In Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, the Royal Tenenbaum’s, the title character, Royal Tenenbaum, played by Gene Hackman, is a quick witted, narcissistic, and failed lawyer. Broke and recently ejected from the hotel in which he had lived for decades, Royal cons his estranged family into believing that he is dying of cancer, in the hopes that they’ll let him move back in to the family house. When they discover the fraud, they kick him out again. Standing next to the cab, he exclaims to his son, “I feel like a different person, I really do.” Confused and a little exasperated, his son replies, “Dad, you were never dying.” Royal enthusiastically exclaims, “but I’m gonna live!”
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a textbook case of a false gospel. Royal deceives his family, and once they are on to him, he tries to deceive them a second time with good news.
But this is neither news, nor is it good. Of course, it is great that he’s going to live. But, what is crooked has not been made straight. What was broken has not been rebuilt. And, as the movie goes on to show, what was lost, in fact, the whole cast of characters that are lost have not yet been found.
As we hear the prologue of John’s gospel for the second time this Christmas, John issues an epic declaration: Jesus, the light, the life, comes to bring the really good news. He brings the “Light” that has come to enlighten us.
Unfortunately, almost tragically, John adds, we knew it not, we didn’t accept it. Jesus was rejected, even by his own, even though his was the really good news.
But for those that do accept him, John continues, they have the power to become the children of God, they are born of God. St. Paul follows this up: through the incarnation, we can now be adopted children of God. God will send his spirit into our hearts, so that we can cry out to the Father as Jesus did – Abba, Father!
These passages from John’s Gospel are often considered to be among the most intellectual and philosophical. Whatever John’s philosophical tendencies might be, I think it’s pretty clear that he wants to impress upon his readers that Jesus is fully God and fully human. It is a deeply trinitarian set of verses: the Word is God. All things come into being through him. He has Life. He is God’s only Son. And while we can’t see the Father, we can see Jesus, and it’s in and through the Word become flesh that we can see the Father.
But so what, we might ask. What good is it to see the Father? Some of you might be searching for a spiritual experience, but I’ve got kids to raise, bills to pay, and a boss to appease 🙂
I don’t have time for mysticism or enlightenment. I’m sure this is how many of us feel throughout our very busy, very distracting lives.
What difference will it make if I see the Father or Jesus or not?
Or have I got it wrong? Have I missed the difference that Jesus makes?
Let’s look at John again. John says that Jesus came to humanity as a human in order to bring light and life into the world.
Light and life… These are crucial terms for John. Light is a classic metaphor for knowledge in many languages, and remain so even today. Think about our own light imagery.
When we think clearly, we are enlightened. We ask each other to shine some light on a situation. We encourage one another in contentious times to bring light, not heat. We call good ideas “bright ideas” and draw lightbulbs over cartoon character’s heads.
Is this what John thinks Jesus is good for? Good ideas and clear thinking?
Notice that John is uninterested in the typical things you see amongst religious writers. He’s not interested in proving Jesus’ existence, or that Jesus is God. Rather he assumes his existence, and states baldly that the Word was with God. Likewise, John just lays it out there that if we see Jesus, we’ve seen the Father.
So what’s John’s aim? I think that John wants us to see that coming to believe in Jesus is about accepting a different way of life — A way of life, a way of truth, a way of Grace.
I think John also wants us to see that there’s a risk in becoming a child of God. Yes, there are benefits, but John won’t try to sell you Jesus because Jesus isn’t a consumer item. Rather, the light that Jesus brings consumes you, or better, transforms you, the believer.
You’re not your own anymore. No, you’re God’s child. You become like John the baptist, not the light yourself, but a witness to the light.
You have been liberated from the shackles of whatever old identity you had.
Here’s where we return to Royal Tenenbaum. His news isn’t really good. Royal is still a slave to something else than the truth. He’s still looking out for himself. He measures his happiness in terms of his leisure and luxury, and when he loses his own wealth, he proceeds to swindle another’s.
He is a slave to his greed and gluttony, and they rule over him. And when his scheme is uncovered, he becomes an apologist for a false gospel. “but I’m gonna live.”
There’s a famous altarpiece in Isenheim Germany. It used to sit behind the altar at St. Anthony’s Monastery, which was a hospital of sorts for people afflicted with a serious skin disease which was known as St. Anthony’s fire.
At the bottom of this masterpiece, we see people in various stages of disease, in the act of caring for and adoring the body of Christ.
But, above that, in the center, we find a profound and rich image. Jesus hangs, in the middle on the cross. To our left we see the Blessed Virgin Mary, standing but leaning on the Apostle John.
And to our right, on the other side of the cross, John the Baptist stands, pointing at Jesus.
Together, these two John’s describe for us the Christian life, the Christian vocation of proclaiming and living the good news. John the Apostle, at Jesus’ instruction, cares for Mary as an adopted mother, a symbol of caring for the Church, a symbol of living in the corporate body that is Christ’s.
And John the Evangelist, in pointing to Christ, preaches the Good News – Christ crucified for us. Christ, the word, who was with God, who is God, who became flesh to enlighten the world, to suffer with us from our afflictions. And although the world rejected him, he died for our sakes. In him we see the Father, through him we were made, and through him we are redeemed.
Because of Christ, the Word made flesh, we truly have good news.
Brothers and sisters, because of Christ, we can truly say, “I’m gonna live.”
St. David’s Episcopal Church
The First Sunday after Christmas