Sunday, December 15, 2013

Soul Friends (12/15/13)

Soul Friends
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 15, 2013
Third Sunday of Advent

Love your friends like your own soul, protect them like the pupil of your eye.
Gospel of Thomas 25

The Gospel of Thomas was not included in the New Testament.    Even though it contains sayings of Jesus, many quite similar (some even nearly identical) to those found in the canonical gospels, particularly the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, nevertheless Thomas didn’t make the cut.  

This could be because Thomas has no crucifixion and resurrection story.    The mythology of Jesus dying for the sins of the world and being raised from the dead and exalted as Lord of all became the dominant story.    That is the story that matters according to what eventually became orthodox Christianity.  All other stories and views of Jesus were either crushed or absorbed into that overarching myth.  

The only way, the correct way, the orthodox way to understand Jesus was to see him as one with God, in fact as God, the second person of the Trinity, in whom all cosmic ends and beginnings are embodied. 

The very existence of the Gospel of Thomas, 114 sayings of Jesus without an overarching myth or narrative, shows that not all early Christians saw Jesus in the way the orthodox Christians did.    Current scholars of Christian origins are showing us that it was diverse from the beginning.   There were very different views of Jesus in those early centuries even as the orthodox view developed over time and won the day.   

Thomas is a treasure in terms of understanding Christian origins.  It is also a treasure for those who today find orthodox Christianity wanting.       For those who are interested in Jesus as a teacher of wisdom or a social prophet but are less interested in the god mythology, Thomas may be a resource. 

That isn’t to say that Thomas is without its problems.  I don’t find all of it particularly interesting or helpful.  At times I find it to be more clever than profound.   It is also, in my view, immersed in Platonic dualism.   

In this philosophy, the world with its rivers, mountains, mushrooms, antelopes, and human bodies is some kind of lesser material object of the form or ideal that is supposedly reality.    We need to shed the body to free the bodiless soul.   Thomas isn’t there completely but enough to annoy me.    

Thomas isn’t perfect.  I am not interested in starting a religion based on the Gospel of Thomas.    That said, Thomas has great value for 21st century people.   I already mentioned some ways in which it provides alternatives to orthodoxy.   In contrast to a divine savior, Jesus is depicted as a teacher of wisdom.    We can get it. There is no need to believe in incredible things.  There is no need to engage in all kinds of practices.  There is no need to be converted or to convert.    

There is a way to read Thomas as a guide to discovering the mature self.    With Thomas you are encouraged to notice and to criticize social conditioning and to rise above it.    Whether that social conditioning comes from family, politics, or religion, Thomas invites critique.    Don’t just accept it.  Seek, find, be disturbed, and rule over all as Thomas says in saying number two.    Rule over all means rise above it.  

You don’t need leaders or books or dogmas.    You have the light in you.  Find it and let it shine.    That is what I really take from Thomas.  That makes this collection of sayings particularly worthwhile.    It is that freedom to find your own path.    In our  contemporary religious culture in which people are so beaten down by superstition, dogmatism, and rules, the Jesus of Thomas is liberating.  

The Jesus of Thomas is less of a social prophet than I might like.   I don’t find a great deal of critique of empire and of empire’s violence in Thomas.   While I think the church went in an unfortunate direction by having Jesus die for our sins and so forth, it is true that he died.  Not only did he die, he was executed by empire.    The values, ideology, and methods of empire are the same today as they were then.  The difference is that we have more sophisticated economic theories to rationalize inequality and we have more technologically efficient killing machines.    The theology is the same:  peace comes through war and victory.   Of course, Empire’s peace is not peace at all.   It is temporary quiet enforced by violence to keep systems of inequality in place.
John Dominic Crossan has pointed out convincingly that the historical Jesus had a different vision.   For the historical Jesus, peace comes through non-violence and justice, where justice means enough for everyone.      

I do see that critique of empire’s violence hidden in the canonical gospels.    So in my own canon of scripture, I add Thomas to the collection.  I don’t replace the others with it.      They are all needed.  They need to be read critically, not just taken at face value. 

Today’s theme is ethics in the kingdom.   What are the ethics of the Gospel of Thomas?  What is the good we should be doing?     

First we find that the Jesus of Thomas has little interest in following prescribed behavior.    The Jesus of Thomas does not appear to follow Torah.  Saying 53:

His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision useful or not?"

He said to them, "If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect."

But he also reinterprets Torah.    At times, he doesn’t seem to be saying throw it out, but find its inner meaning.  Saying 27:

"If you do not fast from the world, you will not find the Father's kingdom. If you do not observe the sabbath as a sabbath you will not see the Father."

Fasting from the world is marvelous idea.    Take a break from the values and social conditioning of this world, from empire’s violence perhaps, from common wisdom and observe a Sabbath, not only externally, but find the authentic meaning and practice of rest of Sabbath.   

He takes shots at religious leaders.   Here is saying 39:

Jesus said, "The Pharisees and the scholars have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They have not entered nor have they allowed those who want to enter to do so.     As for you, be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves."

The scholars and practitioners don’t have a clue.    The practices of religion without internal transformation are like washing only the outside of a cup.   Saying 89:

Jesus said, "Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don't you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?"

His disciples ask him explicitly about practices.  Here is saying number 6:

His disciples asked him and said to him, "Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?"

Jesus said, "Don't lie, and don't do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed."

In other words, don’t think that hiding behind external practices will work.   Be truthful.  Be honest.  Don’t lie.   Find yourself.     Then a few sayings later, Jesus really takes a shot at external practices.  This is saying 14: 

Jesus said to them, "If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.

When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them.

After all, what goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it's what comes out of your mouth that will defile you."

For Thomas, by engaging in these practices you simply are participating in the social conditioning of your religion.   The true you, your authentic self, is the light within and beyond all of this.     You can act from light and from love.    So you eat whatever is before you.  You don’t worry about diet.   You don’t practice specific acts of charity.  You are charity.   Heal liberally. It will come from you freely.   You don’t need to pray to some divine being, because divinity is within you.    Be who you really are.  

That is dangerous talk.   It is liberating and true but dangerous.   The danger is that we easily confuse our ego with our authentic self.    The reason there are rules is because we are not to be trusted to act from our authentic selves.    That is why the church is so rule-based.    We are full of sin.  We need rules to control and contain egos.   

That may be another reason why Thomas didn’t make it into the orthodox canon of scripture.  Thomas is a mature gospel.  It expects the best of you.   It treats you like an adult.   It trusts you to act from love and from light.    

Now 1900 years or so after Thomas and after the other documents of the New Testament have been written, we have engaged in much reflection and practice regarding practice.   There is likely a middle way between rule-based ethics and non rule-based ethics.    That either you need to be controlled by strict rules or that all rules are a hindrance to true goodness.   

I am not sure if Thomas is saying get rid of the rules altogether. 

If so, I would agree regarding circumcision.    I mean, really?   Who thought that one up?   I think that one could be left behind.    

In regards to the other practices mentioned,  I think the middle way is a good way. 

By engaging thoughtfully but not woodenly in the practices of prayer or meditation, of diet, of disciplined charitable giving, and of honoring Sabbath, we can find assistance in discovering our authentic selves.   We become as we practice.    That is the middle way between hard and intransigent rules and punishments for their infraction on one hand and an attitude of “Forget about it, I’ll do what I want” on the other.    

To orthodox Christianity’s credit, they have over the centuries sought to find a balance between law and freedom and have encouraged the middle way.   In fact, it is old musty Presbyterians and Reformed thinkers who have done as much regarding ethics as anyone.    

So how do we treat our neighbor, our friend, our brother, our sister, even our enemy?    That is the heart of ethics, isn’t it?    I think Thomas comes up with the most beautiful guide and metaphor as I have heard.    Saying 25:

Love your friends like your own soul, protect them like the pupil of your eye.

That is a beautiful sentence unique to Thomas.   It is a powerful ethical statement. Think of our eye’s pupil, its fragility and sensitivity.    We don’t need to be conscious about protecting it.  Our eyelids involuntarily protect our pupils.   

·        What if loving our friends, neighbors, strangers, even enemies like our own soul was as involuntary as our eyelids guarding our pupils?     

·        What if we regarded the dignity, the humanity, the modesty, the sacred worth of others like we guard our own pupil?

·        In an age in which we are and need to be so conscious of our home, what if we included Earth and all of its life as the pupil of our eye, to be guarded and protected?  

·        What if life itself is to be loved as our own soul?

If we could boil religion down to that, it might be all we need.   


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