A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 2, 2011.
Frank Thomas (Senior Servant at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee) has written that if the first eighteen verses of the book of John contain the theme of that Gospel, then verse 14 sums up the entire prologue: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” I like the contemporary rendering of that verse that Eugene Peterson offers in The Message.
The Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.
The followers of Jesus advance the audacious claim that God “moved into the neighborhood” in Jesus Christ. That’s downright radical and subversive on several levels.
In the first place, the notion that God has actually, physically, and personally somehow experienced humanity in any respect blows the whole idea about separating what’s sacred and what’s secular to bits. John’s Gospel tells us that trying to compartmentalize God from our experience as humans is a wrong-headed way of understanding God, life, spirituality, and our humanity.
God isn’t just concerned about us. In Jesus, God intimately knows how we live, breathe, hunger, thirst, learn, hurt, and die. In Jesus, God isn’t just “out there” or “up there.” God has moved into our neighborhood.
And it says a lot about God not only that Jesus lived, but where and how Jesus lived. Jesus was born in an outhouse, not a palace. He grew up in a poor working family, not among the social elite. Jesus was an itinerant preacher, not a member of the religious and philosophical authorities of his time and place.
• In Jesus, God identified with refugees and immigrants who run from oppressive authorities and regimes and seek acceptance in strange places.
• In Jesus, God identified with people without political power. Jesus paid taxes but had no voting rights because he wasn’t a Roman citizen.
• In Jesus, God identified with homeless people. After all, he had no regular address as an adult.
• In Jesus, God identified with exploited people, ignored people, and mistreated people. They were his neighbors. Jesus hung out in their houses and fishing areas. He walked their dusty roads.
• In Jesus, God identified with subversive people. Jesus didn’t hang out in Jerusalem (home to the religious establishment). He never went to Rome (political capitol of the Mediterranean world). Jesus was even threatened with expulsion the first time he preached in his hometown synagogue. In Jesus, we meet God as subversive. God as radical. God as the counter-culture force.
• And in Jesus, God shatters the notion that holiness has nothing to do with being human, and that humanity can’t be holy. Instead, Jesus shows us that holy humanity loves people with empty stomachs, aching joints, terminal illnesses, and the labels religious and political leaders use when speaking about “the underprivileged,” all in God’s name.
On a personal level, God’s identification with us in Jesus removes our reason for claiming that God doesn’t or can’t understand what we’re going through. Jesus knew what it meant to be considered a threat to an established power even as a child. Jesus knew about being so overwrought with anxiety that he couldn’t sleep. Jesus knew what it meant to be misunderstood by relatives and his most intimate friends. We can’t say “God doesn’t understand what I’m going through” after Jesus.
And on a social level, God has shown us how to live as neighbors. Jesus befriended targeted people and outcasts. He attended weddings, funerals, and sick beds. Parents who had troubled children could approach Jesus. When we look at Jesus, we learn how neighbors are supposed to act.
All this means that we have some serious living to do if we believe that God moved into our neighborhood as Jesus and if we’re serious about following Jesus. This means we should be inspired—perhaps impelled might be a more accurate and forceful word—to re-think some things.
We should rethink what Christianity and being a Christian means. How and why has Christianity become identified with oppressive people, systems, and the neighborhood realities they produce?
The idea that God intentionally lived among poor and oppressed people ought to impel us to spend more exposing the hypocrisy and injustice associated with the commercial, political, religious, and cultural authorities that define how people live.
• Jesus intentionally ministered to lepers. What outcasts can approach our churches and hope to be welcomed in God’s name?
• Jesus welcomed women and children. What defenseless and vulnerable persons are we embracing and defending in God’s name?
• Jesus denounced religious and moral legalism. What rules and systems do we use as excuses for not loving other persons as ourselves, for ignoring their suffering, and for pretending we are somehow morally or ethically superior to them because we appear to be religiously correct?
• Jesus once called a political leader (Herod Antipas, younger son of Herod the Great) as a “fox” (Luke 13:32). Antipas was the cunning, cruel, and vicious ruler who ordered John the Baptist imprisoned after that preacher denounced his elopement with the wife of his half-brother. If we’re following Jesus in being neighbors to people who’ve been mistreated, who are we condemning and denouncing in God’s name? Why do so many Christians violate the example of Jesus by condemning and denouncing misconduct by powerless people and refusing to condemn and denounce the powerful?
When John’s Gospel tells us that God moved into our neighborhood as Jesus we’ve been told and shown that we can’t run around hustling “personal salvation” revivals and conferences if we’re serious about how Jesus lived. Instead of trying to save the world by holding revival meetings, Jesus tried to save the world by loving his neighbors, feeding his neighbors, healing his neighbors, protecting his neighbors, and encouraging his neighbors.
Where would the Jesus that John’s Gospel presents be welcome? Who among us would welcome that Jesus in our congregation? Would we introduce our friends and family to that Jesus? Better yet, is the love that Jesus demonstrated on display in our living? Does our faith tell anyone that God has moved into the neighborhood because we are following Jesus?
We live in neighborhoods where children are not getting the support they need from parents, teachers, and social systems. Respectfully, those children don’t need Christians to set up private sanctuaries we call academies. They need us to follow Jesus into their neighborhood, into their homes, and into their schools. Their parents and teachers need our encouragement, exhortation, and affirmation.
We live in societies where people become second-class citizens when they commit felonies. Even if placed on probation, they are permanently barred from living in public housing. They can’t get federal educational benefits. What are we doing to be neighbors for them? Where are we providing housing for them? How are we helping them become educated?
Convicted people don’t need Christians to clamor for more prisons. They need people who know God well enough in Jesus to move into the lives of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. Jesus spent time in jail. The God who moved into our neighborhood as Jesus came talking about freeing captives, not building more places of jails, prisons, and other places of captivity.
John’s Gospel shows us that God moved into our neighborhood as Jesus to love us, heal us, lift us, and set us free from the powers that oppress us, wound us, and hold us captive. Jesus tells us that God is a loving neighbor. God is a healing neighbor. God is a lifting neighbor. God is a liberating neighbor. In Jesus, God calls us to share God’s life as personal, social, moral, and constant lovers, healers, lifters, and liberators.
In Jesus, God has given us a flesh-and-blood example of neighborly love. If we are to follow Jesus, that love must define our living. When we become loving, healing, lifting, and liberating neighbors in God’s name, every neighborhood becomes where God’s love lives. In Jesus, God calls us to become part of the glorious work of loving, healing, lifting, and liberating neighborhoods, whether they are downtown or uptown, rural communities or urban cities, rich or poor, prestigious or decaying, respected or shunned.
In 2011, will you and I commit ourselves and our congregations to being loving, healing, lifting, and liberating neighbors with Jesus to unloved, wounded, fallen, and oppressed people? We will if the Word becomes flesh in us as it did in Jesus. Let us surrender ourselves to the loving power of God’s grace so that we become the neighbors Jesus would have us be in God’s name.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.