From “The Word Made Flesh,” The Fourth River (1935)
What was it about words which fascinated the evangelist? Here we are free to speculate; he himself never tells us. But in the first place we may consider the power of words – their power to make friendships or to break them; to sway crowds or action or paralyze them into immobility; to raise lives or to ruin them; to popularize falsehoods or to degrade truths. A single deft turn of phrase will transmit a plain statement of fact into a deadly insult; the word well-placed will enable an unpalatable truth to pierce through all the defenses which the mind has raised against its entry. Or again, we can dwell on the penetration of words. They pass from lip to lip, from person to person, further and faster than their authors can ever follow them. It is not the word of the Lord alone that runs very swiftly. An anecdote told lightheartedly in a London drawing-room will come back to its author and inventor from the ends of the earth. A rumor or an epigram knows no limitations of time, distance, or national boundaries. And finally, we remind ourselves of the durability of words. Long after the voice that uttered or the hand that penned them has finished its earthly course, the words live on, exerting no less an influence than on the day on which they were born. All this has been told to us time and time again by the greatest of the world’s philosophers, poets, and dramatists, and at least it helps us to understand the universal appeal of the two opening sentences of the fourth gospel.
As a metaphor alone, “Word” was no poor title to choose for Christ. His power to mold human lives – his eternity – the penetration of his gospel from Palestine to Asia, from Asia to Macedonia and Greece, from Greece to the farthest west – all these are expressed in the title, for those who choose to meditate upon its implications. But Christ is more than this. His power is beneficent: his eternity creative and sustaining; his gospel a gospel of love and mercy. He is not “Word” alone but “Word of God,” Word divine. And even here we cannot pause: Christ is the “Word of God,” because in him is concentrated and summed up all God’s grace, goodness, and power. This Word is it is that became flesh and appeared among men: a new all-powerful, all-revealing, all-redeeming manifestation of God.
This is how St. John wishes to think of Christ. Not as a hero of beautiful stories, not as the propounder of elevated moral sentiments, not as a mere pattern or example of human goodness, not as a divine figure dimly worship from afar – but as the greatest of all powers for good that has ever visited the world of human life, mingled with men, and invested the impersonality of power with the personality of true manhood. As a word of command cleaves the air, so Christ clave humanity into those who accepted him and those who rejected him. As the word of love consoles the broken heart, so Christ healed and still heals the lives that have been broken by the power of sin or the cruelty of circumstance. As a word breathed in secret sooner or later breaks its bonds and becomes a matter of common knowledge, so Christ broke even the bonds of death and sent his Spirit into all nations to carry out his redeeming and sanctifying mission.
Poets may exalt the greatness of words to the skies, but it is as nothing to the greatness of the Word of God. To those among whom he became flesh he gave victory over temptation, relief from anxiety, escape from despair, inspiring them to new purposes and making them willing and eager servants of his plans. As the undying Word of God he has continued his gracious activity through all the ages, till his name is revered throughout the world, even where he is not worshiped. To the the men and women of the present generation, he still offers the same grace as he conferred upon his first disciples, and by that grace they are enabled to show themselves obedient to him, as to the Word of God.
The Rt. Rev. Kenneth Kirk (1896-1954) was one of the most influential Anglican moral theologians of the twentieth century. He served as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, and was Bishop of Oxford from 1937 until his death. This excerpt from a book of his early sermons has been slightly adapted for modern readers.