Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Seeing Jesus in Surprising Places

Sunday we talked about the glorious Christ hymn in John chapter one. Most of my life, when I’ve read this passage, I focus on the Trinity part: “the Word was God.” Or, I find myself marveling at the incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Or, I am captivated by the picture of God’s intimacy with the Son and with us: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

But this Sunday we leaned into the line in verse 4: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” That one word astounds me: “all.” With our perceptions of God, we expect the passage to read something like: “that life was the light of his people” or “that life was the light of faithful people“or “that life was the light of good people.” But, astonishingly he says that the Word of God, the Christ of God, is the light of all people. And so, as we discussed this week, this means that Jesus shows up, revealing God, in surprising places. We will find elements of His truth, goodness, light and life, as one has put it, “even outside of the Christian franchise.”

Now, let’s be clear: that does not mean that “all paths lead to God,” or all truth is relative. Instead, I believe this passage helps us see that, if you encounter truth, goodness, wonder, or light in the world, you can be confident that the ultimate source of that light is the Son of God—whether or not the source of that truth has a “Christian” label on it. So, followers of Jesus have a great opportunity: to embrace and claim truth, wherever we find it. We also are called to great humility, as we marvel at how and through whom God chooses to work (not the least surprising is his astounding promise to work through broken people like me and anybody else who claims membership in a church).

One of the first people who helped me pay attention to this part of the Christ hymn is Augustine. Long ago, when confronted with questions about the relationship between Christian thought and pagan philosophy, Augustine invited believers to claim any truth they find, whatever the source, and to use it for the service of the Gospel. Here is his argument, using a brilliant analogy of Israel’s departure from Egypt:

If those who are called philosophers…have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use…. The Egyptians possessed idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forebears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner (Ex 3:21-22; 12:35-36)…. In the same way, pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions…. It contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed, some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not invent themselves, but which they dug out of the mines of providence of God, which are scattered throughout the world…. The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to their proper use for the proclamation of the gospel (excerpt from On Christian Doctrine, cited in Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 6).

What I find so compelling is not just that Augustine acknowledges truth even from pagan sources (as Paul did so many years before, see Acts 17:22-28); but that he recognizes the ultimate source of that truth in God himself. He sees God revealing himself in many diverse avenues, “scattered throughout the world.”

I just wonder how different our world and our relationships might be, if those of us who follow Jesus would begin our interactions with those around us by asking, where do I see Jesus in this person or situation? Too often, Christians lead with judgment. Now, there is a place for honest, respectful critique of harmful paths and ways. But I long for Christians today to be known more as people who seek truth—or better yet, who seek Truth (the Person and not just ideas, John 14:6)—wherever we might find it. I thank my God that he has chosen to reveal the light of his Son to and through all people.

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