He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 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.
In the run-up to Christmas we all had the joys of looking for Christmas cards for our nearest and dearest. I quite enjoy this process and can sometimes be found sniggering quietly in the card shop at all the cards that wouldn't be suitable to give to Alison, but which are amusing nevertheless. But every year, at both Christmas and again at Valentine's, there are cards that start with the question, 'What is a wife?'. I find myself thinking that if I gave that to Alison, when she opened it she'd look at me and say, 'Well if you don't know by now sunshine, then what have you been doing these last 26 years?!'
It does, however, raise an interesting point with that question, 'What is?' The psalmist uses it in awe of the expanse of God when he writes, 'What are we that you should be mindful of us; mere human beings that you should seek us out?'
In philosophical terminology this is all about ontology and functionality. Let me explain: Ontology is what you are, and functionality is what you do; what flows out of what you are. So ontologically I am a human. My function, what I do as a human, is to grow, to learn, to work, to love, and, for many humans, to make more of our species. We often have eight-legged friends in our house who ontologically are spiders. Their function is to catch flies and eat them. You get the idea.
So what I want to think about is how, through Christ, God changed our human ontology from children of men and women to being children of God, and in so doing he also changed our function in the world.
The Gospel reading describes a clear difference between us and Christ himself. This passage from the beginning of John's Gospel sets out something which shows a clear ontological distinction between what we are and what we can be as children of God, and what Jesus is as Son of God. The distinction comes from a comparison in what we can read at the beginning and the end of the passage. At the beginning we have 'But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.'
'Children of God': in Greek it says 'tekna' - children, 'theou' - of God. In the Old Testament you find similar phrases, although usually it refers to 'sons of God', a phrase often applied to a king or someone who has shown themselves to be distinctly holy.
But at the end of this paragraph we read of how Jesus, the Word of God, is being described differently. Here the writer says, 'It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.' The key phrase here is 'God the only son.' In Greek it says 'monogenēs' - only begotten, 'Theos' - God.
The difference is between 'Children of God', and 'God the Son'. There is a clear distinction. Jesus is ontologically different from us. We can become daughters and sons of God, but only he is God the Son. We are, and forever will be, created beings. He, on the other hand, is uncreated, and through him everything that has been made was created. The reason this is important in what John is saying is that it is because it is only God the Son, the Word, who is himself divine, who can transform children of men and women into being children of God. He can effect an ontological change in who we are.
We will also remain ontologically different from Jesus because he is God the Son, whereas we are children of God. But we become more like him, more like God, and that is what is intended; that was the whole point of the incarnation, that we are ontologically changed from children of people to children of God, a miracle that could happen because the God the Son became a son of Mary, or as he sometimes called himself, 'Son of Man.'
How has he changed our ontology from children of humans to children of God?
It began with being born as one of us, born into our humanity. He lived a human life, so it continued through the process of growing up. It became focussed through his earthly ministry towards his death, and then more sharply focussed at his resurrection.
That was the key, because when he died, the earthly body that died was clearly made of the stuff of this world; his physicality was as a son of Adam. But his resurrection body was different. He could still eat and drink, but now he could appear in a locked room or disappear at will. This new body was somehow more than the old one. This new body was immortal.
The final part of the change he brought to humanity was his ascension to heaven, and this is crucial; Jesus, when he ascended to heaven, did not leave his risen humanity behind but took it with him; his humanity was incorporated into the Godhead. In this way a door was opened and an invitation given, that the children born of dust could be adopted into heaven to be children of God.
But an ontological change implies a functional change as well.
Something, or some things, begin to change in what we are to do here on earth as we live out this life. To understand the changes in function we need to look at the life of Jesus. If we are adopted into his family and become children of God, and if the Spirit of God dwells within us, then we should be being gradually changed.
Jesus was and is a lot of things, but his main function here on earth, it seems to me, was to take evil out of the world. To challenge it where necessary, to respond to suffering, and to pro-actively work to improve the lives of others and their relationship with God. The clearest focus for that was on the cross when he took on to himself all the worst that humanity could dish out, and he didn't respond. It didn't go any further than him. He absorbed it and took it into death with him when he died. The key thing about that was that he didn't reflect it back. It was in his power to respond, to draw deeply on heaven's well throughout his ordeal, but he didn't. You could think of him as being like a black hole with the ultimate event horizon. Evil is sucked in and lost forever.
So if we are to be like him, if we are ontologically changed to be children of God, then it strikes me that our function on this planet should be related to his. In practical terms I think you can divide it into responses to evil and responses to suffering. Where we can limit evil we should.
But it can also be a willingness to permit evil to go no further than you. So if someone tells you some juicy gossip, you simply don't pass it on. If someone cuts you up when you're driving, you let it go. We are to be people with no thought of revenge because in so doing we quite literally take evil out of the world. Do, of course, remember that not enacting vengeance is not the same as there being no justice, but even there perhaps we should be thinking more of restorative justice rather retributive justice. How can our prison systems be made to work so that people climb out of crime rather than prisons being a place where people can learn to be better criminals? To do such things are Christlike.
Similar questions come with a response to suffering. How can we pro-actively divert some of our energies to helping others in their need? Those things become our motivators in how we live out our lives.
I recognise that this is a complex issue, but remember this; you are already sons and daughters of God. That is what Christ accomplished by his incarnation. The challenge to all of us is to think about what that means in terms of how we live. A change in ontology should lead to a change in functionality.If we are being changed in who we are, then we should be being changed in what we do, especially with regards to others.