“The Kingdom as Neighborhood”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And 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.
15(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.’”)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (NRSV)
The message of Genesis 1 and 2 is that God is the generative force behind the universe. Everything, animate and inanimate alike, derives from the willful act of the one whose essence is creativity, love, and relationship. The metaphor the ancient storyteller uses for God’s creative process is speech. The eternal energy that precedes imagination and thought hums, vibrates, and eventually explodes into an incarnate reality, aq unified voice, a uni-verse. God speaks and water, earth, wind, and fire tumble forth: “Let there be light…let the dry land appear…let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…let us make humankind in our image…”
As people of faith, we look within and without and make the conscious decision to trust that the Creation, fraught as it is with violence glorified and suffering ignored, is still a magnificent wonder. As the Psalmist says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” (Ps. 19:1-2) To affirm God’s presence is to proclaim that the Creation has purpose, and if it has purpose, then all that has being must be connected. God is the invisible connective energy at work in the Creation. To bring all things together, God creates community, possibility, and love-actioned hope.
In his paraphrase, The Message, Eugene Peterson rendered John 1:14 this way, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”1 The term neighborhood can be applied to far more than streets lined with houses inhabited by people, pets, and possessions. Anywhere that created things exist together in cooperation, contrast, and even conflict are neighborhoods. Our bodies are neighborhoods. Congregations are neighborhoods. Forests are neighborhoods. Rivers and lakes are neighborhoods. Oceans are the largest neighborhood subdivisions on the earth’s surface. Beneath the atmosphere, the earth itself is a neighborhood; and beyond it, our solar system is a neighborhood.
“What has come into being in [Christ],” says John, “was life, and the life was the light of all people.” As life and light, Jesus comes to scatter all the neighborhood-crushing darkness, all the selfishness, fear, and greed that not only seem to be constantly trying to disrupt God’s creative purposes in the world, but that always seem to be gaining an upper hand.
Increasingly, humankind does seem hellbent on denying its interconnectedness. Families, communities, and nations are choosing to close ranks and reject kinship with other families, communities, and nations. We’re choosing to define ourselves by skin color, national origin, language, religion, political opinion. We’re choosing to see those outside our subjective boundaries as other, as villains against whom we must strive, and whom we must defeat. We’re even choosing to reduce God to a tiny, vindictive, human-imaged idol who, we say, is on “our side,” as if God could actually be “against” anything that God creates and loves. Our self-inflicted chaos destroys community and condemns us to death and darkness. So, says John, God sends Jesus to reveal God’s heart, to declare that God’s desire and intent for the Creation is life and light, connection and neighborliness.
While John wrote his gospel long before our New Testament canon was established, he also wrote it well after all the other canonical gospels and epistles were written. When he begins his version of Jesus’ story, he specifically connects the Jesus narrative to the beginnings of Creation in Genesis, and to the beginnings of the Jewish community in Exodus. To me, this says that the scriptures, laden as they are with conflict and contradictions, create a kind of neighborhood. The stories and teachings say and mean the most when we read them in the context of the whole, and specifically in the context of foundational utterances such as: Love God. Love neighbor. Do justice. Follow me. Jesus’ own life says and means the most when we understand it as a presence in and for all of Creation, from its light-drenched inception about which we are continually learning, to the future about which we can’t really know anything, to the present in which we live as momentary stewards.
In his version of the Gospel, John acknowledges and distinguishes between the light and the darkness in Creation. And the two words he uses are Logos, the Word, and kosmos, the “world.” For John, the kosmos is eternally beloved by God, but it’s also a neighborhood in need of redemption. So, God sends the Logos, but not to condemn the kosmos. Jesus, the Logos, enters the Creation to declare the Creator’s love for all things. Jesus’ work as the bringer of light and life is the work of restorative justice. He comes to set us on paths of prayer, empathy, and loving action for the sake of neighbor and earth.
In talking about John the Baptist, John the Evangelist says, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John…He himself was not the light, but he came to witness to the light.” As ones who claim to follow Jesus, our calling is to live as grateful and humble witnesses to the light. None of us do that perfectly, but to commit ourselves to living as witnesses to the Logos in the midst of the kosmos is, as John says, “to become children of God.”
When talking about the importance of being children of God, doing justice, and demonstrating neighborliness, one person comes immediately to my mind. Few contemporary people have more publicly and gently lived and shared the Johannine vision of the kingdom of God than Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers held to and literally broadcast a vision of God’s holy intervention of the Logos into the kosmos, and he did so without condemnation and spite.
Said Mr. Rogers: “I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”2
To me, that statement of faith is a beautiful reiteration of John’s theology of the Logos, in particular, the great affirmation of John 3:17: “God did not send the (Logos) into the (kosmos) to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The work of the children of God in the kingdom of God is the work of neighboring one another in the name of Christ. Our purpose is to live by the light and love of the Logos in the midst of a kosmos that always needs to be reminded of its Belovedness.
What are your gifts for bearing witness to the Life, for reflecting the Light of God’s creative and redeeming presence? Our particular gifts reveal God’s purposes for our lives. They teach us that as children of God we are blessed to be blessings to others. And that blessedness leads each of us into our own truest and deepest joys, and all of us toward a more grateful, generous, just, and connected world.
(Another Mr. Rogers quotation used as the charge prior to the Benediction.)
“The older I get, the more I seem to be able to appreciate my ‘neighbor’ (whomever I happen to be with at the moment). Oh, sure, I’ve always tried to love my neighbor as myself; however, the more experiences I’ve had, the more chances I’ve had to see the uniqueness of each person… as well as each tree, and plant, and shell, and cloud… the more I find myself delighting every day in the lavish gifts of God, whom I’ve come to believe is the greatest appreciator of all.”3
1Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2002. p. 1916.