December 25, 2005

Jesus: Full of Grace and Truth
John 1:1-18

My children and I occasionally refer to my wife, affectionately of course, as the “mad mixer.” We open the cupboard to enjoy a bowl of our favorite cereal, only to discover that the box contains the remnants of several different varieties—Cheerios, Chex, Bran Flakes—all in one. Pitchers in the refrigerator are also carefully analyzed; you never know for sure what you might find in them. “But mom,” the kids have sometimes cried. “But honey,” I soon echoed, “Some things just don’t mix.”

Some things just don’t mix. Oil and water. Cats and mice. Punks and preppies. And in the world of ideas, some things don’t go together either. If you place two words side-by-side that cannot co-exist, you end up with what is called an oxymoron. “Good coffee,” for example. “Jumbo shrimp.” “Alone together.” “Pretty Ugly.” Or to mention two other oxymorons that topped a recent internet list: “Government organization” and “Microsoft works.” Some things just don’t mix.

In the opening chapter or prologue of his Gospel, John makes no mention of mangers or magi, no reference to sheep or shepherds. Instead, he introduces Jesus by using such familiar images as “word,” “life” and “light.” Then, John concludes his introduction with what appears to be an oxymoron—Jesus came, took on flesh and walked among us, “full of grace and truth.” Grace and truth. Two concepts, two characteristics that for many people just don’t seem to mix.

There are, first of all, the “truth” people. These are the ones who cling tenaciously to what they believe. Those who defend with great vigor all of their convictions, great and small, and insist that everything be done in a certain way. For such “truth” people, extending grace is the equivalent of violating sacred rules and norms.

Then there are the “grace” people. These are the ones who can go with the flow on virtually everything. Whatever anyone thinks or does is fine with them, and they appear to have no non-negotiable standards whatsoever. For such “grace” people, to acknowledge, let alone defend, the “truth” would be to offend someone else.

Grace and truth, it often seems, just don’t mix. And yet John, in introducing Jesus, tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth (1:14, 17).”

Let’s think together first about truth. John says a fair bit about truth, using the term some 25 times in his Gospel (compared to 1 in Matthew and 3 each in Mark and Luke). Truth, to begin with, can refer to that which is factually accurate and reliable. “Tell the truth,” we say to our children. Truth, however, involves more than simple accuracy, depicting as well the qualities of dependability, faithfulness and moral uprightness. A “truthful” person is one who can be trusted, someone you can count on to do what she promises. A truthful person walks blamelessly, according to the Psalmist (15:2; 85:10), and both Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of truth and righteousness in the same breath (Is. 48:1; Jer. 4:2). A truthful person not only speaks the truth, but lives it as well.

When Jesus took on flesh, he was full of truth. What Jesus said was reliable. His depiction of God and humanity was dependable. And his very life provided the lens through which all of us might finally see. Jesus didn’t simply talk about the truth. He embodied it. Jesus didn’t merely explain truth. He modeled it. This is at least one of the crucial ideas that John had in mind when he compares Jesus to the law of Moses. The difference between the law of Moses and the “truth” of Jesus is the difference between talking and demonstrating. While the law establishes parameters and makes us aware of right and wrong, Jesus lived a godly life right before our eyes. Jesus modeled what the law could only describe.

Think of it this way. Imagine that you have no carpentry skills (this will be easier for some of you than others!), and you have just arrived from a country where everything is constructed out of mudbrick. You’re now asked to build a wooden shed, yet you haven’t the foggiest idea of what a shed even is. Quickly, someone hands you written instructions—the law—that outlines the necessary steps, but you just stare. Finally, someone else leads you aside to a place where a master carpenter had just erected such a shed. And as you look at it, you actually see what those written instructions could only describe.

The Word became flesh and lived among us. We saw him, and he was blazing with truth. The money-changers in the temple encountered truth in the flesh when Jesus demonstrated that the worship of his Father should never be reduced to mere consumerism (2:13 ff.). The Jewish theologian, Nicodemus, saw the fire of truth when, all of his education and experience notwithstanding, Jesus asked him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you cannot understand what I am saying (3:10)?” The restored paralytic came face to face with truth when Jesus said, “Now, don’t sin anymore (5:14).” A group of unnamed, unbelieving listeners were numbed by truth in the flesh when Jesus responded to them, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires (8:44).” And Judas Iscariot, that 1st century opportunist who grew agitated when Mary wasted costly ointment on our Lord, encountered truth when Jesus rebuked him and said, “Leave her alone (12:7).” The Word came and lived among us, John writes, and he was full of truth. He told the truth. He modeled the truth. He enabled us to see the truth. He expects us to live the truth ourselves.

There are people who read a great deal more than I do. When I am around them, I feel unlearned. There are people who have a vast array of skills in areas where I am lacking. When I am near them, I feel incompetent. There are still others who seem to be so righteous, so far along on the spiritual journey. When I am in their company, I feel unclean. If I feel these various feelings when I’m around such people, how am I to react when I genuinely encounter Jesus, the Christ? How am I to feel when this embodiment of truth comes along my pathway, as he did with these and others in John’s Gospel? What am I to do when he exposes my blemishes, my inconsistencies, my quirks, my devilish attitudes and desires, my sins? When I genuinely gaze upon Jesus, not just hear about him through word of mouth, and when I encounter first-hand this blatant demonstration of truth, how can I help but join in with Isaiah: “Woe is me, for I am indeed a man of unclean lips.” What am I to do?

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, John tells us. He was full of truth, yes, but…? Full of grace. John doesn’t have quite the same fascination with the term “grace” as he does with “truth.” In fact, the word doesn’t appear anywhere else in this particular Gospel outside of chapter 1. The task of carefully discussing and explaining the far-reaching implications of grace is left, first and foremost, to Paul. But oh how richly John illustrates grace for us.

Grace finds expression in two general ways in John’s Gospel. There is, first of all, what we might call the grace of generosity. An unmerited out-pouring of someone else’s riches upon those who are without. I was just a young boy, perhaps 5 or 6 years of age. My dad was a mechanic, and he had to work hours and hours, just to cover everyday expenses. There was rarely anything left over from his weekly paycheck after the bills were paid.

On one particular occasion, I was at the garage with him, my greasy little hands holding a wrench that I didn’t know how to use. I went to my dad and asked, “Do you think I could have a nickel to go up the stone driveway to Butz’ store? A nickel in those days, by the way, would easily buy a pack of Tasty-Kake cupcakes. My dad reached into his pocket, pulled out a quarter—five times more than I had asked for—and said, “Go ahead, son, and keep the change.” “Keep the change,” he said to me. The grace of generosity.

But there is also the grace of forgiveness: an unmerited extension of mercy to those who are unquestionably guilty. I’ve told this story before on occasion, perhaps even here, but it has shaped me deeply over the years. I was a senior in seminary, and I was studying an ancient language that no one even speaks anymore. During one of the exams, I copied from the paper of the person sitting next to me. Here I was, a senior seminarian, preparing for ministry, and I willfully cheated on the test. Well, I wasn’t caught, but neither could I live with myself. So I went to the professor’s office later that day. There he was—profoundly, religiously and impeccably trained—a man of deep piety and immense learning. He was, to use John’s terminology, “full of truth.” I was guilty and, given the seminary’s guidelines, I could not only have been given a “0” for the exam, but an “F” for the course. “I forgive you,” he said, as he put his hand on my shoulder. “I forgive you.” Words that to this day reverberate throughout my soul. The grace of forgiveness.

When the Word came to live among us, he was full of truth, yes, but he was overflowing with grace. And John weaves throughout his Gospel stunning scenes of such grace. Jesus was generous, throwing not quarters, but dollars everywhere. He lavishly provided for those in need. He turned water into the best wine, never rebuking the hosts in Cana for poor planning (2). He fed the multitudes, never criticizing them for failing to bring their lunches (6). And he even told the disciples to keep the change! He promised his nomadic, sometimes homeless followers that he was preparing a mansion beyond belief (14).

Jesus was also forgiving, extending mercy to those who were unquestionably guilty. The testimony of the Samaritan woman, who had had five husbands and who was shacking up with someone else when Jesus came her way, transformed an entire village (4:39). Another woman, caught red-handed in adultery, her guilt never a matter of debate. “I don’t condemn you,” she was told. And Thomas—poor, doubting Thomas—to him the invitation to touch freely the risen Lord’s side was nothing less than a billboard proclaiming, “It is O.K., Thomas. I forgive you.”

“Keep the change. I forgive you.” When the Word became flesh, John tells us, he came to live among us, and he was full of truth and grace. So how is it that the two can co-exist? Does Jesus abandon truth in some instances in favor of grace? Does he say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter whether you listen to me or not. Just go on doing whatever you please?” Or does he disregard grace in order to promote what is true? Does he say, “I’m going to push you to get this right if it is the last thing that I ever do?” Neither. Rather, Jesus weaves the two together in his absolutely wonderful way of bringing a lost world back to himself. “Truth will be truth whether grace exists or not,” according to Clive Calver, “but only grace makes truth accessible to the masses.” Truth without grace is rigid and legalistic. Grace without truth is no grace at all. But when the two are woven together, a wonderful symphony results. Grace makes truth liberating rather than confining. Grace makes truth encouraging rather than disheartening. Grace makes truth transforming rather than deadening. Grace doesn’t negate the truth—it converts it into a channel for change.

When my seminary professor forgave me over 25 years ago now, he did not simply let me off the hook. He wanted me to learn, and he never softened his academic expectations—he stressed “truth.” But he also allowed me to take the exam again, and he even invited me a short time later to serve as a Hebrew instructor at the same seminary. I came face to face with “truth” in his insistence that I do my work thoroughly and well—he did not want anything less than my best. But I also experienced his “grace” when he invited me to put the past behind me and to move on. And I’ve been using and teaching Hebrew ever since.

Grace and truth. A theological oxymoron for us. And yet, it is the very message of Christmas. St. Augustine once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them (Gerald May, p. 17). When Jesus comes in truth, he enables us to see all of the things that are filling our hands. All of the stuff that we play around with. All of the things that occupy our thoughts and time. But when Jesus comes in grace, he invites us to put those things down, whatever they are and however long we have held on to them, and to begin anew, enjoying the riches of his glory. When Jesus comes in truth, he shows me my poverty and my guilt. But when Jesus comes in grace, he shows me his hands and his feet, assures me that he has paid all of my debts, and says, “I forgive you. Keep the change.” “Keep the change,” he repeats, “for the next time that you start thinking again that you have to earn my goodness and favor.”