Full of Grace and Truth

N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham

(Part 1 of 2)
Hebrews 1.1–4; John 1.1–18

If I asked you where in John’s Gospel you would find a wedding scene, several of you would know the answer at once. Don’t worry; I am not going to use the excuse that this is Christmas Day to turn this august congregation into a glorified Sunday School, though actually Christmas Day of all days is a great time to celebrate childlikeness and some of you may perhaps have been enjoying doing so already. But the obvious wedding in St John is of course in chapter 2, the wedding at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus changes the water into wine. But I want to suggest to you this morning, as a matter of considerable importance for understanding our Christian pilgrimage and mission, that there is a wedding of equal if not greater significance in the famous passage we just heard, the extraordinary Prologue to John’s Gospel.

John’s Prologue, as again many of you will know, is like the great doorway to a great building. These eighteen verses, so apparently simple yet, like their primary Old Testament background in Genesis 1, so utterly profound, introduce us to the subject-matter of the whole gospel. For many generations and in many traditions they have been read as the Christmas morning gospel, because of their central and earth-shattering announcement: And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. That is the mystery which lies at the heart of Christian faith and life, mission and ministry, the mystery at which the other two great monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, completely balk: that the one true and living God should pour out his very self into created flesh, that the playwright should come on stage and take the leading part because nobody else can play it. And that God-in-human-flesh theme isn’t a flash in the pan, a one-off experiment which, having riskily been tried in Jesus himself, God quickly gave up. Part of the whole point of John’s Gospel is that when the Word made Flesh accomplishes his work of glory, love and passion, he pours out his own Spirit on his followers so that they, too, can become Words-become-Flesh. This, too, is stressed in the Prologue: as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, born not in the normal way but with a new birth from God. We can watch it happening immediately after the resurrection, when Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to tell the eleven ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father.’ Christmas, in other words, isn’t supposed to be just a truth about Jesus. It’s supposed to be, in utter dependence on Jesus, a truth about us. Christmas isn’t a spectator sport. It’s an invitation. And, yes, it’s a wedding invitation.

So where is the wedding in John’s prologue? Back to Sunday School again, this time with a guess-the-text puzzle. I said that Genesis 1 was the primary Old Testament background for John’s prologue; but what are the other major Old Testament passages that John is echoing? Hands go up in this imaginary classroom: yes, Proverbs 8, God’s wisdom through which the world was created – very good; Isaiah 55, with the Word like rain and snow coming down from above and accomplishing God’s work through the ministry of the Servant: yes, excellent; Ben-Sirach 24 – well, yes, not exactly the Old Testament but very important. But what about Psalm 85?

Think about it with John in mind. ‘Grace and Truth are met together; justice and peace have kissed each other. Truth springs up from the ground; and justice looks down from heaven.’ And suddenly that little phrase in John’s prologue, ‘grace and truth’, so easy to say that it just slips down almost unnoticed, like the second glass of ginger wine, stands out in three dimensions and demands that we pay attention to it. My friends, Christmas is in one sense all about a birth, but in another sense it is about a wedding: the marriage of grace and truth, which is in fact the marriage of heaven and earth. The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace; for the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. When John repeats something in this way, he wants us to pay it close attention.

It’s all too easy, reading a phrase like ‘grace and truth’, to suppose that these abstract nouns denote two of the many miscellaneous good things which are given to us in Jesus Christ, along (that is) with justice, peace, salvation, wisdom and a host of others. And in a sense that’s true. But with Psalm 85 in the background – and I’ll say more about that in a moment – a new possibility opens up, which means that among the mysterious envelopes under the Christmas tree we discover an invitation to this wedding.

Psalm 85 is a prayer for restoration, for forgiveness, for the mercy and grace of God to break through the long dark night of Israel’s exile and bring about that new life for which God’s people ached. It is, in other words, an Advent psalm; and we who have prayed our way through Advent these last four weeks ought to know something of its longing and hope. But then, as the poem turns its corner into the second half – it’s not long, it’s like a sonnet, you could sit down and read it in two or three minutes, though you’d better take a bit longer to get the best out of it – the Psalmist has a moment of vision, and this is what he sees. First, he sees that God will speak a fresh word, a word of peace to his people, to those who have faith. Second, he sees that God’s glory will come once more to dwell in the land – in other words, that the Temple will be restored, and the tabernacling presence of the living God will come to live there in full majesty. And, thirdly, he sees that when this happens it will be like a cosmic wedding, with heaven and earth coming together in a rich and fruitful embrace: grace and truth will meet at last, justice and peace will kiss each other; truth will spring up from the earth, and justice look down from heaven. Psalm 85 is, in other words, a Christmas poem: Advent is over, God’s fresh Word is spoken, breathed out, received by those who have faith deep in their hearts, and God’s glory, his tabernacling presence, has come to live in our midst. The word became flesh, and dwelt – the word means, ‘pitched his tent’, or ‘tabernacled’ – amongst us, and we gazed upon his glory. And in this glory we find the coming together of heaven and earth, of grace and truth.

So what does it mean that grace and truth come together in this way? Both are gifts of God, yet in this Psalm grace is the fresh love of God coming from beyond our world, and truth is the plant which springs up, strong and tall and resilient, from within our world. As I said, the phrase suddenly becomes three-dimensional. Something is happening before our very eyes, as we gaze upon the baby in the manger, the Word made Flesh, and reflect on what it all means. God’s gift of his own very self isn’t, as people so often imagine, a kind of alien invasion, an intrusion from outside. It is of course a matter of grace, of (that is) totally undeserved mercy, the free gift of an uncaused and overflowing love – and if you want to see what free and overflowing love looks like and feels like, and which of us doesn’t, then read the rest of John’s gospel and marvel at Jesus loving his own who were in the world and loving them to the uttermost. But this free grace, coming to us from beyond the world, is precisely coming from the one who created the world in the first place and made it to be a place of truth, of solid reality – the reality about which T. S. Eliot commented sadly that humans can’t bear too much of it – so that when grace happens, truth happens. And in the baby in the manger we see them both happening; we see them both married for ever. In the Word made Flesh we gaze upon the glory not just of the living God, coming to us in utter love in the person of this tiny baby, but of God’s design for his whole world. As St Paul put it, God’s plan from the beginning was to unite, in Christ, all things, things in heaven and things on earth. And part of the point of Christmas is that this marriage of heaven and earth, of grace and truth, has now begun and isn’t going to stop until it’s complete. Welcome to the wedding.

I hope you don’t find this all too abstract. That’s always a danger with heavyweight theological terms like ‘grace’ and ‘truth’, and part of the point of John’s gospel is of course that words become flesh and that you can see what they mean because look – there they are, walking around. And we desperately need them to be walking around right now, in the world and in the church. Let me sum it up like this: our world has tried for far too long to get truth without grace; and the church has been in danger for a long time of offering grace without truth. Only when we put them together can we find the way out of the darkness and into the true Christmas light.

Article excerpted from the sermon, Full of Grace and Truth (2006), originally appearing on N.T.Wrightpage.com; Used by Permission of the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright




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