Sunday, September 15, 2013

Courage Under Fire (9/15/13)

Courage Under Fire
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 15, 2013

Father, Father, Father of the light,
who has immortality,
hear us,
just as you have delighted in your holy Child,
Jesus Christ.
For he became for us a light-giver in the darkness.
Please hear us.

  Letter of Peter to Philip  2:3-4:1; 5:1-7:1
“Child of life, Child of deathlessness,
Who dwells in the light; the Child,
Christ of deathlessness, our rescuer,
Give us your power for they seek to kill us….”

Then a great light appeared so that the mountain gleamed from the sight of the one who appeared.  And a voice called out to them, saying, “Listen to my words that I might speak to you.  Why are you seeking me?  I am Jesus Christ who is with you forever.”

Then the ambassadors answered and said to him, “Lord, we wish to understand the lack of the generations and their fullness; how are we restrained in this dwelling place, how have we come here, and in what way shall we leave?  How do we have the authority of freedom?  Why do the powers fight against us?”

A voice came to them from the light, saying,...

“Concerning the fullness, I was the one sent down into the body because of the seed which had fallen away.  I came down in their mortal form, but they did not recognize me.  They thought that I was a mortal man.  I spoke with the one who is mine, and he listened to me, just as you, too have listened today.  And I gave him authority that he might enter into the inheritance of his fatherhood.  I took the one who is mine and the generations were filled in his salvation.  And since he was lacking ,he became fullness.

Because you all are being restrained, you are mine.  When you strip off from yourselves what is corrupt, then you will become light-givers in the midst of mortal humans.  This is because you are going to fight against the powers.  They do not have your peace since they do not want you to be saved.”

The ambassadors worshiped again, saying, “Lord, tell us how shall we fight against the rulers since they are over us?”

Then a voice called out from the appearance, saying, “You all will fight against them in this way:  the rulers fight against the inner part of humans, but you will fight against them in this way—come together and teach salvation in the world with a promise.  Strengthen yourselves with the power of my father and offer your prayers.  The Father will help you as he helped you by sending me.  Do not be afraid, I am with you forever—as I said to you before when I was in the body.”

Then lightning and thunder came from the heavens, and what appeared to them was carried off up to the heavens.  The ambassadors gave thanks to the Lord with every blessing and returned to Jerusalem.  While they were going there, they spoke with each other on the road about the light which came.  A conversation occurred concerning the Lord.  They said, “If he, our Lord, suffered, how much then will we suffer?”  Peter responded and said, “He suffered for our sake and it is necessary that we must also suffer because of our smallness.”

Then a voice came to them saying, “I have told all many times that it is necessary for you to suffer.  It is necessary that you be brought to synagogues and governors so that you will suffer.  But those who will not suffer will not save their lives.”

And the ambassadors rejoiced much and went up to Jerusalem.  They went up to the Temple and taught salvation in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and they healed the crowd.      

The Letter of Peter to Philip     7:6
Our Lord, Jesus Christ,
author of our peace,
give us a spirit of understanding
so that we may also do great deeds.

I hope you are enjoying this series of sermons on A New New Testament.   Next week we look at the final addition, The Secret Revelation of John.   Then throughout the Fall I will be preaching from the Gospel of Thomas

This week we look at a text from the Nag Hammadi collection.   These texts were discovered quite by accident in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.   They had been hidden in sealed jars in the fourth century and not discovered until 70 years ago and only fairly recently have these documents reached the consciousness of non-professionals.   Thanks to Hal Taussig and A New New Testament we can look at this text and others as members of the early Christian family.   

This is called The Letter of Peter to Phillip.  It was written some time in the second century.     It was written perhaps close in time to some of the other documents found in the canonical New Testament.   The Letter of Peter to Philip is not really a letter.  It is a story that begins with a letter.  

We all know the story of Pentecost.   This story is told in the Book of Acts.   In this story, after the ascension of Jesus to heaven the apostles wait in Jerusalem.  While they are waiting tongues of fire appear on their heads and they begin preaching in different languages, languages they don’t even know.    Peter stands up and preaches and tells of the meaning of this experience.   Three thousand people are saved and they break bread, pray, and share their possessions.    We have a day for it, Pentecost, 50 days after Easter that we sometimes call the birthday of the church.   I don’t want to burst your birthday balloon, but that is likely a fictional story.    Like the stories we tell about Jesus at Christmas and Easter, the Pentecost story has all the elements of legend.   Also, like Christmas and Easter stories, the Pentecost story is fun and it is an excuse to wear red, orange and other fiery colors and to celebrate Spirit on that day.   The church has even measured time by it.   Today for instance is the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.  

The Letter of Peter to Philip is like a Pentecost story.  That is why I wore my red stole.   

Here is the plot.   It begins, “The letter of Peter which he sent to Philip.”

Then the letter says in essence,
“Dear Philip, we are supposed to teach and preach salvation in the Lord’s name, but we are divided and we can’t get organized.  We need to sing from the same hymnal.   How about we get together and figure this out?”  

When Philip receives the letter he is filled with much rejoicing so he goes to visit Peter.  Peter leads all of the apostles or ambassadors to the Mount of Olives, which is the place according to Acts where Jesus ascended to heaven.    Today if you take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, you can go to the Mount of Olives.  They have a shrine there in honor of Jesus’ ascension.    The tour guide will point you to the rock from which Jesus ascended.  On the rock is a bit of an indentation.  If you use your imagination as the tour guide will tell you, you will see that it is Jesus’s footprint.   He was about a size seven.   It is fun.  It is magic.  It is story.  It is legend.  Enjoy the ride.

While gathered on the spot that Jesus ascended to heaven, the ambassadors kneel and pray.  They say…
“Father, Father, Father of the light,
who has immortality,
hear us,
just as you have delighted in your holy Child,
Jesus Christ.
For he became for us a light-giver in the darkness.
Please hear us.”

And they prayed again, saying,

 “Child of life, Child of deathlessness,
Who dwells in the light; the Child,
Christ of deathlessness, our rescuer,
Give us your power for they seek to kill us….”
Whoa.  Now we have a plot.   People are out to kill them.  

Howard Hangar at Jubilee Church in Asheville likes to talk about the meaning of Jewish festivals in this way.   A Jewish festival has three basic movements:
  1. They tried to kill us.
  2. They didn’t.
  3. Let’s eat.
Then a great light appears and a voice is heard.  The voice from the light says in essence,
“I am Jesus.    What do you want?”

They ask Jesus to explain things.  They say,
“Lord, we wish to understand the lack of the generations and their fullness;  how are we restrained in this dwelling place, how have we come here, and in what way shall we leave?  How do we have the authority and freedom?  Why do the powers fight against us?”  3:2

Then Jesus explains why things are the way they are and the meaning of the Jesus story.   Remember, in Acts, Peter explains why things are the way they are and the meaning of the Jesus story in his speech.    In The Letter of Peter to Philipit isn’t Peter who explains it but Jesus himself.    The explanation in The Letter of Peter to Philip is a bit different.  

Hal Taussig in his forward to this text explains it.  He writes:
“Jesus’s basic answer to the first question is that there has been a cosmic mistake in the relationship between the Mother and Father God of everyone.  This divine mistake has resulted in arrogant powers taking over humanity.  These arrogant powers have blinded humanity to its origins in God, and they want to destroy the apostles because the apostles know of humanity’s origins in God.”  P. 407

It is one of the big ticket questions, “Why evil?  Why is there war, suffering, and hardship?  Why do bad things happen?”  This text’s unique answer is that it is a problem with the divine powers, not the fault of humans.     Jesus is the light-giver to show the way.   

The ambassadors then ask, “How do we fight against these rulers?”  

Jesus tells them that they do this by “teaching salvation with a promise.”  They are to become light-givers, by telling people the truth of our situation and by healing.  

The light disappears and as the ambassadors leave they talk among themselves about suffering.   If he suffered, won’t we suffer?  Then a voice again speaks that it is necessary to suffer.   If you tell the truth the powers will fight you.   But it is necessary to tell the truth and heal.

Then Peter “filled with the holy spirit” preaches a sermon that as Christ suffered for bringing the light we too will suffer for bringing the light, but the Lord is with us to strengthen us, so let us teach and heal.    They depart with joy, grace, power, and peace.

The Letter of Peter to Philip is really a powerful story and a well-written story of what it means to have integrity and hope in the midst of opposition.    Rather than regard the opposition as evil, the recognition is that it is bigger than them.    But that doesn’t mean we back off from fighting the powers, not the people, but the powers.  That is done by telling what is true to the people and by healing. 

There is also a recognition that the apostles also have their own inner work to do.   Jesus says to them:
“When you strip off from yourselves what is corrupt, then you will become light-givers in the midst of mortal humans.”  5:3

That is an ancient way of saying that each of needs to raise his or her consciousness.   

This past Wednesday I spoke with the youth group about why we are a More Lightcongregation.    That is, why have we taken a stand for equality in church and society for LGBT people?  I explained what all the letters LGBTQ meant  too.    I spelled it out with the youth who we are and why we are who we are.   

Much like The Letter of Peter to Philip, I explained that humanity is good and of God but there are what our ancestors called “powers,” there is a fog if you like of blindness  and prejudice that keeps us from seeing the true beauty of God in ourselves and in others.    We can’t blame people for that.   That fog and blindness is bigger than us and bigger than them.   We are all responsible for our actions but we also realize that those who say mean things or do mean things simply don’t know better.     Fear, ignorance, and wrong information, all get in the way of recognizing the truth.   

So how do we respond to that?  We don’t return mean words and actions with more mean words and actions.  Instead we tell the truth as best as we know it or as Jesus said in The Letter of Peter to Philip:
“Come together and teach salvation in the world with a promise.”   6:2 

In regards to LGBTQ people, I see glimpses of light.   I have seen including in me, consciousness being raised.  People hear the stories, they hear the truths of others and hearts and minds can change.   The more we tell our truths without blinking, with confidence that we mean it, and with respect, hearts and minds change for the better.  Not always and not in every case by any means, but as far as I have seen, it happens enough so that I know it is good to continue to do it.   Sometimes it takes a while but people can and do change.

What about even larger issues, such as climate change and the destruction of the environment for narrow economic interests?   Why over the last couple of decadeshas there been such opposition to the truth that humans have contributed significantly to environmental changes?    If The Letter of Peter to Philip is a guide, then the reason is that there are forces unseen, bigger than actual human beings that delude us.     There is nothing supernatural or spooky about this.  The Letter of Peter to Philip and other ancient texts personified these forces as powers or gods. 

The best explanation of this is from John Steinbeck, in Grapes of Wrath:
     The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came….if a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time….

    You see, a bank or a company…those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die….the bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size…we have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster….

    Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours….

    We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

    Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

    No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. Pp. 42-45

Now I am not picking on your local banker by quoting Steinbeck.   This is bigger than that.  It is the myth of infinite economic growth, an economic system that ensnares us all.   Another system like it is what President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about years ago, the military-industrial complex.   

All of these systems are what our ancient writers saw as well.   They called them divine powers.   

I feel like I am one of the ambassadors praying to Christ:
Christ of deathlessness, our rescuer,
Give us your power for they seek to kill us….”

The response is to tell the truth and don’t be afraid.   Do know that by doing so you will face opposition.  Do it anyway.    Proclaim the truth that we are human beings.  We are better than this.   There are better answers than destroying the planet for oil.  There are better answers than responding to conflicts by making more weapons and using them on others.   There are better answers than destroying rainforests to grow export crops to pay off interest on debts.  

These ancient religious texts are not just about religion or esoteric metaphysical ideas.  They were and are about the real struggles we face as a human race.  While couched in the language of mythology and legend
  1. they tell the truth about who we are--that is human beings
  2. and they tell the truth about what has happened--that we have become deluded and drugged by false messages
  3. and they tell the truth about what we can become when we wake up, find our courage, use our voice, and make a difference.

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