This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/26/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 1:1-18 & Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
In the beginning was the Word. Before the Big Bang and the dinosaurs. Before the Garden and the Flood. Before you, or me, or any human being who ever lived – in the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God. And the word was God. Everything that exists was created through him. This Word was light shining in that primordial darkness. And despite everything that has happened in the last few years, in the last century, in all that we have seen in human history up to this point – the darkness has never overcome the light.
John writes to us about this invincible, eternal light, and we hear a confirming echo in the vision of George Fox, recorded in his Journal:
I saw… that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.
This ocean of light and love: the Word of God was with God in the beginning, and the darkness could never overcome it. This Word that God spoke has always been speaking. The fire of a hundred billion galaxies – everything that has been made, everything we can imagine and so much more – all coming through this divine principle, this infinite personality, this Word.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He dwelt among us as a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. This Word that was in the beginning, with God and of the same being as God, came to be one of us. The Word became flesh. God became human. And we have seen his glory.
Quakerism is a movement that emerged to call men and women back to the primal experience that filled the early Christians, who met Jesus through the Holy Spirit and fire. The ones who took the victory announcement of Jesus to the far ends of the earth – Europe, Africa, Asia. The church was already global before Constantine. Before popes and reformations and denominations was the Word.
As Quakers, we stand in a tradition that is radical, precisely in that it calls us back to the authentic roots of Christianity. What we preach is not a new gospel; it is a gospel that in every generation must be received anew: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Quakerism is not some wild reinterpretation of Christianity, much less a new religion. It’s an expression of the same message that the early church heard. It’s an invitation for us to continue to hear and obey the Word that was in the beginning.
Together with the original disciples and the early church, we testify: We are bearers of the fire that lit the Big Bang. We are witnesses to the Word-become-flesh. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
We have seen this glory, because this glory is shining through in our lives. The Word that was in the beginning has come to dwell with us. I mean this metaphorically, yes – but I also mean it literally. The literal presence of Jesus with us is the foundation of the Quaker movement. As George Fox and other early Quakers repeated so often: Christ is here to teach his people himself.
Most of us have never seen Jesus with our eyes, like Mary and the Twelve did. Most of us have never touched the wound in his side, or eaten fish with him by the sea. So how is it that we can say that Jesus is here to teach us, except perhaps as a pretty metaphor? How can we say that we know God, when – as John writes – “no one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”?
The message of the early Quaker movement is clear: We do know Jesus. We have seen the Son. We have heard the Word that was in the beginning. He has come to teach his people himself. Not merely an idea about him. Not just an emotional experience driven by hormones, brain chemistry, or wish-fulfillment. Not only the Bible to be read as a legal code while we ask questions like, “What would Jesus do?”
No – Jesus is risen from the dead and has come to teach his people himself. It is not the scriptures! It’s not Quaker tradition. It is not even the sense of peace you get when you feel really close to God. It has to be him, the Word that was in the beginning.
In our reading from Galatians this morning, Paul reminds us that our lives cannot rest on anything except trust in this very real, very much present, resurrected Jesus. He reminds us of all the things that we were in bondage to before we came to have faith in the Word that was in the beginning and which has come to dwell among us.
Paul talks about the Law. In his own context he was specifically referring to the Jewish law. But in our case, the Law has additional layers of meaning. After nearly two thousand years as a distinct religious community, Christianity has come to have its own law. In so many times and places, religion becomes more about following a set of rules; belonging to a certain societal order; not rocking the boat.
With enough time, Christianity becomes in some ways just another human religion, smeared on top of the original encounter with Christ. Religion becomes a temple built to keep God inside. Religious people are often terrified of the tented God of the desert who leads by smoke and fire. Like the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai, we prefer someone else to talk to God for us. We prefer a mediated religion, rather than the substance of direct relationship.
This is why Quakerism exists in the first place. The early Quakers were called by God to clear away the dead letter of Christian legalism that they saw in their society. To make room for the Spirit that teaches us to follow in the living way of Jesus. Even when it made the religious leaders murderously angry.
What made this possible? How did Quakers dare to challenge the authority of a society that had “always done things this way,” treating religion as a lever for human control and social status? A nice philosophy wasn’t enough. Quakers did not have the impact that they did simply because George Fox had a brilliant insight one day. One does not lay down one’s life for the SPICES testimonies!
So what fueled the early Quaker movement? The Word became flesh and dwelt among them. He dwelt among them in the same way as he had among the early church. It was not a theory for these people. It was a lived reality of walking with Jesus, day by day.
The early Quaker experience was exactly what Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians: George Fox, Margaret Fell, James Nayler, and so many others received adoption as sons and daughters of God. They didn’t just hear about Jesus. They didn’t even just meet him. They came to say with the apostle Paul, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!” – no longer slaves to the law, but legitimate children. Heirs.
Heirs to God. Brothers and sisters to Jesus. Could it be possible? Could we actually become like Jesus? Can we become like God?
Yes. The answer is yes. And this is not just a Quaker answer – this is the answer of the authors of the New Testament – Luke, John, Paul, and James, among others. If we are heirs of God, then we have become children of God, and we receive an inheritance from God – not merely in status, but in character. Through faith we have become brothers of Jesus, and through the incarnation God gives us power to become like him. In the words of the early church father Athanasius of Alexandria:
…for as the Lord, putting on the body, became man, so we men are deified by the Word as being taken to Him through His flesh.
Or as Athanasius puts it in another place, even more baldly and scandalously: “[Jesus] was made man so that we might be made God.”
This is not some raving madman or heretic – this is a person who is affirmed by every Christian community as being a respected teacher of the faith. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that we would be able to become like him in every way. Jesus is here to teach his people himself, and it has fundamentally changed the nature of our universe!
We here at Berkeley Friends Church, and Quakers in general, do not stand alone when we talk about the reality of Jesus’ presence and his ability to transform our character. Christ-in-us is able to make us people who are not just admirers of God, but actually like him in character.
This is not a new doctrine that we made up. This is the consistent witness of the early church. Not just the first generation, either, but venerable church leaders and theologians in the first several centuries of the ancient church. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and many more. This teaching is ancient, it is true, and it is the rightful inheritance of every Christian.
This is the promise of Jesus’ birth: The Word that was in the beginning became flesh like us, so that we could become divine like him. Sons and daughters by adoption. Brothers and sisters of Jesus. Brought into his likeness and image by his grace. Transformed by his love, and becoming agents of transformation.
It’s bigger than you think. It’s bigger than we’ve been told by our own modern-day Christian law. We are not to be mere admirers of the baby in the manger. God does not want our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He wants our everything. He wants our lives, transformed. He wants us to become like the baby in the manager. And he has given us power to accomplish that transformation. He is here, now, to do that work in us.
Have we decided that it is time? This Christmas, will the Word be made flesh in us?