“Our Testimony”Dr. Paul A. Baxley John 1:10-18 Year A – Second Sunday after Christmas Day
Until now, every time I have approached the prologue of John’s Gospel with an eye toward preaching this magnificent text, I have sensed an almost irresistible temptation to try to preach the rich theology contained in these eighteen verses. After all, John 1:1-5 and John 1:14-18 have been indescribably influential on the formation of the church’s teaching about Jesus. So it is understandable that a preacher would be drawn back to them, time and time again. On those occasions, I am scarcely able to get out of the first five verses.
When I consider the words used by the Fourth Evangelist, which many commentators believe come from an ancient hymn, I have the profound and unmistakable sense that I am standing on holy ground, struggling for words to express truths that are simultaneously mystery and miracle. Never am I any more aware of the scandal of preaching, never do I struggle for words any more, never am I more contemplative of the hymn writer’s question: “What language shall I borrow?” than when praying for the gift of words to give faithful expression to these words about the Word.
But this time around I have allowed myself to be guided by the framers of the lectionary, who prescribe John 1:10-18 as the text for today and offer John 1:1-9 only as optional reading, probably for context. To focus on John 1:10-18 is to begin not in the provocative theological preamble, but instead in the realm of Jesus’ presence in human history and human response to him. We quickly discover that these latter verses of John 1 exist to allow Christians through the centuries to hear the testimony, the witness, of the very first Christians about Jesus. Listen to what they say!
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….From his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace.
Hear it again, this time in the provocative translation of Eugene Peterson:
The Word became 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 from inside out, true from start to finish….We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. (The Message)
Yes, what we have in these final verses is the compelling testimony of the very first believers. They are the ones who, when Jesus came in human form, received him, who believed on his name, who experienced the power of becoming the children of God. They are the ones who experienced the remarkable grace of first living in relationship with Jesus. John’s majestic prologue reaches its culmination in the testimony of the earliest Christians.
Lest we get the wrong impression, the Gospel is clear that many in the first century could offer this testimony. Not everyone could tell this story. When the Word became flesh, not everyone received him or believed in his name. The remainder of the Gospel, and much of the rest of human history, offer the stories and messages of those who rejected him, who worked against him, who did everything in their power to prevent him from fulfilling his mission. Later on, we hear their voices and we still hear, all around us, the voices of those who live in resistance to the Word made flesh.
But John 1 is not their moment to speak. In John 1, we do not hear from angry atheists, hopeful agnostics, or even the spiritual but not religious who seek some kind of inner harmony in communion with nature all by themselves. No, John 1 is our opportunity to hear first-hand from the very first people to live together in relationship with Jesus.
I want us to notice some things about their testimony.
First, before we even approach the meaning of their witness, pay attention to their tone.
When I listen to them speak, even two millennia later, I still believe I hear their voices breaking with excitement and awe; I think I hear a holy joy in their tone. I believe that an unmistakable confidence rises as they say: “The Word became flesh and lived among us!! We have seen his glory! From his fullness, we receive gift after gift after gift!”
Listen to the way Frederick Dale Bruner describes the testimony of the first believers: “This first generation of believers came haltingly to the conclusion—most critically at the Crucifixion, most conclusively at the Resurrection—that they had actually seen ‘the glory of an Only Son from a Father,’ and they can barely contain themselves.” (Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2012. p.34-35) Yes, this testimony of the first believers is unmistakably joyful, compelling in its confident conviction.
So, what is it that they say about their life together in Jesus?
First, they declare: “We have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son.”
We have seen his glory! What does that mean?
Alan Culpepper describes this glory as the mark of Jesus’ true identity. (R. Alan Culpepper, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, p.191)
George R. Beasley-Murray suggests: “The Evangelist will have had in mind the glory of the Christ which the witnesses saw in the signs he performed, and in the Easter resurrection. It was a revelation of glory such as could proceed alone from the Father.” (Beasley-Murray, John. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987, p.14)
But I can’t help but wonder if the early church wasn’t using language from its Jewish theological foundation in seeking a way to describe their experience with Jesus. The Old Testament speaks frequently of God’s glory. God’s glory is present in the tabernacle in the wilderness, in the temple at Jerusalem, and the Psalmists sing that God’s glory is above the heavens! Walter Brueggemann describes glory this way:
Glory is a way of speaking about Yahweh’s powerful, sovereign, transcendent presence, without making a claim that is flat, one-dimensional or crassly material…..The glory of Yahweh, Yahweh’s sovereign presence, may settle in the temple, but is more than and other than the temple, and may be seen and available elsewhere than the temple. (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1997. p. 671-672)
When heard this way, to speak of God’s glory is to speak of God’s very presence. When the early Christians tell us they saw glory, they are affirming that they experienced the very presence of God in Jesus Christ. Preachers, scholars and theologians have offered a wide range of explanations for when the early Christians saw this glory. Was it at Cana in Galilee? After all the Fourth Evangelist says it was there Jesus first revealed his glory. Was it when Jesus fed thousands of people with a boy’s lunch? Was it when Lazarus came staggering from the tomb? Was it at the cross? On Easter morning? All of the above?
However, what matters most here is not identifying when the first believers saw glory, but rather hearing them say with exuberance that in Jesus Christ, they experienced glory, they found themselves in the very presence of God.
Their testimony is not that Jesus was a good teacher who helped them make sense of a confusing life.
Their testimony is not that Jesus was a charismatic leader who could draw large crowds.
Their testimony is not that Jesus had a unique capacity to motivate people.
Their testimony is not that Jesus died a tragic death.
Their testimony, before anything else, is that in Jesus they saw glory!
They found themselves in the very presence of God!
As we listen to this testimony from the earliest believers, we cannot help but ask ourselves: when and where have we seen glory? When have we found ourselves in the presence of the living Christ?
Can we think of an experience in worship, perhaps as an anthem has been sung, a prayer offered, a sermon preached or the elements of communion when that we sensed that we were in the very presence of God?
Or do our minds go to a time in our own prayerful study of Scripture when we’ve known that Christ was saying to us: “Be still and know that I am God?”
Or have we seen his glory in times of service to his mission in our community or around the world? If there have been moments when we have seen glory, what can we do other than join our voices to those of the very first Christians and exuberantly declare: “We have seen his glory!”
Then first witnesses move on to offer a second word. “From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”
Peterson translates: “We live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift.” Frederick Dale Bruner suggests that this second affirmation should be: “Out of his fullness we have all received—one grace after another grace.” Their testimony goes on. They say, in Jesus our life is sustained by grace. Grace comes constantly. Grace is the power in which we live, the water in which we swim. They will later say that it is like a spring of water welling up to eternal life. From his fullness, we receive one grace after another, gift after gift after gift.
I wonder, of what grace do they speak? Do they speak of the grace of being called into relationship with Jesus? Do they speak of the grace of witnessing his miracles? Or are they speaking of the grace they received after Easter, when he appeared to them and gave them the Holy Spirit, empowering them for ministry. In that appearance, he could have condemned them for abandoning him, but instead they experience restoration, renewal and re-commissioning. From beginning to end, their experience with Jesus is grace after grace.
And hasn’t that been true for us? Can you think of times in your own life, and in the life of this church, when we have sensed that we were receiving grace upon grace?
The grace of forgiveness?
The grace of new relationship with Christ and each other?
The grace of a calling to serve?
The grace of a new life that we hold in our arms?
The grace of holy friendship?
The grace of safe passage through a season in our lives that we could not have survived apart from grace?
Can’t we join our voices with those of the very first believers and wonderfully announce: “From his abundance, we have received on grace after another!”
Today, we hear anew the testimony of the earliest Christians. Their word to the world about the Word is this: “We saw his glory! We live off his grace!”
Their testimony is not about the terrible people who rejected Jesus. It is not about the problems in the world in which they lived.
Their testimony is a shared, singular, Christ-focused declaration. In Christ, they experienced God’s very presence. In Christ, they are given one grace after another. Those encounters with glory and experiences of grace make them an exuberant people whose speech is focused on the Christ who moved into their neighborhood and changed everything about them.
No wonder as the world heard their testimony, more and more were drawn to their life.
No wonder more and more came to see glory and receive grace.
Listening to the testimony of the very first believers, I can’t help but wondering; what is our testimony? What is its content? What is our tone? Does our witness about our life in Christ carry the same exuberance? The same awe? Are we speaking out of our own experiences of glory and grace?
Too often, I believe I hear hesitancy in our testimony. I know too often I practice hesitancy, even uncertainty and fear. Many of us are afraid to say anything for fear of imposing on the privacy of others. So we hold our experiences of glory close and hesitate to speak about the grace we have received. That is a tragedy.
Even more troublesome, when the church speaks out in the world today, our message is either about how difficult it is to be church in a world that no longer shares our values, or it is an angry condemnation of all that is wrong in the world.
There has been much church-sanctioned speech in recent years that has expressed gloom and doom about the prospects for the church, or angry judgment about politicians, or behaviors of sinful people.
Far too often, our testimony, our message to the larger world has been much more about who and what we are against than it has been a witness to the One in whom we see glory and from we receive endless grace. Or, on other occasions, the testimony of mainline Protestants and moderate Baptists has been a statement of who we are not, rather than a declaration of the One from whom we still receive one grace after another.
Standing in the presence of the testimony of the first believers, I experience a profound and powerful challenge. I am convicted both by what they say and how they say it.
I believe as we hear their testimony anew, we hear a calling.
I believe we hear a call to rediscover the centrality of our relationship with Jesus,
to recognize anew the way God’s glory continues to be powerfully present in him,
and to remember the ways we continue to receive one grace after another from him, together.
Then, we are called to speak joyfully, confidently and compellingly out of those experiences of glory and grace. As we do so, we will know even more grace and the church will experience renewal through a rediscovery of Him who matters most.
All around us this time of the calendar year, people make resolutions. But I think this passage calls forth something much deeper than a fleeting good intention.
I think we are hearing a call to a more excellent,
a more exuberant,
a more exhilarating way of speaking about Jesus
and the glory and grace of our life together in him.
About the writer:
Dr. Paul A. Baxley has served as Senior Minister of First Baptist Church since June 2010. He is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Previously, he served as Senior Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina (2004-2010), as Director of Congregational Relationships for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2002-2004), as Campus Minister at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina (1999-2002) and as Associate Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson (1992-1999). He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A. Religion), Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (D. Min.)
Currently, Paul serves as moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia’s Coordinating Council. He also serves on the Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. He has previously served as chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He serves as a member of the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. While serving in Henderson, North Carolina, he was the chair of the local Ministers Community Partnership, which included area clergy from different denominational and racial backgrounds. In 2012, Paul was one of the presenters at the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation and delivered the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Paul is married to Jennifer Hoerning Baxley, a Physical Therapist who works for St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. They have four children (a 12 year old daughter Olivia, a 6 year old daughter Maria, and twin three year-olds Matthew and Caroline).
Scripture and Music
John 1:1-9, 10-18
We Are Called to Be God s People
Ask Ye What Great Things I Know
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
Jesus Christ, the Crucified
Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Be Thou My Vision
Offertory (John Ness Beck)
The Beatitudes (Stanley Glarum)
Blest Are They (David Haas)
Ubi Caritas (Durufle)
Offertory (John Ness Beck)
Be Thou My Vision
The Old Rugged Cross
He Was Despised (from Messiah)