4 Lent 2021: There is more than orthodoxy

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I am going to do something Gnostic-like,
since the Lenten Book Study has been reading the Gnostic Gospels.

I have “discovered”
a new ancient manuscript
that includes a strange version of John 3:14-21,
those verses we read today.

They seem to be parallel verses to John but different somehow,
as if it is a new gospel about the same things but with a very different outcome.

They were found in
”The Secret Gospel of Cam.

It goes like this, beginning at verse 14 (Cam 3:14-21), and I’m going to break at the verses so you can compare the two gospels:

3:14 Unlike the magic which Moses was said to use
in order to protect people from poisonous snakes in the wilderness, Jesus died while trying to lead humanity away from our toxic self-centeredness.

3:15 His death showed us that some things are greater than even life itself.

3:16 God so loved the world, and so loved Jesus, that God suffered with him, and is present in our suffering too.

3:17 It was not inevitable that Jesus would die in his effort to show us about creating God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Learning from him would save us from so much self-inflicted suffering.

3:18 When we refuse to believe that we can create a just and equitable community on earth, and live in harmony with the rhythms and wisdom of nature, then we condemn ourselves to lives lived within hostility, greed, war, and the ravages of a depleted and diminished earth.

3:19 And this is the judgment: that we suffer the consequences of our choices. There is no one to save us but ourselves – though God will help us if we allow it.

3:20 None of this is secret or hard to understand. We can readily see our demise in what we choose to do or not do.

3:21 Likewise, those who awaken from this terrible self-destruction will heal from its toxicity, and grow in understanding with a new depth of love. God is present through all of it, but it is not until we embrace this wisdom that we know it.

Well there it is, and just like those Gnostics
I am going to come out and say
that just because something is orthodox
does not make it true.

Orthodoxy is merely one form of Christianity
and by no means the gate-keeper of its wisdom.
In fact, I would go so far as to say
that orthodoxy has been a toxic virus to Christianity
as often as it has been of benefit.

I am not sure that statement could pass
the General Ordination Exam
in The Episcopal Church, but who knows?

You have heard me say it before
but Mark and John disagree with one another
on some very basic points about Jesus
and what came to call Christology.
Which one is true?

Likewise, Matthew
and Luke
each have points of view
that differ from John and Mark.
Paul is off in a world by himself,
or actually, in a world also inhabited by Luke.

But unlike Luke,
Paul doesn’t care what Jesus said or did,
he only cares about who and what Jesus was and is – according to his opinion.
Which one has the truth?

Until the late twentieth century
the custom of orthodoxy
as well as most other forms of Christianity,
was to throw all the gospels in a blender
and find ways to produce harmony.
What emerged was packaged in Italian culture,
or with a French, British, German,
Dutch, or Spanish imprint.

That was then carried around the world
and forced down other people’s throats.

But now, for the last fifty years or so,
something else has emerged – parallel
with the traditional orthodoxy
and alongside orthodoxy of Evangelical Protestantism.

It is the process of listening to each gospel text
for what it says and proclaims,
and allowing those texts to be
the separate and independent voices
that they were originally.

And in addition, we have discovered
other texts, many of which
were suppressed by early orthodoxy.
We have started listening to those texts too,
to hear what other voices existed
in the earliest Christian movement.
And as we have listened
we have realized there is a chorus –
sometimes a cacophony –
of many voices
with many beliefs
and many proclamations
all about Jesus
and what he means for life as we live it.

The result is to understand
that John’s voice was just one voice,
and his view of Jesus
just one lens.

All of which is to say,
that I can read you that bit from John’s gospel
and seek to understand where John was coming from,
and be clear and honest about what he proclaims,
and then say to you, “uh uh.”
Unlike John’s gospel,
I do not believe that God so loved the world
that God sent Jesus as a tragic Hercules
to save it,
and that those who believe
in THAT Jesus
will be saved and have eternal life,
but everyone else will be doomed to hell.

I am more in line with the beliefs of Mark
whose Jesus was a preacher first and foremost,
and a healer and exorcist by default.
Mark’s Jesus saw what is wrong
with how we order the world,
whether in empires great and small.
That Jesus pointed out our ugliness
while also pointing to our hope.
We can, if we choose,
bring God’s kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven –
that is what Mark’s Jesus proclaimed.
Paul and John
got all focused on eternal life
instead of THIS life.
God’s kingdom
as it is breaking into our world
here and now,
was one of Mark’s special features.

But orthodoxy
and the Big Church
always liked John and Paul best.
It became all about “one true belief”
and accessing the power to enforce it.
Bah humbug.
That was then and this is now.

Here we are disrupted, as the saying goes these days.

We are disrupted
by pandemic
and internet
and online worship
and diversity
and a shrunken orthodoxy with no power
to enforce its will as the one true belief.

In fact, because of all of that,
congregations are fast becoming geographically
unfettered, with people
zooming in from wherever they are
on this great blue planet.
That will be disruptive too –
to have communities of faith
tied together not by creeds or doctrines
and not by neighborhoods or cities,
but by…well, by what?
That is the big fat question.

For so long Christians have been formed
and organized by the walls of buildings
and the borders of parishes
and the strictures of doctrine.
Here in our worship video this week and last
we have the contribution of photographs
submitted by someone who lives in Calgary, Alberta.
We get messages and gratitude regularly
from the Southern Tier, Ohio, Indiana, California, Florida and elsewhere.
Donations too, once in awhile.

What will the community of faith
be organized around in the future?
When it is no longer a brand name
or a creed
or even knowing one another,
what will be the source of cohesion?

I do not know the answer to that
any more than Mark knew if John
was part of the same religious movement
he was in or not.
Looking back at those first three hundred years
of the Jesus movement,
scattered across vast distances
and very often unknown to each other,
may give us a hint
and a guide
for our own future.

You may wonder if I have a point in all of this?
The first point, sort of obtusely,
is that if the Lectionary is going to
give us snake magic in the desert
and your-condemned-for-your-sins
kind of readings,
then I am going to push back.
I need to say out loud what you already know,
and that is, that just because it is written in the Bible
doesn’t mean it’s safe to consume.
And to say that
means to take on orthodoxy
in whatever form it is still appearing.
It is important to put orthodoxy in its place,
just like you and I need to be put in our places too.
No one and nothing
holds the one and only truth.
That was Revelation Number One
when Moses first met God:
”I will be who I will be,” God said
from out of a burning bush.
In other words, “stop trying to put me in a box
with an ingredient label and sell-by date.”

We have wisdom that we have been given
from prophets and sages and at least one messiah;
and we have guidance from scholars, teachers,
and spiritual guides;
but what to do with it
and how to interpret it
and where to apply it
and how to employ it – that is our work.
No one can do that work for us
and no one can take that work away from us.
It is what it means to be baptized.
anoints us as agents of God’s love
authorized to help
bring about the kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven.
Our authorization doesn’t come
from bishops, priests, and deacons
or any word-weasel preachers,
it comes from our being anointed.

Ultimately, our understanding of what “holy” is
and how God is present
and what that means for life as we live it, is on us.
The community of faith can help us with that task
but it cannot do it for us.
Becoming agents of God’s love
with a sense of mission
and at least a theory about how it all works,
is a risk for each of us to take.

So go re-write that passage from John
as you see fit, if you think it gets you anywhere.
Or go have a cup of coffee or tea –
zoom it if necessary –
with someone you like
and tell them what you imagine about God.

Aruna at Malaylam Wikipedia

Slip your old skin
like a snake in the garden
and discover something you never thought before
and something you never did before
and see God in a person, place, or thing
you never imagined God before.

That’s our work.
Have fun with it.

The peace of God be with you.