There has been lots of reflection about the year 2020 and I don’t want to add to that punditry, because there has been so much of that in the last few weeks. What I’d like to do in these next few minutes is reflect on John’s 14th verse of chapter 1 and how that informs us as the Church as we begin 2021.
I came across an article by Walter Brueggemann from the end of October of this past year. Brueggemann is a retired professor of Old Testament, an ordained United Church of Christ minister and someone who continues to offer powerful wisdom regarding the Church’s mission. The article was published in the online website, “Church Anew,” and was called, “Truth or Consequence in 2020.” Brueggemann reflected on the question of truth, and the challenge that he raised for the Church universal is to stand by the call that the truth of the Church is to radically love our neighbour as God loves us, never more important than in this COVID world.
In raising the question of loving our neighbour as truth, Brueggemann quoted John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us; we saw the Word’s glory—the favour and position a parent gives an only child—filled with grace, filled with truth.” (The Inclusive Version) For Brueggemann, the linkage of truth and grace by John is key to how we love our neighbour and be in the world.
John’s Gospel is concerned about truth. John made the claim that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” At the end of the Gospel, we hear of the exchange between Pilate, representing the Empire of Rome, and empires in general, calling into question the truth of Jesus. Jesus said that he came to bear witness to the truth and Pilate questioned what that truth was.
The truth of which Jesus spoke, I believe, is the truth of loving our neighbour as God loves us—that’s a radical thing to do. Jesus embodied the love of God as truth and as an alternative Kingdom to that of Herod and Pilate. And in fact, part of the reason why I’ve liked the term Kin-Dom (spell it) rather than Kingdom is that it gets at that truth which Jesus embodied—that we are kin to one another and to God’s creation and how we act and behave in the world begins and ends with that idea; the truth is, also, that we aspire to this Kin-Dom community. How we treat one another begins with love for the other; and the outcomes of our decisions are about how the world fares with respect to honour, love and life for all.
In John 1:14, the two words, “grace” and “truth,” are keywords. As Brueggemann reminded us, for our Western way of thinking, the word “truth” is a loaded word. Grace, God’s self-giving love and generosity, is evident. Truth, however, in our Western world, influenced heavily by René Descartes, is often now treated as fact and reduced to a propositional certitude.
John, however, reinforced truth as found in the Hebrew Scriptures as it relates to faithfulness to the Covenant. These two words, grace and truth, reveal who God is for us… a God of Covenantal love, of righteousness and steadfast love—which is the grace part—and faithfulness—which is the truth part. Over and again, in the Psalms and Exodus and Judges and elsewhere, the word for “steadfast love” or “righteousness” is paired with “faithfulness.” Our God, and Jesus as the embodiment of God, is all about steadfast love and faithfulness. Steadfast love as in covenantal love and faithfulness to neighbour and promises made for life and community.
Brueggemann made the point in his article that rather than truth as a propositional certitude or fact, truth, coming out of the Hebrew Scriptures and John’s Gospel, is a relational term that declares that God—and Jesus as the Word made flesh—will relate to the world in self-giving and grace-filled ways. And thus, following the biblical trajectory, we do all that we can to care for our neighbour in self-giving ways. And we stand together against vested interests and those who choose to exploit others for their own ends and gain. We humbly stand together to combat a virus that has devastated the world.
The truth is that God gives God’s self away in love and did so in Jesus. This is the truth of which Pilate couldn’t conceive—that one can embody this self-emptying love in vulnerable flesh and blood. The vulnerable love of one’s neighbour in a self-emptying way is not the way of empire and the Herods and Pilates of the world.
For me, as we continue to seek to live faithfully in 2021, the Church—through John’s declaration that the Word became flesh and dwells among us as well as the crux of the whole Christmas message—is that we are called to this self-emptying love with respect to our neighbours… and not just our human neighbours, but the neighbour that is creation. One aspect of the empire that we face in our world today is the empire of self-promotion and ego, the empire of selfishness, authoritarianism and self-centredness. The self-emptying love of neighbour exposes this self-interest for what it is… illusion and falseness, what the Church calls, in essence, sin.
The Church in 2021 is called to proclaim the truth of God’s self-emptying love for neighbour and others, and how, through grace and in truth, Jesus embodies this neighbourly love.
What will be the issues we face in 2021? Certainly, the response to the COVID pandemic will continue to be front and centre, as will the energy to dismantle racism and to take apart the systemic policies that have entrenched racism. The Church is called to continue to advocate for a truth-telling, relational love that, as Brueggemann puts it, “funds generative political energy, confidence in public institutions, and public sustenance for the ‘least.’” We love our neighbour and seek climate justice, an end to poverty, assistance with drug addiction and telling the truth of God’s self-emptying presence in all that has life.
As I age and look back on my life in ministry, I’ve more and more come to appreciate what someone in Matheson in NE Ontario once said. She told me—probably close to the time that I left—that I’d challenged the church to think about what it means to be in community and what it means to radically love our neighbour as God loves us. What does God call us to do, but “to seek justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God?” Isn’t that all about self-emptying love?
 Walter Brueggemann is an ordained United Church of Christ minister who taught the Old Testament for many years. He is 87 years old, but still vitally writing books and articles to help the Church live God’s Gospel.
 See Church Anew at https://churchanew.org/brueggemann/truth-or-consequences-in-2020.