Full of grace and truth
We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.
John, using the imagery of light in the darkness to speak of the arrival of Jesus
I must have read or listened to these words dozens and dozens of times – every Christmas of my life, to begin with, and I’m sure plenty of other occasions as well, but I think I almost aways stop on the incredible, miraculous words before them: “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, those words which speak to the fundamental mystery, the core miracle, of the Christian faith, the incarnation of God as Jesus.
But John doesn’t stop at “the Word became flesh”.
In a couple of verses time, he’ll rewind to the start of his telling of the story to introduce John the Baptist, but before he does so he has these few short lines that we’ve heard read today to tell us something about what it means. What it means that we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.
And it seems to me that the story people tell around truth and grace often puts them, as it were, in opposition to one another.
As if to say: “truth says that we are fallen, failing people, sinners unworthy of God, but grace welcomes us anyway”. Truth makes a right – and highly critical – assessment of the world, of our actions, truth shines the light into those dark corners of our lives that we’d rather remained just that – dark – truth reminds us of the words we’ve spoken, deeds we’ve done, opportunities we’ve chosen not to take. Truth tells us everything that is wrong with us.
And then grace comes and reassures us that we are forgiven and loved anyway.
It’s a way of thinking that lies behind a lot of evangelistic approaches – that the good news, the gospel, begins with “you are fallen, sinful people, worthy of God’s punishment”; that we need to be told the truth – that we are lost – in order to then appreciate the offer of salvation.
Grace, in this way of thinking, saves us from truth. Saves us from the consequences of what is true about us.
But that’s not the way that John portrays Jesus; not, in fact, the way any of the gospels portray Jesus, with the possible exception of his dealings with the religious elite, the self-righteous who need to be taken down a peg or two.
There is a contrast being expressed here, but it is not between grace and truth: instead, in the next few verses:
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 God known.
There’s a rhythm to these words – remember, John is the poet of the gospel writers, in many ways an inheritor of the tradition of the Hebrew writers, whose preferred form of theology was often poetry:
the law came through Moses /
grace and truth through Jesus
no one has seen God /
Jesus made him known
The contrast is not between grace on one hand and truth on the other, but between the law, which came through Moses, who has not seen God; and grace and truth, together, which came through Jesus, who makes God known.
The effect is not to invalidate the law, but it is to place it into a context in which it is reduced in importance. The law was given through Moses – it is of God, from God – but grace come through the Son of God, the one close to the Father’s heart, the one who has made God known. From his fullness, indeed, we have all received, John writes, grace upon grace.
And it is to grace that the word ‘truth’ is attached.
The law of Moses is not truth – it is, as Paul will write elsewhere, like a tutor, a schoolmaster, it is not the truth, but it is there to lead us to the truth, to lead us to the revelation of God in Jesus, the Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, and who makes God known.
The truth of God is grace.
Grace is not set against truth, grace is not some sort of antidote for, or solution to the problems of, truth.
Grace is the truth of God.
And it is grace and truth that come into the world at Christmas, grace and truth that are made known when the word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Grace and truth that are the glory as of the Father’s only son, the one true reflection of the Father.
Grace and truth don’t come into being with the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus, of course. The grace of God, not as a counter to truth but as an expression of it, is to be found throughout the scriptures; sometimes it’s hard to find, but often it’s right there on the surface – in contradiction of the image we sometimes have that God, as portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Old Testament, is all wrath and judgement.
Nehemiah declared “You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy”.
The Psalmist wrote “But You, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy and truth.
Jonah even complained about God’s grace, when God did not destroy the Ninevites, “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy.”
Grace came through Jesus, but it was also already here. It was already part of what the people of God knew about God.
But it is in Jesus that that Grace of God becomes truly, fully, known. It is in Jesus, in his life and his ministry, in his radical inclusion of the outcast, in his death and resurrection for us, it is in Jesus that grace is shown most truly, most fully, most clearly.
And at the same time, it is in the life and ministry and death and resurrection that the truth of God is shown most truly, most fully, most clearly.
For this is the glory that we have seen in him; the declaration that grace and truth do not stand in tension with one another, do not sit on opposite sides of the debating chamber, but that the truth of God is grace.
Grace underlies all else – all that we know about God, but more than that, all that we know about anything.
The first thing we know of God is grace – the gift of creation, given to us completely independent of anything we might do or have done.
The gift of life – again, given to each of us not because we’ve earned it, or in order that we might do so, but given, as an act of grace.
The provision of God who, as Jesus says, sends the rain to fall on the righteous and on the unrighteous; God’s grace, given both to the deserving and the undeserving – which is more or less the definition of grace, after all.
All that we have, and all that we are, is a gift of grace. Even love – our ability to love and to be loved – is a gift that is given to all, whoever they are, a gift of grace. No one ever earns the ability to offer love; we love because God first loved us, an undeserved reality, a gift of grace.
And of course, grace weaves its way through the life and ministry of Jesus, his interactions with those he comes into contact with are again and again characterised by his giving of God’s grace. So he declares to the paralytic “your sins are forgiven”, to the women caught in adultery “neither do I condemn you”, to the thief on the cross “this day you will be with me in paradise” – again and again and again, Jesus’ life shows that the truth of God is grace.
This is the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness will never put out.
This is the hope that persists when everything has changed.
This is the fullness we have received, grace upon grace.
The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.