Easter 2B, 2015
A Liturgy is also available
EASTER: AN OPEN-ENDED FUTURE, WITH BODIES ALL ALIVE!
“He’s naked! the little boy shouts to his mother.
A hush captures the cheering crowd as horrified eyes
search for the culprit.
“Then the ripple starts, swelling to an explosion of laughter and relief.
The emperor is naked.
“The talk about the new Court fashions is a charade.
Yet no one in the subservient crowd was brave enough
to call it so, until the emperor
in all his silliness
paraded before a little boy.
“Fools may tread where angels fear to roam,
but the little boy was no fool.
He was young and honest enough not to have been
silenced by societal pressure.
“The little boy doubted what everyone else doubted
but would not admit, even though the facts,
and the emperor, lay bare and exposed.”
Val Web recounts this story of and commentary on, the ‘Emperor’s Clothes’
in her book: In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure.
But she tells it, not as a children’s story, but as the root of new knowledge.
Honest, creative, courageous doubt.
Doubt which is recognised as an active agent in all of life.
Doubts are signs of our own health because they come from who we are, from our experiences. They are the grains of sand that irritate the oyster until the itching produces a beautiful pearl...
The story about Thomas is a very familiar story. Too familiar, perhaps.
Because traditionally it is told, from the storyteller we call John to
most Sunday preachers, as a story about ‘doubt’.
And doubt in a negative sense.
Well, we now know some things that weren’t known in times past.
• We now know that asking questions is not evidence of faithlessness!
• We now know that theology and biblical studies can never begin
by assuming it already has the answers.
Any theology that does not begin with radical doubt
is basically dishonest!
• We now know the storyteller called John was speaking to his local community against the resident doubters,
and used a made-up story to contradict
the gospel of Thomas—hence his naming—which was beginning
to have a major influence among them.
How else can we hear that Thomas does not receive a blessing
as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement?
• We now know there is no word for ‘doubt’
in the Greek version of this story.
So this morning I want to offer some brief comments on the context of John’s story.
First, what is this gospel of Thomas? And how is it different
from the other gospels we already know about?
Second, John’s story is set within the post-resurrection experiences
of early Christianities. So what mattered most to those groups?
I invite your careful listening…
1. What is the gospel of Thomas…
In December of 1945 an Egyptian farmer named Muhammed Ali
went out to the cliffs that skirt the Nile, south of Cairo,
in search of fertiliser for fuel.
In the course of his search he stumbled upon a clay jar
containing several codices of manuscripts.
Included in this find was a complete copy of the gospel of Thomas.
One of several ‘gospels’ not included in the New Testament collection.
What is significant about Thomas is: this is a ‘sayings gospel’.
It is not a ‘story gospel’. It does not have a narrative framework,
as does Matthew and Luke.
It is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus.
Some of the sayings are similar to what is in the synoptic gospels.
But by far the majority are not. They are new. Likewise,
[t]he text of the gospel… contains no miracle stories, no narrative of Jesus’ birth, no narrative of his death and no story of Easter.
I reckon its existence shows a couple of significant things…
(i) there actually was an early tradition consisting of sayings alone,
supported by wandering or itinerant radicals;
(ii) this ‘sayings’ tradition was either earlier than, or at least
in a similar time-frame to, some of the early narrative gospel traditions,
the latter supported by the more settled communities.
Two different perspectives within the development
of the early Jesus movements as they moved east into Syria.
And what did these wandering itinerants teach?
Live a homeless life.
Break family ties.
Shun all wealth.
Reject any means of protection on the road.
Perhaps to be expected these two different perspectives
didn’t always get along with each other.
There was often conflict between the itinerants and local community leaders.
Especially over who had authority in each community!
The ‘blow-ins’ or the locals?
The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas excited serious biblical scholars.
And when news of its discovery and scholarship results hit the headlines
nearly 50 years later, it also excited the reading and church-going public.
Although much of the latter excitement was expressed
in language of fear and unbelief.
What of today, 70 years after the discovery of Thomas?
There are those within Christianity who see their role as guarding the tradition.
There are others who see their role as challenging the tradition.
It is because of the latter that we can actually read the gospel of Thomas today! And hear more about the historical Jesus.
It is because of those who ‘challenge’ that those who ‘guard’
invented the term heretic!
But as contemporary critical biblical scholarship shows, little is set in concrete.
The history of Christianity is not just a history of doctrines and creeds.
So-called ‘right belief’.
It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes
cobbled together creeds out of belief, as well as
faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded
those same creeds [and beliefs].
This is where fundamentalism is such a false perception.
For it does not converse or explore.
It presents truth.
There is neither acceptance nor generosity in its differences with the world.
It presumes that it knows the truth that everyone should follow.
So to delve beneath the words of the Thomas story in the Gospel of John,
is not a sign of unbelief, but the beginning of a process…
Where a climate of questioning is welcomed.
Where those questions can be spoken in an open and safe atmosphere.
Where people can be trusted to make decisions for themselves.
2. What mattered most…
Jesus’ death mattered to those in the early Jesus movements, that is true.
But his life mattered more.
So they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life.
And to be embraced by life, not scared of it.
To know the reality of resurrection is to experience it.
Not in some doctrine that involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb.
Not on an insistence of the literal historicity of the biblical stories.
We all experience it by simply being alive, and going through
all the normal, routine transformations of
human growth and love and death.
“The trouble with resurrection”, writes Jesus Seminar Fellow, Brandon Scott,
is that we have literalized it, narrowed and constricted it, turned it into a creedal belief and in the process have forfeited its great claim and hope.
Val Webb nudges us to find the meanings given to the words we use.
In one of her suggestions in her ‘doubt’ book she says:
… doubt is not [the opposite] of faith or belief. The opposite of ‘faith’ is to be without the experience of ‘faith; the opposite of ‘belief’ is ‘unbelief’.
Despite Webb’s retelling of the Emperor’s Clothes story,
and in spite of John telling the imaginary story about a so-called ‘doubting’ Thomas,
there are no stories in the Gospel of Thomas.
What is there is the recorded sayings that marked Jesus out
as a special sage or teacher, without an emphasis on
his saving death, his resurrection, or his healing.
The meaning of Jesus comes from the wisdom he communicates.
It was his cynic-like words, and the words of others who had understood his mind,
that offered encouragement and hope for his friends and followers
who lived in rather grim Roman colonial times.
As one of the Jesus Seminar scholars puts it:
… his teaching was a compelling affirmation and his life a compelling model of what human life ought to be… That gospel and that life proved to be appealing and liberating enough to rise up anew after its herald had been struck down
The good news of Easter for us, thanks to those who have travelled before us,
is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales
that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’…
Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future.
A moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return,
and our bodies—individually and as church community—are alive again.
The resurrection is not a fact to be believed but an experience to be shared…
It is not a contract for a time-share apartment in heaven.
It is the spirit of Jesus present in people who continue his struggle against domination in all its forms,
here, now, on this good earth.
The ancient forms of faith cannot credibly be continued in the modern world.
But the underlying meaning the early Jesus movements affirmed
can be, and that meaning can foster among us a new theology
and a new religious language that resonates
with our understanding and experience of human life in the modern world.
And that, I reckon, is worth celebrating.
Cox, H. G. The Future of Faith. HarperCollins eBook. 2010.
Hoover, R. W. “Was Jesus’ Resurrection an Historical Event?” in B. B. Scott. (ed). The Resurrection of Jesus. A Sourcebook. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.
O’Donohue, J. Eternal Echoes. Exploring Our Hunger to Belong. London. Bantam Press, 1998.
Scott, B. B. The Trouble with Resurrection. From Paul to the Fourth Gospel. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2010.
Taussig, H. “An Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas” in H. Taussig. (ed). A New New Testament. A Bible for the Twenty-first Century. New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013.
Veith, J. “The Resurrection (of Jesus)” in R. A. E. Hunt & J. W. H. Smith. (ed). Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2013.
Webb, V. In Defence of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press, 1995.
Wink, W. An article on LookSmart web site. 1994. Accessed in 2003.
Webb. In Defence of Doubt, 3
From B Brandon Scott.
This seems to be the position of Elaine Pagels in her book Beyond Belief.
Spong. The Fourth Gospel, 300
Cox. Future of Faith.
O’Donohue. Eternal Echoes, 261
Scott. The Trouble with Resurrection, 243
Webb. In Defence of Doubt, 4
Taussig. ‘An Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas, 12
Veitch. ‘The Resurrection’, 72
Hoover. ‘Was Jesus’ Resurrection…’, 87, 91
Hoover. ‘Was Jesus’ Resurrection…’, 91