Questions.Pent11B.2012

Pentecost 11B, 2012
John 6: 41-51

A Liturgy is also available

EXPLORING THE MYSTERIES AND QUESTIONS OF LIFE

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.

First, we have to know a lot more about the Hebrew people
and the stories which shaped their lives
- especially the one about food called ‘manna’ in the desert -
to fully understand some of the references in this story.

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, I don’t really feel inclined to get too heavy with all this stuff this morning.
Call it, over worked.
Call it, being in retirement mood.
Whatever.

So I’ll only make a brief comment on this story.

oo0oo

A visit to a village, probably not that far from his home town,
sees Jesus attempting to offer a new level of teaching - 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.

They 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, so they leave.
It happens!

However, let me toss in a few more comments
on what I reckon is the more intriguing situation...
Of 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,
I will make these comments looking through the lense called the Gospel of Thomas.
It 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.

oo0oo

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 it? 
It is a collection of short, pithy sayings or proverbs,
attributed to Jesus, half of which are not found in any other gospel,
but especially not in John’s gospel.
John’s Jesus specialises in long, rambling, and repititious speeches.

On the other hand, but equally important,
GThomas has no stories of Jesus’ life - especially no ‘passion’ stories.

Why should all this matter?
Well, GThomas, 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).

Because there was not just ‘one’ early version of christianity, but many. 
With diverse beliefs and practices.

But acknowledgement of such reality is only now being taken seriously.

oo0oo

Jesus, for the so-called ‘gnostics’, was a gifted teacher
who opened up a different intuitive way of knowing,
combining mind and heart.

Jesus, for GThomas and his community, is simply called Jesus.
Not messiah or 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).

And 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)
as they attempted to make their way through the mysteries and questions of life.

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’.

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.

oo0oo

So what can we learn from the GThomas’ sayings
that can take us beyond John’s complex and rambling arguments?
Let me offer these few brief suggestions.

First, the Thomas community centred around shared, mutual learning.
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?

Second, the Thomas community members were deeply committed.
Commitment must also be at the heart of our community life today.
That’s the price.

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.

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. 2001.  A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

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