John 1: 1-14
A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 24, 2017 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
There are two kinds of things: those that abide forever; and those that last for a limited period. The things that abide forever we call essence; the things that last for a limited period we call existence.
We human beings are in the first category. We exist: we think that because we exist – because we’re aware that we exist – we’re the heart, the centre, the purpose of all things. But we tend to forget that existence isn’t all there is. We’re missing something: something important; something vital. Existence is not the same as essence. Existence is subject to change and decay – and death. Essence isn’t. Yes, we do indeed exist; and that’s precious, and remarkable, and the basis of all the joys of life. But we’re not essences: we’re not eternal, ineradicable, permanent. We’re not essential. There is, without us. Take us away and there still is. Our being depends on the existence of others. We crave independence, but it’s an illusion, a fantasy: we never could be, never shall be, independent; and there would be no joy in being so. The longing for independence is the aspiration to be an essence: the secret of happiness is to learn instead to exist.
Why are we here? Not because we chose to be. How did our existence come about? Not because it was essential. We exist – everything exists – because the essence of things, of all things, in the depths of its mysteries, brought into being something that was not essential, something that was not like itself, but something … else. We’re part of that ‘else.’ We’re not the original ‘something.’ We don’t know if we’re the centre of that ‘else,’ or the purpose of that ‘else,’ but on the scientific and historical evidence, it seems unlikely. We don’t know whether that ‘else’ might be viable or even better off without us, but it seems more than probable. So we’re not just inessential to essence – we’re not even existential to existence.
We have no direct, unmistakeable and incontrovertible access from our realm of existence to that sphere of essence. Which is why identifying the nature of that essence will always be controversial and disputed; and is also why there will always be a temptation to elevate some or all characteristics of existence to the level of essence. Sometimes we get exasperated and seek at least some firm ground given that essence is so impenetrable. Sometimes we proudly assume that the highest glories of existence need not (or could not) be surpassed. It’s part of the nature of existence never to be able to be certain about essence.
There could have been no existence. There could have been nothing. To say there could have been – may even yet be – nothing is not to deny that there’s an essence. We assume there must be an essence because something must have brought about and must sustain and replenish and will surely abide beyond existence. But there could have been nothing beyond essence. That, in fact, would seem more likely. This is where humility begins: with the recognition that it would have been simpler, more plausible, less troublesome, tidier for there to have been no existence; in practice, nothing. Yet here we are. It might have been much more probable that we would not have existed: and it is only some balance between chance and love that has made it otherwise. Establishing the degree of that balance between chance and love is the process of discovering truth.
We’re lost in wonder, because we’re incapable of discovering what it could possibly have been that induced essence to conceive, trigger, initiate or imagine existence. It might have all been very different. It might not be so for much longer or ever again. But it still, nonetheless, is. We’re overwhelmed with awe at the transition from eternity to time, from boundlessness to circumscription, from the elusive and immortal to the tangible and fragile. We’re bursting with gratitude when we realise that this balance of chance and love has brought about every ingredient of the circumstances that brought us into existence, that there’s nothing whatsoever for which we can claim the credit, that it is all entirely gift, that we shall never be able to discharge my consequent debt, and that we must therefore remain suspended in dumbfounded astonishment and delirious reverence. Humility is that hallowed clearing in the forest of existence where wonder, awe and gratitude meet, dance, play and exalt.
And here in that clearing in the forest of existence, in the depths of wonder, awe, gratitude and humility, we meet the astonishing claim of the Christian faith. On one starry night, displaced by migration, in a hostile political climate, surrounded by animals, from an unwed mother living homeless in a strange town, essence entered existence. Essence, which we could call by a hundred names but we most often call God; essence, which could have remained alone without ever conceiving of existence; essence, which would most straightforwardly have left things as nothing but out of utmost grace initiated existence – that essence made itself part of existence. The Word became flesh.
That’s what’s unique about Christianity. There’s nothing special about recognising the difference between essence and existence. Most religions do. In fact almost everyone does, because whether you call yourself atheist, agnostic or humanist you probably accept a distinction between what lasts forever and what lasts for just a period of time. There’s nothing special about having a code of ethics. Almost everyone does that, although there’re obviously significant differences between them. There’s nothing special about church buildings or hymns or a holy book. You can find equivalents in many cultures. No, this is the heart of Christianity and the reason we’re all here this evening and the meaning of Christmas: in Jesus, the essence of all things became part of existence – subject to change, decay and death, just like us.
It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t any more necessary than essence creating existence in the first place. But once you grasp it, you can see that the two events are as linked as a pair of shoes. Why did essence create existence? No one could possibly know, until this very moment, when essence becomes part of existence. Here we discover the answer to perhaps the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is, because essence, or God as we usually say, always intended to be our companion, to be with us. That’s what the word ‘Jesus’ represents: God’s eternal purpose to be with us, which triggered the whole mystery of existence from beginning to end. Jesus isn’t an afterthought that came into existence when essence realised existence was going badly wrong: Jesus is the whole meaning and purpose for existence in the first place. Jesus is the reason we exist.
See how this reverses the usual way of asking the question. When we place ourselves at the centre of all things, we make existence primary, and demand proofs of God’s existence through our getting a job or an end to war or our recovery from a painful illness. But existence isn’t primary. That’s what essence is. Trying to reach God from existence is as absurd and impossible as throwing a stone and trying to hit a cloud. We discover God because God reaches us. Essence becomes existence. Jesus becomes human. The Word becomes flesh.
But we haven’t yet reached the best bit. Here we come to the most astonishing wonder of all. Essence becoming existence in Jesus isn’t the end of the story. God doesn’t simply want to share our limited, fragile earthly life. There’s more to it even than that. Jesus is fully human and fully divine – complete existence, utter essence. And through him we realise what God’s final purpose always was: to bring us into essence – into eternal truth. Jesus is God stretching out a hand and saying come into the essence of all things to be with me. Remember the painting of God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome? God’s hand is stretched out in creation. But the final purpose of creation is that God’s hand stretches out a second time, in Jesus, and invites us to become part of the very essence of all things.
What an invitation. What a God. What an indescribable offer. What an unimaginable present. What an inexpressible gift.