Sunday, March 1, 2015

Within You and Outside You (3/1/15)

Within You and Outside You
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

March 1, 2015

Gospel of Thomas 3
Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the Father’s imperial rule is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you.  If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you.  Rather, the Father’s imperial rule is within you and it is outside you.  When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.  But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”                                     

During Winter we are exploring the via creativa, the spiritual path of creativity and imagination.   This was not a path that was particularly encouraged in the religion of my childhood.    Being creative in general was encouraged, but when it came to matters of faith, the proper path was to believe what had been handed down.    As it says in Jude 1:3 we are to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”    In other words, stay on message.  Creating your own beliefs was not even a possibility. 

I soon had many questions about the beliefs that were handed down and as much as it was an uphill climb to question those beliefs I did and I still do.  Somewhere along the line I found permission or gave myself permission to be creative.  My ministry has been one of encouraging people to think creatively in matters of faith.  I encourage people to make up their own minds and to explore.   

New ideas in matters of faith both in my childhood and in the present were and are greeted by many with suspicion and warning.   Scripture is quoted.  This is a favorite.  It is 2 Timothy 4:3:

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

That is not a text that inspires creativity.  Quite the opposite.  It inspires fear.   I am not saying this text doesn’t have some value.   It is true that we tend to gravitate towards those who think like us or who say things we want to hear.    It is good to recognize that and listen for other viewpoints.    But this text from Timothy is quoted to serve a rhetorical purpose.    

Stay away from those people who have ideas contrary to the ones you have heard here.   We proclaim the truth that has been established in the beginning and has been handed down.    Close your itching ears. 

Stay away from false teachers.   Why?  Because their ideas are dangerous.  They will endanger your salvation.   I have had this conversation quite publicly for some years.  It has been fun, liberating, frustrating, and enlightening.   I have discovered that many of the ideas that have been “handed down” are not above critique.    The late Marcus Borg raised eyebrows when he said things like, “You know, the Bible is sometimes wrong.”     I think it is a sign of faith and integrity to challenge established beliefs. 

Being creative about beliefs can be scary because it goes against the long tradition of “this is the truth and the truth is unchanging.”   I don’t know if there is such a thing as absolute truth.  There could be a truth that is unchanging.  Even if there is I am pretty sure that I don’t know it.  I am pretty sure that those who claim to speak in the name of truth are at best offering provisional truths that are familiar to them. 

One of the great tensions within religion is authority and the content of faith.   What is truth and who gets to say what it is?  This tension is not only a modern one.  For Christianity it goes back to the earliest documents regarding Jesus.    

I used as a scripture text today saying three from the Gospel of Thomas.   This text is not in the Bible.   That fact might lead to questions of what the Bible is and who decided what goes in it and is it fixed for all time?   

The Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas was found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1948.  It was published in English in 1959.   It is only within the last couple of decades that it has entered popular consciousness thanks to the internet.  I first read it maybe fifteen years ago and didn’t preach sermons on it until ten years ago.   

It is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus.  Many of them are similar to and some nearly identical to those found in the synoptic gospels.  Some are quite different.    The Jesus Seminar used it as a source for its work in its search for the historical person of Jesus.   My read on it is that it is as historical as the Gospel of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.  All the gospels contain memories of the historical Jesus and fictional elements created much later.  

Some books I recommend if you are interested in this gospel:  Stephen Patterson, The Lost Way and Richard Valantasis, The Gospel of Thomas.   Another book would be Stevan Davies, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom.   Also check out Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief.

Thomas looks at Jesus from a different angle than the other gospels.  There is no martyrdom tradition.  No death and resurrection.  Jesus is a teacher of wisdom.

The gospel begins this way.  This is saying one:

These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.  

Stephen Patterson in his book, The Lost Way, points out that this gospel is written in the tradition of Judas, not Iscariot, the other Judas, who was considered to be the brother, even the twin of Jesus.  Thomas means twin.   No one knows who wrote this or any of the gospels.  Names were attached for purposes of authority.    It is attributed to this brother of Jesus, Judas, the twin. 

These are secret sayings of the living Jesus.  What are these sayings about?  Here is saying two:

Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.  When they find, they will be disturbed.  When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all. 

That sounds different.  The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus speak in riddles.    The idea is to wrestle with these sayings and to puzzle over them.   The task is to seek.  Check it out.  Explore.   Be creative.

Then the text for today is saying three.   

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the Father’s imperial rule is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you.  If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you.  Rather, the Father’s imperial rule is within you and it is outside you.  When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.  But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”                                     

Where is the kingdom of God?  Where is the Father’s imperial rule?   When I was a child I learned that that kingdom of God was in heaven.   The most important question was if you died today, do you know where you will spend eternity?  

When I got older I learned that the kingdom of God was coming on Earth.   Earth would be transformed by an apocalyptic act of God and God would establish the kingdom.    That view and the first view melded together in theologies of rapture and tribulation and the end times.   

Those are two very popular views today.  If you turn on Christian television you hear those views preached and taught.   There are softer versions, but generally the kingdom of God refers to either life after death, heaven, or an apocalyptic re-creation of heaven and earth. 

I learned there were other views.  I learned that the Kingdom of God was a metaphor for social and political transformation that comes gradually.  The Kingdom of God is a symbol for how the world would work if the principles of Jesus were followed instead of the principles of Caesar or other emperors.   The kingdom of God as Dominic Crossan says is peace through justice as opposed to peace through violence.    I like that view.   

Thomas has another view.   The Jesus in Thomas pokes fun at those apocalyptic or otherworldly views.   If you think it is in heaven or the sky, well the birds beat you to it.   I don’t know who was saying the kingdom of God was in the sea, but if so, the fish are there already.   It is mocking language to criticize leaders who think they know the signs of the times (ahem Pat Robertson).   Those folks say confidently that God is doing this or that.  Well, even the animals are smarter.   

There was certainly apocalyptic fervor in the first couple of centuries of the common era.   Some believed that God was going to act soon, destroy Israel’s enemies and establish the kingdom of God.   In contrast, Thomas has Jesus say, “the Father’s imperial rule is within you and it is outside you.”   This has a parallel in Luke 17:20-21

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst."

But it is somewhat buried in Luke.   Chapter 17.  Thomas leads with it.   Saying 3.  The Father’s imperial rule is within you and outside you.   Then he goes further:

When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.  But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”     

The Father’s imperial rule or the kingdom of God is within you and outside of you.  Know yourself and you will find it.    You don’t have to wait for something external to happen find the kingdom.  Instead find it by going within.  Then you will see that it is also not only within you but also outside of you.  You will see the world differently. 

The wisdom of Jesus in Thomas is not about believing things about Jesus or getting to heaven when you die or being on the right side of the apocalypse or social or political transformation.  It is about taking the journey to find yourself.   The Father’s imperial rule is already present within you and outside you.  Notice it.

I am going to run with this a little bit.  Stephen Patterson has pointed out that Thomas comes from a Platonic tradition of mind/body dualism.    The inner immortal soul is the wealth and the outer shell of the body is the poverty.    Thomas can be read strictly in that sense.   That is the world from which it comes.   You don’t have to buy into all of that to find the wisdom in Thomas any more than you have to buy into a geocentric universe with heaven above and hell below to find the wisdom in the Bible itself.   That is where it came from but we can be creative and reinterpret it for us for today.

I find that Thomas’ Jesus has great psychological wisdom.    What I like about Thomas is that you have the freedom and the responsibility to find your truth.   It isn’t handed down for you.   I listen to it, struggle with it, am disturbed by it, marvel at it, all of it.   Not only Thomas but where ever wisdom is to be found.   You are the arbiter of the meaning for your life.  Don’t allow “leaders” to tell you what your life means at least without an argument. 

If people don’t think you believe correctly, well fine.  That is their burden, not yours.  That is what I find in Thomas and actually from much of the historical Jesus tradition, too.   Not all of Thomas is particularly inspiring to me.  Some of it is pretty weird.  But the spirit of it is liberating.  

Go check out life, it seems to say.  Saying 77:

Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things  I am all:  from  me all came forth, and to me all attained.  Split a piece of wood; I am there.  Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

That is not the historical Jesus, of course.  That is the cosmic living Jesus who is also within you and among you.   Want to find beauty and joy in the universe?  Lift up the stone.  Split a piece of wood.  Be present to what is. 

Here is my issue.  I have to remind myself not to wish time away.   I can’t wait for next week when I get to see so and so.   When I retire then I’ll have free time to do what I want.   In so many years the mortgage will be paid.   You know what I mean by wishing time away? Thomas reminds me not to wait for external things to change before I can allow myself to be happy.    You already are a child of the living Father.   

The Father’s imperial rule or the kingdom of God is certainly a symbol for “everything’s all right” isn’t it?   The kingdom of God is a symbol for peace, no pain and no tears.  It symbolizes a utopia of justice, peace, and everyone having enough.  Everyone is happy.  It’s all good.  If the kingdom of God is a symbol for when life is perfect and we are searching for the kingdom of God, we can search for a long time. 

If life has to be perfect before we allow ourselves to be happy or to be comfortable in our own skin, we may never get there.   The birds and the fish are already there.   The birds are not waiting for the kingdom of God to come.  They are already doing their bird thing.  Same for the fish.   Learn from them, says Jesus.  Do your human thing.   Be present in this reality.

That is hard to do but it is not impossible.   Sometimes we just need a reminder that where ever and who ever we are right now, it is all good.   For now.  We are children of the living Father.   Now.  What I find is that when I am able to accept myself and my life as it is, that I am better able to make a positive contribution to life outside of myself.     If instead I am anxious about what I am not or what is not, that is the    poverty. 

You know this poem by Mary Oliver, Wild Geese?  It is really good.  It is in my metaphorical loose-leaf Bible along with the Gospel of Thomas and many other assorted things.  I think this poem, Wild Geese sums up what I have been trying to say today regarding giving yourself permission to be creative with your own belief and to find the realm of God within and without. 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


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