding of the world, not willing or wanting to be challenged in your beliefs, you may not like what awaits you as you are exposed to intellectually or emotionally uncomfortable ideas or, if you will, lenses. It is also a prayer in that we should all hope that God does exactly that, exposes us to those things previously hidden or unknown from us, things uncomfortable or challenging, that the journey is not such a stagnant thing. God willing, we may see this Gospel of John from many sides, the result of which would help us to better see those around us. In doing so, we may also come to see that simplistic thinking, thinking that assumes absolute black and white values, limits us to only two lenses.
Now we begin to prepare for a journey, one that will offer/afford us the opportunity to ‘see the stage from several vantage points’ so to speak. Whether you realize it or not, you have already begun this journey simply by being here today. You will take with you our time this morning having seen it from your place in the pew and understood it from your perspective. Our journey, however, will be just that, our journey as we seek out ways to understand the Gospel called John. That said, consider this an invitation, one extended to you with the words, ‘In the beginning’ which in essence have some similarity to ‘Once upon a time’ or ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ or any number of other beginnings to remarkable stories throughout history. One that asks you to step into the story, try it on for size, see how it fits and where it fits. It starts in the beginning, but much will happen on the road beyond. I invite you to come and see.