Sunday, August 25, 2013

Becoming A Child of Humanity (8/25/13)

Becoming a Child of Humanity
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 25, 2013

Gospel of Mary  4:1-7
When the Blessed One had said these things
he greeted them all, saying,
“Peace be with you!
Bear my peace within yourselves!
Beware that no one lead you astray saying,
‘Look over here!’ Or
‘Look over there!’
For the Child of Humanity is within you!
Follow it!
Those who seek it will find it.
Go then and proclaim the good news of the realm. 
Do not lay down any rules beyond
what I determined for you,
nor give a law like the lawgiver,
lest you be confined by it.”
When he had said this, he departed.

Gospel of Mary           6:1-4; 9:16-31
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women.  Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember, which you know and we do not, nor have we heard them.”  Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will tell you.”  And she began to say to them these words….

“When the Soul had left the third Power desolate, it went upward and saw the fourth Power.  It had seven forms.  The first form is Darkness; the second Desire; the third Ignorance; the fourth Eagerness for Death; the fifth is the Realm of the Flesh; the sixth is the Foolish Wisdom of the Flesh; the seventh is Wrathful Wisdom.  These are the seven Powers of Wrath.  They asked the Soul, ‘Where are you coming from, human-killer, and where are you going you place-destroyer?’  The Soul answered and said, ‘What rules me has been slain, and what turns me has been destroyed, and my desire has been filled, and ignorance has died.  In a world I was released from a world, and in a mold from a higher mold, and from the chain of forgetfulness which is temporal.  From this hour on, at the time of the season of the generations, I will rest in silence.’”

After Mary said this, she was silent, since it was to this point the Savior had spoken with her.

               Gospel of Mary 10:1-15
But Andrew responded and said to the brothers and sisters, “Say what you will about what she has said, I do not believe that the Savior said this, for certainly these teachings are strange ideas.”  Peter responded and spoke concerning these same things.  He questioned them about the Savior, “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowing about it?  Are we to turn around and all listen to her?  Did he choose her over us?

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother, Peter, what are you thinking?  Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am telling lies about the Savior?”  Levi responded and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been an angry person.  Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries.  But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her?  Surely the Savior’s knowledge of her is trustworthy. That is why he loved her more than us. 

Rather, let us be ashamed.  We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and proclaim the good news, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.”

After he had said these things, they started going to teach and proclaim.

We are spending a few weeks looking at early Christian scripture that did not make it into the New Testament, at least originally.   Now, thanks to Professor Hal Taussig and a council of religious leaders and scholars, we have A New New Testament.   Many newly discovered works, such as theGospel of Mary, are in A New New Testament as scripture.  

Yes, Mary.  The central character of this gospel is a woman.   It contains sayings from Jesus that are not in the canonical gospels.   That should be intriguing enough.   Where has this gospel been hiding? 

For about fifteen hundred years it had been hiding in a niche in a wall in a Christian burial site in Akhmim, Egypt.   The Gospel of Mary is one of four texts found bound together in a papyrus bound book, a codex, wrapped in feathers.   It is called the Berlin Codex, because it was taken to Berlin after it was discovered in 1896.  The other three texts in this codex are theApocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and what is called an epitome or a summary of the Act of Peter.

The codex dates to the late fourth or early fifth century.   All of these texts are in Coptic, possibly originally written in Greek.    This codex wasn’t translated until 1955.  It hasn't been until recently that the Gospel of Mary in particular has generated interest.   An excellent book by Harvard professor Karen King, called the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, provides a translation and commentary.   

The Gospel of Mary has been literally out of sight and out of mind for most of Christian history.   Still we don’t have the complete text.   Several pages are missing and we may never find a complete manuscript.  It is pretty amazing that we have what we do have. 

Who is this Mary?  We don’t know.  Probably the character is Mary Magdalene.  Is it the historical Mary Magdalene, if there was such a person?  No.   Karen King dates this work to around 120, which is about the same time that some scholars, including Marcus Borg, are dating the Gospel of Luke as well as some other New Testament works such as the letters to Timothy.   A date of 120 puts it nearly a century past the time of the historical Jesus.    It couldn’t have been written by the historical Mary.   Nor is it about the historical Mary.  It is also very Greek.

The Gospel of Mary is like the other gospels, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that are attributed to contemporaries of Jesus or Paul but were not written by them.    Just to be clear, the Gospel of Mary is fiction.  But don’t let that dissuade you.  The canonical gospels, at least as far as I can tell, are all fiction, too.    There may have been an historical Jesus that can be extracted from the gospels.  There may be historical kernels hiding in there, but the gospels are nonetheless narrative creations.    

Even if there was an historical Jesus, the gospels are not about him, they are imaginative creations about Jesus the son of God, a literary character.They want to tell theological stories.   They want to talk about the meaning of life and they use Jesus and other characters to tell their truths. 

What is interesting is what these texts say.  What in their narrative, fictive forms are they saying about life and how to go about living it?  These characters, Jesus, Mary, Andrew, Levi, and Peter are literary characters used to tell a truth.   

I say all of this to level the field.  Just because a book is in the Bible it doesn’t mean it is more true or more  "historical" than these other documents.    In these early centuries as today, some scriptures were chosen as favorites by some over others.    Those texts not chosen needed to be preserved and hidden.  Fortunately, for us, the political losers buried some of their texts so we were able to discover them, translate them, and put them on the internet today.  

I should also say, that the Gospel of Mary is not some lost romance story of Mary Magdalene who has children with Jesus and runs off to France or whatever.   Those kinds of stories are fabrications as well.    What we have is a text in which a character named Mary is a disciple of Jesus, and his closest disciple.  There is nothing sexual or physical.  This is intellectual and spiritual.  

In a nutshell, the Gospel of Mary begins with a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples.    The disciples are asking Jesus questions.  He answers their questions about matter and sin, then  he gives them a blessing and tells them that 

“The Child of Humanity is within you.  Follow it!”   

He tells them to proclaim this good news and don’t burden people with rules.  Then he leaves, presumably for heaven.  This is a post-resurrection appearance.

The disciples start crying.  How can they possibly succeed in proclaiming this good news when even he wasn’t spared?    If they killed him, what will happen to us?    Then Mary steps up and comforts them telling them that his grace will be with them and they can be bold because he has made them human beings.

Then Peter asks Mary, since she was more loved by the savior than the other women, to say what the Savior had said to her that they didn’t know.     Mary proceeds to tell about a vision she had with the Savior.    As she begins, the text breaks off and most of her speech is missing.

We do have the end of her vision.  

The end is intriguing.  It is about the soul’s ascent.   The soul faces dark powers, the power of ignorance, desire, anger and so forth and defeats them finding its true nature, presumably clothed in perfect humanity.   

After Mary finishes recounting her vision, Andrew says, 

“I don’t believe this.  These are strange ideas.”   

Then Peter chimes in and his complaint is that Mary is a woman.   How could it possibly be that Jesus spoke to a woman without the guys knowing about it?

Mary weeps and is upset that they think she is lying.   Then Levi defends Mary, calling Peter a hothead and says if the Savior made her worthy who are you to reject her?    Levi says that they should clothe themselves in perfect humanity and proclaim the good news and not make any other rules.   After Levi says this, they all go out to teach and proclaim.    The gospel ends.  

I think the Gospel of Mary needs to be in the Bible.  And here it is in A New New Testament.    It needs to be in the Bible because it addresses an issue that was present in the second century when it was written that is still an issue in the 21st century, namely, sexism.    How many women priests are there in the Roman Catholic church?   Even the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church, Margaret Towner, is still living.  She was ordained in 1956.   We are supposedly the liberals. 

Peter, who of course represents the so-called emerging orthodox camp, does not accept what Mary has to say.   It has nothing to do with the contentof what she has to say.  Peter makes three statements:

Did he really speak with a woman without our knowing about it?
Are we to turn around and all listen to her?
Did he choose her over us?

This is classic.  This is a script for Archie Bunker.  

The Gospel of Mary reflects a second-century conflict over the role of women’s leadership.   Compare this with other second-century texts, such as the letters to Timothy in the New Testament.    This is 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

That’s sacred scripture?  And the Gospel of Mary isn’t? 

The reason the Gospel of Mary resonates with us today is that the struggle for women’s leadership and equality is as urgent as it has ever been.  Women's equality is not good just for women, but for the whole of society. From reproductive rights to healthcare to equal pay for equal work, you all know this, there is a war on women in our country.   This isn’t just a church issue.    That is why this gospel resonates.

The story around the text is fascinating and illustrative.  The people who followed this text were marginalized and accused of heresy when the orthodox, the group the character Peter represents, came into power.  The text was buried, literally, in a Christian grave for 1600 years.  Much of it is missing, in particular, the part where Mary speaks.   The male characters in the text discount her because she is a woman, and yet at the end of the day, they do go out and proclaim her truth.  Today in the 21st century this text is accused and dismissed as being heresy and gnostic and whatever. Absolutely it belongs in your Bible. 

It touches the contemporary issue of equality for half the human race.  That is enough reason.   But there is more good stuff in here.   

The key point is when the Savior says:

The Child of Humanity is within you. 
Follow it! 
Those who seek it will find it. 
Go then and proclaim the good news of the realm. 
Do not lay down any rules beyond what I determined for you,
nor give a law like the lawgiver,
lest you be confined by it.

That is the gospel.   It is a message of freedom.   It is a message of possibility and hope.  It is a message that celebrates being human.  It is not a message that says, 

You are so bad and God is so angry that he had torture and kill his son before he could forgive you. 

It is not about going to heaven or avoiding hell.  It is about taking the initiative and seeking the good and becoming a human being.    It also isn’t disconnected from the gospel stories of Jesus.   It sounds a lot like those passages in the canonical gospels where Jesus says,

You are the light of the world. 
You are the salt of the Earth. 
The kingdom of God is within you!

For contemporary people, the Gospel of Mary is a refreshing antidote to theologies of original sin and total depravity and the wrath of God and bloody atonement that are common as dirt.   It should also be said that that common theology is later theology put on the New Testament.  The Gospel of Mary can help us free the canonical New Testament and find its positive messages that have been so covered over with theologies of depravity that we seldom hear them.

One of my favorite exchanges is when Peter asks the Savior,

“What is the sin of the world?” 
The Savior said, “There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called ‘sin.’  That is why the Good came into your midst, coming to the good which belongs to every nature, in order to restore it to its root.”

What he is saying is what Creation Spirituality has been saying, and what we have been saying in this church for a long time.  The "root" or what is original is not sin, but "the good."   Humanity is blessed and good.  The universe is blessed and good.  The Child of Humanity, the human being is within you.  Find it.  Go on a quest.  Trust.  Find your goodness.  That is the point, not how bad you are, but how good you are and can be. 

What about Mary’s vision, the ascent of the soul?  

This is beautiful, poetic, pre-modern language about bravely facing our stuff and through that process discovering the beauty and good within us.   It is not about a disembodied soul ascending to heaven after death.  It is about finding your authentic self in this life.    

These “powers” have names, Darkness, Desire, Ignorance, Eagerness for Death, Realm of the Flesh, Wrathful Wisdom and so forth.   These powers want to keep us from being happy, ethical, loving, in short, human.    We may not use these same words but certainly some of them fit our contemporary experience. 

In what sense does “desire” have power over us, for instance?    We may have a desire for status for acceptance for fame for comfort for security and these desires even if natural and healthy can turn obsessive.    We may obsessively focus on desiring something at the expense of living life.  We may sacrifice what is most important to us for a desire, an addiction, an obsession, a fantasy.   The soul’s quest is to name this power and to talk about it and learn where it comes from and to come to terms with it.    

This is therapy. 

It is overcoming...
...our fears, 
...being overly sensitive to praise or criticism, 
...blaming others, 
...feeling persecuted.    

We all have that stuff. 

This past week in our youth group we discussed self-esteem.   If that was all we did all the time, that would be enough.    In fact, in many ways it is what we do.    I found this sheet on self-esteem and gave it to parents.  It is a list of characteristics of a person with a high self-esteem.   Here they are. 

A person with high self-esteem:

    Believes strongly in certain principles and values.
    Is capable of acting in his/her own best judgment.
    Has fewer health problems.
    Genuinely enjoys him/herself and participates in a wide variety of activities.
    Feels equal to others as a person.
    Resists efforts of peers to dominate or sway them.
    Feels confident in the ability to deal with challenging situations, despite failures and setbacks
    Is sensitive to the needs of others; cares about others.
    Is more flexible and adaptable in changing situations.
    Is happy, energetic, enthusiastic, and enjoys life.
That sounds similar to the vision in the Gospel of Mary, after the Soul has faced all the powers and then says:

What rules me has been slain,
and what turns me has been destroyed,
and my desire has been filled,
and ignorance has died.

That is therapy. 

It is self-esteem.  It is an ongoing quest to find and be your truth.     That to me is what it means to be clothed with the human or to find the Child of Humanity within.   A contemporary way of saying it is

I’m comfortable in my own skin.
I am OK with who I am. 
I am beloved.

I think that is a pretty good message and a pretty important message for teenagers and for all of us. 

Let us go then and proclaim the good news of the realm.


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