Exploring the Mysteries and Questions of Life.’

Posted: August 5, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘Exploring the Mysteries and Questions of Life.’

Seeds;

it’s the word of confidence to a 9-year-old
which one day leads to the winning goal in a World Cup match;

it’s the extra practice sessions after school,
going over word after word,

which bolsters a young girl at the Spelling Bee Nationals;

it’s the gentle touch of a mother
in the terror of a midnight thunderstorm
which leads a child into nursing;

in a world which idolizes success, greatness, biggie-sized achievements,
we are called to remind ourselves of those mustard seeds
planted deep within us
by so many over the years,
which help to shape us into the people we are meant to be,
© 2006 Thom M. Shuman (adapted)

They were complaining to one another about Jesus, because he had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven. ‘Surely’ they said; this is Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary’, we know his father and mother so how can he now say: ‘I have come down from heaven?’ Jesus said in reply, ‘Stop complaining to one another. You cannot understand what I am saying unless your view of who and what your God is, is bigger. and in your last days you will understand.

‘It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God, and to hear the teaching of God, 
and learn from it, is to come to me. Not that anybody has ever seen God, except the one who comes from God. ‘I tell you most solemnly, everybody who trusts has eternal life. As the metaphor says; “I am the bread of life”.

Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert and they are dead, but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat it and not die. The truth is in the metaphor “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

Jesus often talked about food. And gospel storytellers often put words in the mouth of Jesus
to have him speak about food and eating. Today’s difficult and complex gospel story is one of those occasions. Of having words put into the mouth of Jesus. It also continues the Lectionary sub theme commenced last week about food, or more specifically, about bread. Yes, a difficult and complex story for a couple of reasons, not least of which we are required to put it into words for ourselves. To interpret the metaphor and resist literalizing it.

First, we have to know a lot more about the Hebrew people and the stories which shaped their lives than we do or can ever know. – especially the claim about food called ‘manna’ in the desert to fully understand some of the references in this story we need to know more.

Second, aspects of this story by John, often considered the odd-man-out, contradicts similar stories by Matthew and Luke about Jesus’ family origins, and the early traditions of where he was born, for instance. So where does all this leave us! Well, that’s a complex question too big for the likes of a sermon. All we can do is make a brief speculative comment on this story.

We are on a visit to a village, probably not that far from his home town, when Jesus attempts to offer a new level of teaching -he talks about what is a re-imagined world. And to help his audience make this transition the storyteller John has him referring to a story from their own tradition. But problems arise. Jesus is no literalist.  His language is imaginative and poetic. Remember… mustard seeds become great plants. Water becomes wine. Five loaves and two fishes feed a multitude.

But like last week’s suggestion the hearers seem stuck in the literalist mode of understanding. They seem unable to hear the words behind the words. So, Jesus gets a kick in the pants for his efforts, as some decide his teaching isn’t orthodox or meaningful enough. They leave. It happens then as it still does today when literalism has become imbedded.

However, as Rex Hunt comments on this there are a few comments that invite a more intriguing situation… We might have the storyteller John contradicting, or in generous mood – not knowing the other earlier and different story traditions around Jesus. To do so, and guided by help from an overseas colleague, Jerald M Stinson, Rex makes these comments looking through the lens called the Gospel of Thomas.  We know that this Gospel didn’t make it into our biblical Canon tradition even though many scholars now reckon it is right up there, date wise, with the early writings of the ‘Q’ Community and the storyteller we call Mark. Increasingly we have also the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas and others being uncovered.

Discovered in 1945 in an ancient clay jar at the base of a cliff along the Nile River, by an Arab peasant, the Gospel of Thomas is probably the best known of all the Nag Hammadi texts. So, what is this Gospel?  It is less a story like the well know gospels because it is a collection of short, pithy sayings or proverbs, attributed to Jesus, half of which are not found in any other gospel, and especially not in John’s gospel. John’s Jesus specializes in long, rambling, and repetitious speeches.

On the other hand, but equally important, The Gospel of Thomas has no stories of Jesus’ life – especially no ‘passion’ stories. We ask ourselves; “Why should all this matter”? And we say to ourselves; Well, the Gospel of Thomas, along with other recent discoveries such as the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and the Gospel of Judas, “help us understand the differences between the Gnostic churches and churches tied to Paul.” (Jerry Stinson, First UCC  web site 2006).

They remind us that there were many different communities of Christian faith and they had as their resourcing tracts differing expressions of who the Jesus was and what his message was to a particular community. This is significant in that the Christianity of the time did not have one belief, it did not have one doctrine or creed or a single narrative upon which to base one’s faith journey. What Jesus was, was, the glue that held the visioning together. A bit like churches that have all walks in life as membership yet they all gather in a collective form that accepts all their different faith stories or reasons for being a follower of the Jesus Way but there is no single belief but rather there is a single trust in being on the journey together.

We now know, there was not just ‘one’ early version of Christianity, but many. And remember this was also the case before the word Christian was in common use. Even when the word Christian was used there was diverse beliefs and practices. And lets also remember that then acknowledgement of such reality is only now being taken seriously.

Jesus, for the so-called ‘Gnostics’, was a gifted teacher who opened up a different intuitive way of knowing, combining mind and heart. What we might call now a Left and right brain hemisphere approach to reaching an understanding of Jesus. For the Gospel of Thomas and his community, Jesus is simply called Jesus. Not messiah, nor Son of God. This Jesus responds to very concrete questions of life: what is the world like what are people like what is wisdom what will happen in the future.  (Jerry Stinson, First UCC web site 2006). A very human Jesus we might say.

And it was a world where ‘salvation’ had nothing to do with Jesus dying for the sins of the world.  Instead: “salvation meant understanding Jesus, knowing what he knew… understanding (his) words… as (they) sought wise, deep mystical and intuitive insights.” (Jerry Stinson, First UCC web site 2006) For these Gnostics this human Jesus was their guide as they attempted to make their way through the mysteries and questions of life. And let’s be very clear here. All of this, according to scholars, was significantly different to the theology of the bloke we call Paul.

In Paul’s churches:  God was totally other, and pictured in male images… Jesus was Lord and Son of God… Jesus’ death saved people from what became known as ‘original sin’… They had clergy, bishops and creeds, guarding the ‘true faith’.  Out of this grew the idea that one was called to defend the faith and we know where that leads.

In Thomas’ and in many other gnostic communities: There is divinity in each of us… Both male and female images of God were often used… Salvation was about enlightenment overcoming illusion… They didn’t have clergy.  And they pushed theological boundaries. So, what can we learn from the Gospel of Thomas’ sayings that can take us beyond John’s complex and rambling arguments?

Rex Hunt offers some suggestion we might use. First, the Thomas community centred around shared, mutual learning. And much as we might like to compartmentalize and control thinking, learning must be at the heart of our community life today. Where else in our society can we ask questions about the meaning of life? Where else can we relate the teachings of Jesus and the morality of our faith to the difficult issues of our day: War Terrorism Immigration Environmental degradation including the contemporary assault on fact and truth and things common.

Second, the Thomas community members were deeply committed. Commitment must also be at the heart of our community life today. That’s the price, or the responsibility one must engage in despite the call for more and different and choice.

It means getting involved rather than staying on the edges. Attending adult education classes. Signing petitions. Reaching out to others. Giving time and talent and financial support. Keep telling the stories and using the sayings enabling them to become common sense.

Third, the challenge of the Thomas community in general is to see and hear, today, the humanity of Jesus behind the many sayings and different images. To see him pointing to something the other gospels call the ‘realm of God’, where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world, – a new bottom line, if you like – demands to be considered.

And to hear him inviting his committed followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries which “always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity.” (Spong 2001: 131).

Notes:
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

rexae74@gmail.com

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