Sunday, October 6, 2013

Revealing the Hidden (10/6/13)

Revealing the Hidden
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 6, 2013
World Communion Sunday

Selections from the Gospel of Thomas

Jesus said,
"Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death." (1)

Jesus said,
"Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.   For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. And there is nothing buried that will not be raised." (5)

Jesus said,
"Images are visible to people, but the light within them is hidden in the image of the Father's light. He will be disclosed, but his image is hidden by his light." (83)

Jesus said,
"Adam came from great power and great wealth, but he was not worthy of you.  For had he been worthy, he would not have tasted death." (85)

Jesus said,
"Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy." (56)

Jesus said,
"Whoever has come to know the world has discovered the body, and whoever has discovered the body, of that one the world is not worthy." (80)

Jesus said,
"Don't give what is holy to dogs, for they might throw them upon the manure pile. Don't throw pearls to pigs, or they might trample them." (93)

Jesus said,
"I disclose my mysteries to those who are worthy of my mysteries.  Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (62)

Jesus said,
"The heavens and the earth will roll up in your presence, and whoever is living from the living one will not see death.  Does not Jesus say, ‘Those who have found themselves, of them the world is not worthy’"? (111)

Jesus said,
"Let one who has found the world, and has become wealthy, renounce the world." (110)

Jesus said,
"Often you have desired to hear these sayings that I am speaking to you, and you have no one else from whom to hear them. There will be days when you will seek me and you will not find me." (38)

Jesus said,
"The realm is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it. And when he died he left it to his son. The son did not know about it either. He took over the field and sold it. The buyer went plowing, discovered the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished."(109)

Jesus said,
The realm of the Father is compared to a woman.  She took a little yeast and hid it in dough.  She made the loaves into leavened bread!  Whoever has ears, hear! (96)

Jesus said,
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you." (70)

Jesus said,
"Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me;
I myself shall become that person,
and the hidden things will be revealed to him." (108)

Jesus said,
"I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart." (17)

Jesus said,
"Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being.  If you become my disciples and pay attention to my sayings, these stones will serve you.  For there are five trees in Paradise for you; they do not change, summer or winter, and their leaves do not fall. Whoever knows them will not taste death."  (19)

During the season of Autumn we are spending time with the Gospel of Thomas. This is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, 114 sayings.   There is no story about Jesus.    It is probably true that before there were stories about Jesus, that is before stories about him were remembered or created, that the historical Jesus was remembered for the things he said.  

The Gospel of Thomas reflects this early tradition.  Before narratives about Jesus, before Jesus was turned into a divine figure larger than life, there were his sayings and teachings, his pithy aphorisms and parables that defined him and his vision. 

The Gospel of Thomas also presents Jesus as a divine figure larger than life.  Not all the sayings in Thomas go back to the historical person of Jesus.   Some of the sayings probably do, but many have been exaggerated or simply created and placed on his lips.  

What I think is interesting is that the Thomas community preserved Jesus by remembering him as a teacher.   Even though they created some of the teachings, they still remembered him primarily as teacher, as one who has wisdom and insight about matters of essence.  

They did not create narratives about him as the other gospels did.   They didn’t create stories about him to parallel some sort of divine or heroic figure as the other gospel writers did.    To be sure, the Jesus revealed in Thomas is a divine figure. No human being says something like this:

Jesus said,
"Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me;
I myself shall become that person,
and the hidden things will be revealed to him." (108)

Those are the words of a fictional character, a god of some sort.   Those parallel the fantastic sayings in the other gospels about Jesus.   For example, in John, when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” that statement reflects the author’s beliefs about Jesus placed on the lips of Jesus.    Or in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus says , “If anyone wishes to walk in my steps, let him renounce self, take up his cross, and follow me,” that also reflects the author’s belief about Jesus put on the lips of Jesus as if Jesus himself said it.   Thomas is no different than the other gospels in that respect.  It contains both material that was created by the authors and it contains kernels of historical memory.   

What is different about Thomas is the way Jesus is remembered and created.   He is both remembered and created as a teacher of wisdom.   He reveals what is hidden.  He doesn’t demand belief.   For the other gospels, the person of Jesus is of primary importance.   Believe in is his salvific death.  Believe in his resurrection.   And by doing so, you will get your reward.    For Thomas, as we hear in the first saying attributed to Jesus:

“Whoever finds the meaning of these sayings will not experience death.” (1)

Compare that to the familiar passage, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” 

Both Thomas and John are promising the same reward.   Thomas says you won’t experience death.  John says you won't perish but have eternal life.   I think they are promising the same thing.  Now what exactly that reward is I am not sure. Others more sure than I will be happy to tell you.   You can call it survival of consciousness, or soul, or spirit beyond the death of the physical body.  You can call it resurrection of the body, you can call it reincarnation.  Maybe it is heaven. Maybe it is Nirvana.    Have at it.   On the other hand, if you think that this life is what we get, you can understand this as a metaphor for a fuller sense of meaning, authenticity and purpose within this life.   Perhaps a bit of both.  Whatever it is, it is a similar thing for Thomas and John.    Both say, if you get it right, you won’t perish (John) or experience death (Thomas). 

Both offer a promise of eternal or authentic life or deathless life.   Both require an action as well.   John requires belief in Jesus and Thomas requires finding meaning in his teachings.  

In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are other actions that are required to get this reward.  For Matthew, keep the letter of the law.  For Mark, pick up your cross and follow.  For Luke, give away your possessions.    

If there is a point I would like to continue to make it is that the gospels say different things about Jesus.   There is no single theology or Christology of the New Testament.    Thomas offers one more voice in this chorus of diversity.     They offer promises, but how to get there is different.

The choice of Thomas to use only sayings of Jesus when surely there were narratives about Jesus available to this author, says something about who Jesus is for Thomas.  

Jesus for Thomas is a teacher of wisdom who reveals what is hidden.    Your task dear reader of Thomas, is to discover what is hidden.    And he gives you a poke, “Are you worthy?”

Jesus said,
"I disclose my mysteries to those who are worthy of my mysteries.  Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (62)

Is it in you?

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you." (70)

He is poking you.   He is teasing you.  You can’t just sit around and believe stuff. You can’t just be passive about life and wait for it to come to you.   You can’t blame the world for your problems.  The world according to Thomas is a carcass.   You are not that.    But you have to do some work.    You have to want it.   You have to find it.

This is true enough, isn’t it?  You can go to a counselor, or a doctor, or to church and hear your preacher, or go to school and learn from the masters, or elect a politician, and all of those people can help you.   But none can help, even the best of them, if you don’t give of yourself.   If you are not worthy, that is if you don’t consider yourself worthy enough to put yourself into it, no one can help. 

Lovely and I watched Gravity last night at the movie theater with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.   It was cool, 3-D and everything.  I am not going to say anything about the film, except that I thought it was well done and I am playing with the idea that the film is a commentary on saying 70 in the Gospel of Thomas:

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you." (70)

Is it in you?

The answer is, “Yes!”  Now find it!

Some interpret Thomas as saying that the body, the physical, the world we see, Earth and sky, the atoms that make us up, is a carcass.  It is not worthy. 

Jesus said,
"Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy." (56)

The physical world is not real.  My body is not the real me.   The real is hidden.     

You can certainly read it that way.   It is possible that many read it that way when it was circulating those first decades and centuries after Jesus.   

That kind of reading can be applied to any religious or spiritual tradition.  Like the old hymn says:

“This world is not my home.  I’m just passing through.”  

You can read orthodox Christianity that way, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all variations thereof, if you wish.    You can say all of those religious traditions regard the world or the body as a carcass, as a shell, a husk, or a trap.  

You can also read all of these religious and spiritual traditions including Thomas in another way.   This is how I try to read Thomas, and in fact, all the religious traditions.  It isn’t the physical body, and planet Earth, and our embodied existence that is disparaged.    What is disparaged is a system of value that is not life-giving.

When Thomas refers to the “world” and this is true for John and the other gospels and other ancient writings as well, the author is not writing about Planet Earth, the universe, or our physical existence.   The “world” is a set of power structures and ideologies that are foolish and destructive.   The world is a shorthand phrase for those things we identify such as sexism or racism or the domination of the powerful over the powerless.   Empire can be a good synonym.   We often use the phrase, “Here is how the world works.”   When we say that we aren’t talking about the laws of gravity.  We are talking about how politics works, for example.  Here is how the world works, the rich exploit the poor and call it morality.   That is the world.  That is a carcass. 

In this world, we are defined by the systems of which we are a part.   We are put on political teams.  We are categorized according to some system of gender classification or sex classification or what language we speak or what country we inhabit or what we consume.    All of that is our surface identity.  But what is hidden is a deeper sense of who are as human beings.

I think it is too simple to think that Thomas and other spiritual literature is about the spirit as opposed to the body.  It is, as I see it, about how we live this embodied existence, the only existence we know we have.    Do we live it with awareness that is life-giving or do we acquiesce to the systems of domination and ignorance that are death-dealing?    Are you aware of how amazing it is to be alive?   Do you let meaning just happen to you, or do you create it?   The key to wisdom is to look deeper than what is on the surface.  

These sayings of Jesus in Thomas are prods and pokes that alternately cajole and invite and perplex.   Examine your life.   Don’t be satisfied with surface answers. The treasure is hidden.   What is hidden within you is beautiful and life-giving.   Let yourself out.  We need you.

The more I read Thomas front to back and back to forth, I read encouragement.  

You are worthy. 
Within you is life.   
Hidden inside you is courage and creativity. 
Hidden within you is joy and sensitivity. 
Hidden within you is stardust and sacredness. 
Hidden within you is beauty and grace.
Hidden within you is healing and hope. 

Maya Angelou captured the hidden reality in her important poem, “Still I Rise.”  

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

That is a poem that knows the world. 
It is a carcass. 
But she has discovered what is hidden within herself.  
That is life.
She brings it forth.

May we all.


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