Ps Karen Sloan, Wembley Downs UCA, Perth
Sermon – Earth Day Thomas Style – Karen Sloan
Readings – John 20:19-31
Luke 24:13-35 (last weeks)
The Progressive Christian book club, which has been meeting for over 2 years every month, has just finished reading Damascus, by Christos Tsiolkas. A book that takes you on a wild ride through the time of the early Jesus followers, but particularly the time of Paul. We hear the blood and guts and reality of living in the Roman Empire, and Pauls conversion from a Jewish condemner of those followers to one who himself followed, in vivid detail. But we also hear the humanity in him, and the other leaders of the time. Voices from the past include not only Paul, but Timothy, James, Thomas and Onesimus, the freed slave of Phiimon, who is called Able in the book. We are presented with the variety of understandings of Jesus found even then, near the beginning of our faith tradition.
As Dennis Ryle wrote in his review, we see how leaders and followers negotiate the interactions of Jew and gentile, the Greek cults and Roman tyranny to be fourth generation Christ followers in a challenging world. Particularly when the expectation of those who thought Jesus would return, bringing in a new heaven and a new earth,went unfulfilled.
It is not for the faint hearted, and the descriptions of the bloody times, and the barbarity that some would go to, particularly the Romans to keep people in line are shocking. But also, Pauls struggles with his own desires, and his own need to find faith that speaks to him is also written with energy and gusto. Ultimately, Paul finds that faith in the Jesus story, but the journey is not easy.
Many in the book club didn’t enjoy the book, it was difficult to read the full-on pace of the it, and the inevitable descriptions of death and destruction and grief and yes, even doubt, in the first century CE.
Yet others found it insightful, and courageous. I was one of those.
We see in Paul the walk between faith and doubt, between living the way of Jesus and living the way of the Roman Empire, and it was costly to all those who took the former path. We also hear the walk between the different ways of understanding the Jesus story, between this world and another world to come, between a Jesus resurrected and a human Jesus, between faith and trust, between the teachings of Jesus and the expectations of his followers. Between Paul and Thomas.
And this is where I would like to focus the remaining parts of this sermon, on the disciple Thomas. I know the reading today is the Emmaus reading, about two Jesus followers who see Jesus, incognito and realise after his death, that he is still with them. Is this how Paul comes to faith, on the road to Damascus, with a vision like this? While the book depicts it slightly differently there is no doubt Paul became a disciple of Jesus in every sense of the word, living out his teachings in a world corrupted by power and violence.
But what about the reading from last week. About Thomas. The disciple Thomas who doubts, Thomas who still follows but who doubts, Thomas who writes a gospel, but doubts, Thomas who gives his life for a new vision, but who maybe still doubts. What does he doubt. It seems from his gospel, he doubted that the kingdom was elsewhere, but rather was here and now in the earthy world we live in.
The Gospel of Thomas was found in December 1945 as part of 52 texts by an Egyptian peasant digging for fertilizer near the city of Nag Hammadi. The other texts found included the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Truth and many other letters and poems. Clearly there were many early Christian writings, apart from the 4 gospels we have, circulating at the time.
The discovery of the full text in Coptic, and discoveries of 3 Greek papyri, confirmed it was written in the late first century or early second century. Although most of the evidence comes from Egypt Syria was probably its original home. But there is no consensus as to who wrote the book and it may have been a follower of Thomas and not Thomas himself who died earlier.
So, what is in the gospel. Well its quite different from the others and is termed a sayings gospel, containing wisdom statements attributed to Jesus rather than an overall story. It is Jesus as a teacher. The teachings are like the other gospels, short parables, proverbs and aphorisms. Many scholars feel that when the sayings in the gospel of Thomas parallel sayings in the synoptics, Matt, Mark and Luke, the form of the sayings in Thomas may be closest to the original.
What is significant, thinking back to the Thomas we heard last week, is that there is not an emphasis on Jesus saving death, his resurrection, his appearance stories (although they don’t appear in Mark either), or his healing. The meaning of Jesus comes from the wisdom he communicates, not from any special accomplishments, his position on earth or in heaven or what fate or triumph he experiences. There is no announcement of an apocalyptic kingdom that will disrupt the present world order or an expectation that the risen Jesus will return, particularly seen in John. In Thomas Jesus does not teach about his own significance or about holy scriptures, or make reference to the Hebrew scriptures as we find in Matt, but on issues of everyday life and practise.
This is why progressive Christians feel attached to this gospel. It fits with the call from Borg, and Crossan and many progressive and historical Jesus scholars to place Jesus firmly within humanity, as a Jewish reformer, sage, and mystic. It was rejected from the cannon in the 4 century, because it suggested that by knowing oneself, by transforming one’s self with Gods help, the world can be transformed. And the church was heavily leaning towards a set of beliefs rather than a way of life. While Gnosticism came to be seen as heretical, we know that the mystics and desert fathers kept the idea of the inner journey alive for centuries.
So, what are the teachings. The teachings seem to vary, sometimes the meaning is clear, and guiding, other times poetic, and sometimes they raise more questions than they answer.
The New New Testament, a book incorporating the material from Nag Hammadi and the traditional cannon, suggests the teaching are not meant to teach you how to build a house but get you to examine and start us thinking about life, our life and the life of others, much like the parables do in the other gospels. And where God is in all of that.
The main focus of the teachings is the Kingdom of God, or the direct translation is the realm of God, in the here and now within the context of ordinary life. While this idea is also found in the other gospels, it is wider and more encompassing in Thomas. And not clouded by other additions.
Let me give you some examples –
Jesus said : (3)The realm is within you, and outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize you are children of the living father.
Jesus said :(17) I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.
Jesus said: (51) What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.
Jesus said (97) The realm of the father is compared to a woman carrying a jar filled with flour. While she was walking on the road a ways out, the handle of the jar broke. The flour emptied out along the road, but she did not realize it or recognise a problem.
And finally (113) His followers said to Jesus; When will the realm come? He said, It will not come by looking for it. It will not be a matter of saying. “Here it is” or “Look! there it is”. Rather, the realm of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.
From these statements we get the sense that the realm of God, the Kingdom of God, is to be brought in by us, not by some divine intervention from an external God. God is here already working in the world. In you and me. We have to open our eyes and ears to it.
In fact the Gospel explicitly challenges the notion of the end times and a divine rescue…
Again, let me give you an example –
(18) His followers said to Jesus: Tell us how our end will be. Jesus said: “Have you discovered the beginning that you ask about the end? For, in the place where the beginning is, there the end will be. Blessed is the one who takes a stand in the beginning. That one will know the end, and will not experience death.
For the Gospel of Thomas the spiritual path of wisdom does not point to a life somewhere else when we die, or to something else found outside of the world and magically reappearing every now and then. Instead Thomas’s Jesus points us to the origins of life and the world as the real signs of God purpose for human beings (a quote from “The New New Testament”).
So it’s about transformation, as individuals and as a society and world. it’s about a God who is within all things, prompting and cajoling us to be better than we currently are, more loving, more compassionate, more just, more non-violent. More like Jesus. More like a resurrection to new life, in this world.
There are often criticisms of the Gospel of Thomas, particularly in the main stream church, because its seen as being about the inner struggle only. Yet the Jesus of Thomas points out that the inner journey will lead to an outer one. And it is not going to be easy. Let me read a few more of the sayings –
Jesus said (2) And when that one finds he will be disturbed.
Jesus said (58) Blessed is the one who is disturbed by her discovery. That one has found life.
Jesus said (69) Blessed are those who have been persecuted within their hearts. They are the ones who have truly known the father. Blessed are those who are hungry, for they are motivated to alleviate the belly of the one who desires.
We will be disturbed. I love that. Because if we are true Jesus followers, when we find the God within, we cannot but be disturbed by a world that is not loving and not just. And a religious system that does not work for those most marginalised, or a creation groaning under our weight.
And when we are disturbed, we can be agents of change. And the kingdom of God will be revealed.
Sounds like what we have been preaching here at Wembley downs for years. And a good thing to remember in the week of Earth Day 2020.
Maybe a bit of doubt leads to surprising things.
“A New New Testament”. edited with commentary by Hal Taussig, 2015.