THE TWIN OF GOD

In addition to being a schoolteacher, my dad was also a carpenter, and is a very gifted one at that. In the afternoon, he’d come home from work – having served all of his nearly 35 years teaching in one school district in a town just outside of Chicago – change clothes and head out, again, to replace a kitchen floor or hang cabinets or do other handy-man jobs.

In the summers, sometimes, I would go out for the day with my dad. Sometimes I’d be called on to do something; mostly, I was just there, taking it in, as children do so well.

The shapes and the names, let alone the functions of the tools were fascinating to me, and sometimes my dad would send me out to get one in particular: the terms, ‘crescent wrench’ or ‘mitre saw,’ sounded to my childhood mind like code words I could decipher. One summer day, I must’ve grown restless and wandered out to the station wagon and began to play with some of the tools, making up a game and passing time with that boundless creativity children muster. He was inside, I was outside. He was in his world, I was in mine. Later that afternoon, my dad asked me to go to the car and get something. I didn’t know which tool he was talking about, and I suppose that showed on my face. “Crowbar,” my dad repeated, “it looks like a heavy little cane. It’s the one you were playing with earlier by the station wagon.”

He had seen me playing. At once, I felt both ashamed and loved; ashamed for having been playing what must’ve seemed a silly game; loved because I was seen, recognized, the distance between our worlds not being a distance at all, not for my dad, at least.

 

 

All four gospel authors in our New Testament tell us that one of Jesus’ disciples was named Thomas. He’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but as one of the supportive cast, no brighter than, say, Thaddeus or Bartholomew. But Thomas comes out of the shadows and into the limelight in the fourth gospel.

When, in John’s gospel, we first meet Thomas, back when Lazarus was about to be raised in chapter 11, the evangelist tells us that Thomas was called the Twin. In fact, he says it again in this morning’s gospel lesson as well as the next chapter. Most often when, in John’s gospel, Thomas is named it’s “Thomas, called the Twin.” It’s strange to continually offer up a nickname, alongside someone’s other name, and as any good reader – let alone a reader of the bible – knows, if something seems odd or a word is chosen regularly, it’s got to mean something.   Twin, in Greek, is didymus, as any study bible will tell you, but what they don’t tell you is that Thomas, the name itself, might not be his actual first name. In fact, toma is Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his friends, meaning “twin.” “Thomas, called the Twin” is really just saying “Twin, called the Twin,” just in two different languages. It’s likely the apostle’s first name wasn’t Thomas, after all, and it’s likely that his real name is, well, not named.

Lest you think I’m offering mere speculation, I’ll say, first, there is a point and, second, I’m not alone.   My friend and former Divinity School classmate (and, now, professor at Harvard Divinity School), Charlie Stang, recently wrote a fascinating piece about this, pointing out that: “A number of texts from the second and third centuries speak of an apostle by the name of Judas Thomas Didymus. Judas, of course, is not only the name of Jesus’s betrayer, but also one of his four brothers (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). The Gospel of John refers to a ‘Judas, who is not the Iscariot’ (14:22), and in one of the Syriac translations of the Gospel of John, this ‘Judas’ becomes ‘Judas Thomas.’ One interpretive possibility then, seized upon by some early Christian traditions, is that the apostle called ‘twin’ in the Gospel of John is none other than Jesus’s own twin brother, Judas. The most famous single text from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945 is a collection of sayings ‘which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.’”

Set aside, for a moment please, any fears that just jumped into your brain about Jesus’ birth and whether there was another boy born that night – something I’m not suggesting – and wonder, instead, with me about what it means to be a twin.

What would it be like to be a twin? What would it be like spiritually, emotionally, cognitively? So like the other you’re nearly indistinguishable but, yet, you are different, you are unique, you are your own person, too. I am not a twin, but I know this feeling, in part, when I look at my own daughter, Carter, who is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, who is so like me and, yet, so unlike me; so close and intimately known and, yet, so remarkable, fascinating and strange. Or take the context of your marriage, if that’s the case for you, for there is, as theologian Benjamin Myers writes, “no one more mysterious than a spouse – not because they are distant and unfamiliar, but because they are so near and so well known.”[1] Isn’t it true that the longer you stare at something, the longer you think about that thing, a spouse, a child, a twin, a tool – crowbar – the more it becomes both known and strange; at once, recognizable and unfamiliar?

What is it, then, that bridges the division, that harmonizes the discord between that which we think we know and yet that which seems so distant, even strange?

Just as when I was as a boy, playing near my father’s station wagon, thinking he was in his adult world of work and duty and I was in my own, what dissolved that distance was love – my dad’s love for me, such love that, from time to time, at least, he stopped what he was doing and peered out a window, wanting to know where I was, see what I was doing and, maybe, when he saw me playing a silly game, watched just a while longer. (Just the other day, in fact, I was putting away clothes in Carter’s bedroom, upstairs, and she and our dog, Phoebe, were playing in the rectory front yard – Carter would throw a ball, Phoebe would get it and run away; Carter would get another ball, throw it, Phoebe chasing after that one and dropping the first ball which Carter would pick up and throw, again. I watched them do this, back and forth, all the while the child talking to the dog as she does one of her best friends. I watched them do this for a long time and, honestly, I could’ve watched them play like that all afternoon, a girl and her dog simply enraptured in play and happiness.) That which reaches across what seems, to us, a mysterious distance is love, always love.

 

 

In part, we know this. We hear in scripture’s story that we are loved, that we are knit by God’s design and animated by God’s breath.

The hard part is living it. Because we also know that we are not God and, sometimes, we’re pretty far from it. Sometimes, we fear, we’re downright wretched and not at all worthy; other times, we’re not so bad, just muddling around down here. We are in our own world. God is in God’s. From time to time, we’ll throw up a prayer and hope for something but we understand when we don’t get what we want; that’s just the distance between God and us, and so go the explanations, etc. etc.

The love I’m talking about is not the feeling we try to generate nor is it the zeal we attempt to muster for God. What I’m talking about is the only love that can truly be called ‘love,’ that profound, shattering, unconditional, no-strings-attached love that only comes, first, from God. It’s the love of One who knows us as his own twin, the love of One who is, as St. Augustine put it, “more inward to me than my innermost self,”[2] the love of One who is always, already crossing the mysterious divide between creation and Creator. Long before we can ask or imagine and not because we deserve it, God always, already loves and is in love with God’s creation.

I fear we’ve missed that message all these years hearing about old doubting Thomas, so in closing let me suggest a different spin on this story.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (c. 1601-02)

Look, again, at the gospel story (vv.27-28), just after Jesus tells Thomas to touch him but before Thomas makes his declaration of faith. Question: did Thomas actually touch Jesus? You might say “yes,” and you’d be in good company. Most artistic depictions show Thomas touching Jesus, some downright gory paintings show him actually sticking his finger in Jesus’ side, but my friend Charlie Stang suggests, on the basis of the words of the text itself, that that did not happen. That Thomas did not touch Jesus. That Jesus merely invited him to do so.

The story is actually better, richer if Thomas did not.  For then Thomas’ great declaration – “My Lord and my God!” – would be not because he knew Jesus but because, first, Jesus knew him; because Jesus knew what Thomas was hiding; because Jesus said to Thomas what Thomas said in secret the week before. What bridged the distance, for Thomas, was not his ability but Jesus’ love; not our action but God’s, first.

We are all, in a sense, Jesus’ twin. We are all made of the same stuff, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, created of the earth and endowed with God’s spirit. We, too, are capable of living a life that will be a blessing to this world. It’s just that we, like Thomas, like Mary Magdalene last week, we who are alive are surrounded by death. We breathe it in, ingest it even when we do not wish to as our daily bread. It’s we who, somedays, turn life from a gift to a series of obstacles to overcome or a to-do list to check off.

It’s then that our Divine Twin comes to us. God, the lover of souls, comes to us. The One who was dead and came to life stares in the face of we who are alive but shrouded in death, and He loves us, first, loving us as none can and none will ever again, giving us the capacity for yet one more day to try and mimic the same.

 

 

———-

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland, a Sunday in which we swapped pulpits between St. George’s, Valley Lee; Trinity Church, St. Mary’s City and Ascension.

 

[1] Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T & T Clark International, 2012), p. 4

[2] Augustine, Confessions 3.6.11

NOT BECAUSE, BUT WHEN YOU’VE LET GO

When we’re first introduced to Thomas in the Gospel of John, Jesus is preparing to go to Bethany, the suburb of Jerusalem where his close friends Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived.  Lazarus has died and Jesus is preparing to go, in his words, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(11:4)  Most of the disciples urge Jesus to stay put, to avoid Jerusalem, to let the tensions cool down.  Otherwise, they fear what will happen, and they’re pretty sure it’ll involve death.  But Thomas speaks up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”(11:16)  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless, and strong, at least strong-willed.  Where the others are timid and scared, Thomas is undaunted.

Fast forward a few chapters, to the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and you’ll meet Jesus in the middle of a long farewell speech to his followers and friends.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  (The New Revised Standard Version gives the more accurate translation – “dwelling places” – but many of us like the King James’ Version of at least this one verse a lot better:  “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”)  “And you know the place to where I am going,” Jesus goes on, explaining that he’s going to prepare a place for us and that he’ll lead us there, in time.

This sounds wonderfully reassuring to our ears, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus’ disciples back then.  They didn’t want him to die.  They didn’t want the movement to end.  They expected to help him bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  Like students in a classroom, they were probably very confused, even more worried now that he was telling them to not worry.  But no one speaks up, that is, no one except Thomas.  Thomas states the obvious, “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says, bluntly. “How can we know the way?”(14:5)  Thomas is unafraid to speak his mind, bold and unassuming.

And then this chapter, John 20, a famous story which has ever since made ‘Thomas’ synonymous with ‘doubt.’  Thomas tells his friends that he doesn’t believe they’ve seen the Lord, and that he won’t believe until he can see it himself, until he can put his own finger in Jesus’ scars.

Why would Thomas believe?  The other ten didn’t believe, themselves, until Jesus showed up in their midst, and even then they didn’t recognize him.  It wasn’t until he showed them his pierced side and the marks of the nails in his hands that they recognized him, and believed it was, in fact, their now-Risen Lord. Thomas wasn’t there, so why would he believe?

We’ve gotten so carried away with this one snapshot of Thomas that we forget the larger picture.  He’s everything leadership consultants tell us to be.  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless and strong.  He’s a natural-born leader and a good one, at that.  Thomas has everything we’re told we need to have if we want to succeed or win friends or influence people, or everything we wish we had within.

And yet we keep calling him Doubting Thomas, focusing on that one episode – an episode that’s perfectly, ordinarily human, I might add.

Every year, I suppose, we are supposed to say something profound about doubt.  If that’s what you’re expecting, I have to disappoint.  I have nothing profound or lasting or moving to say about doubt, except for what I consider a basic, shameless truth: Doubt is.  It’s there and it’ll always be there.  It’s part of a faith life. I’ve got plenty of doubts and I’m sure you do, too.  Doubt will always rub up against belief, and belief will always challenge doubt, and those two – doubting and believing – will be for ever locked into a wrestling match in all things in life.  (And let me add that I’m also glad to be part of a tradition in which I can say this, openly.  In my reading this week, I came across a sermon preached by an evangelical pastor who said what I just did – doubt happens and I, too, have doubts – but he included a footnote in which he explained those apparently off-the-cuff remarks and stated that, after the sermon, an elder of the church pulled him aside and said something like, “Now, Pastor, you can go around saying such things…”)  Sometimes, though, the honest truth is the best one, at least the best at which to begin.  Doubt and belief are powerful forces, and they’ll continue in you.

But the longer we keep talking about doubt, either excusing it or making it sound poignant or challenging it, the more we miss the point.  This story isn’t about doubting or believing. It’s about faith, and that’s another order of things, entirely.

Let me explain by way of a story.

You don’t go to divinity school or seminary unless you’re serious about training for the ministry or you’re really interested in having all your presumptions and assumptions and faith-claims laid out naked before others and questioned and challenged.  For me, I’m glad I studied in a ministry program in an academic divinity school because I feel I got the best of both worlds – serious preparation for ministry in an ecumenical context as well as a chance to be interrogated by and rub against the challenges of a great secular university, a chance to not let my faith statements rest, simply, on pietistic niceties or baseless claims of belief, a chance to both re-ground and challenge belief in order to develop something more, something I’d call faith.  But some people don’t like to have their belief system tested.  Some people are quite happy with having faith be, for them, a series of statements of what they believe.  After my first year, and after many first years in seminaries and divinity schools, a number of students dropped out.  After a long program, some students are so changed from who they were when they first enrolled, as well. Seminary or divinity school is not a hard thing to do, by and large – you have to learn languages and read books and write and talk a lot – but the hardships are on the inside, and for some that’s truly hard.

A book that was something of a required initial read for anyone entering the University of Chicago Divinity School is Martin Gardner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm.  Published in 1973 and set at that divinity school in the late 1930’s, the novel features the transformation of the fictional Peter Fromm, a young, believing, Christian evangelist wanna-be from the oil fields of Oklahoma who ventures into that great secular university’s divinity school to take on the heart of liberal theology, itself – all of which is the first step in Peter’s life’s campaign to win the hearts of America for Jesus Christ.  Peter is bright but naïve, intelligent but with an agenda driven by evangelical theology, gifted but unrooted.  The story, overall, is about his transformation, but it’s also about a man’s breakdown and faith’s remodeling.

Early in the book, while he’s still a good believer, there’s a passage that’s long spoken to me, especially as relates to Thomas in our New Testament. It’s a scene from a chapter in which Peter’s dating a Catholic girl named Angelina.

“…Peter lingered for a moment to peer through the gate’s iron grillwork at the large stone statue of Saint Thomas that stands in front of the church’s entrance.  It was dusk and the Saint’s face was in deep purple shadow.  A powdery snow was clinging to his head and shoulders and to the arm outstretched as if to touch the wounds of Christ.

‘I am his brother,’ Peter said in low tones.

‘What do you mean?’  Angelina had never read the Gospels.  If someone had asked her who Saint Thomas was, she would not have known how to answer.

‘He refused to believe the Lord had risen from the dead,’ said Peter.  ‘He refused to believe until he could put his finger in the nail prints or rest his hand on the wound made by the soldier’s spear.’

‘Did he ever do it?’

‘No, when he saw Jesus he believed.  That was when Christ said to him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed.  Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’’ Peter’s voice had a curious ring.  ‘It was the last of the beatitudes.’

Puzzled and a little more frightened, she studied the statue more carefully through the softly falling flakes.  ‘Why are you like him?’

‘Because,’ Peter answered desolately, his words blowing clouds of whiteness into the freezing air, ‘I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.’”

“I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas,” Peter says.  At times throughout life I could’ve and probably wanted to say the same.  I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.  I’m not sure I believe he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe even after his friends told him they’d seen the Risen Lord.  It seems so strange, so unpredictable, so odd that someone with such boldness and courage and inner strength, someone exactly like Thomas, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe.  It seems, to us, that the trick to doing something or becoming something is to will it, to want it, to make space in your life for it.  Want to lose weight?  Do it, then.  Want to acquire a new skill?  Get to it.  Want to be a better believer, a more faithful Christian?  What are you waiting for?  Start praying more frequently, attending more regularly, resisting more forcefully.

But what if it’s not at all up to us?  What if the big things in life, the stuff that really matters, isn’t in our power or control at all?

I suspect that’s the case.  And I fear that the longer we keep pretending that things might be in our power, that the secret to faith, for instance, has something to do with doubt or belief, the further we get from the truth.   For the truth of the matter is that the story of faith is not about our searching for God, our yearning and our hoping and our desires, as good and well-founded as they may be.  Even if the desire to please God, as Thomas Merton once famously prayed, may in fact be pleasing to God, it’s not entirely satisfactory to our Creator.  The story of theology and, in particular, our faith is not at all about our searching for God.  It’s about God searching for us.

I’d like to say that we need to let go of worrying about belief and thinking about doubt but that, in itself, is still on you, that still requires your initiative.  I’d like to tell you to practice letting go, to practice as an Easter celebration no longer trying to be a better person or a more faithful Christian.  Practice ending practices.

But the truth is that we can’t do this, not entirely on our own.

Caravaggio’s (1570 – 1610) famous “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” features the Apostle’s right forefinger nearly halfway into Jesus’ side!

What we’re talking about is simply being in front of God, naked and vulnerable and you.

After all, I believe, that’s the real story of Thomas.  Even though so many artistic depictions of this scene have, over the centuries, featured Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds, I don’t see that happening, not in the text at least.  True, Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe until he touched the marks, but nowhere does it say he actually did it once Jesus appeared.  No, when Thomas stopped searching and fretting and doubting and believing and God found him, after all, just as when God finds you, all of that other stuff dissolves and drifts away, and you and I are left face to face with the One who knows us more intimately than we, even, know ourselves.  It’s in those rare and beautiful moments, then, that we, like Thomas, find ourselves having dropped everything we were once concerned with and, together, utter in our hearts the greatest confession of faith made in the pages of the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!”

………………..

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland

BOTH RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL

I am a religious Christian.  It’s not so cool, today, to say you’re religious.  It’s much more trendy to call yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’.  But let me make a claim for religion, and I gather it’s not one you’ve often heard.

The root of the word, religion, has to do with binding.  People who are religious, by definition, participate in something that’s not necessarily theirs in a private and personal sense, and it’s hard to pinpoint just who came up with those symbols and those traditions – bread as body, wine as blood, water as new life?  Religion is limiting where spirituality is free.  For those very reasons, religion is  less appealing than spirituality.  And yet, for those same reasons, I am religious and encounter no contradiction between my religion and my spiritual outlook.

You see, the longer I live with Jesus – the longer I live into the Christian story and get shaped by these symbols and stories and words – the more aware I become that I am participating, through Christ, in a small slice of a great mystery: the mystery that I am a part of a creation, not a disordered jumble of stuff, and that this created order is being loved into a greater wholeness and transformation.  Christianity is the home through which I seek to understand and, even when I don’t fully understand, nonetheless follow the God who is at work transforming this new order.  Those who have been married for a long time know what this is like: the longer you’ve been married to your partner, the more at peace you are with all those other people you didn’t marry.  Or the longer you live in your vocation or career, the more at peace you become with all the things you didn’t – and will never – get around to doing.  The longer you live the life you are living, fully and proudly, the less you worry about what other things you should or could or needed to be doing, and the more at peace you are.  Religion binds us to a story and, ironically, at the same time keeps us open to the reality that our narrative is not necessarily the story; rather it’s one lens on the whole.

The more one reads the bible – a pretty religious thing, after all – the clearer this becomes.  The Old Testament book of Ruth is a good case-in-point.  Here’s the story: Naomi is a Jewish woman from the town of Bethlehem who, in a tragic sweeping accident, loses her husband and her two sons while the family is living in Moab.  She prepares to return home and  her two foreign daughters-in-law also prepare to go back with her.  Naomi tells them to turn back and stay with their people, instead, and one of them (Orpah) agrees but the other (Ruth) refuses.

Ruth and Naomi, then, go to Bethlehem, and the rest of the drama confirms why this story is so appealing – astonishing in that it not only features as main characters ancient Near Eastern women, but two very determined and plucky and savvy women, at that. Naomi plays the matchmaker between Ruth and a Jewish guy named Boaz, and Ruth does her part to secure her future, and that of Naomi’s family name.  The final, final result is that Naomi via Ruth via Boaz becomes the great-great-grandmother of David, and Ruth becomes, then, the foreigner great-grandmother of Israel’s most laudable kind.  A foreign, plucky, determined woman, the ancestor of Israel’s great Messianic figure.

If religion were pure and of small vision, stories such as Ruth’s would not have been included.  If this were about purity and small-mindedness no right thinking Jewish editor would have tolerated having a savvy foreign woman as the great-grandmother of their great King.  All religions struggle with inclusivity versus exclusion.  This struggle has always been, for religions are very much human-made systems of understanding, but human-made systems of trying to understand a great and profound mystery, let’s not forget.  And, in every religious tradition, there are those personalities and symbols which point beyond human conceptions and towards the expansiveness of God’s emergent, radically inclusive Kingdom.  The story of Ruth and the very fact that it’s a part of this so-called Holy Bible highlights, once again, that the God we follow is profoundly expansive.  If I want some small measure of peace in keeping up with that dynamic God, I’d better find a religious home, a place in which I can find comfort when challenged and challenge when comfortable.

Whereas the world sees religious folks as small-minded, judgmental, and myopic in their viewpoints and opinions, most religious folks I’ve met are quite broad-minded and expansive and at peace with the various stuff of life, its ups and downs, and the ways in which conventional human traditions might give way to new understandings, and how God might very well be in all of that.  Religious people or, I should say, religious people who are also spiritual are the folks who can straddle that line between utter mystery and simple comprehension, between the passing nature of our ideas and the eternal substance of God’s wisdom, between the gift of welcoming an outsider and the need to delineate group norms, between being transformed and being at peace.

And that, in itself, is probably the reason for which I am a religious Christian.  Religion helps give peace and the Christian religion gives me a profound peace, and it’s not the peace which the world gives; not at all.

It’s the peace Jesus modeled and taught.  Summarizing the commandments into two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself – Jesus actually pointed beyond the commandments, the words and pointed us to the heart of the life of faith: love.  In particular, He named three loves: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

If in pursuing peace you want to find it, if in seeking meaning you wish to uncover it, you would do well to re-invert those three loves and start to work at them as a spiritual practice.  First, start by loving yourself.  Look, this isn’t an invitation to vanity, but a call to truly know yourself as God’s beloved: know your goodness and your wickedness; know that you’re sometimes screwed up but altogether redeemable; know how deeply you’re loved, and know in your heart that God thinks of you as His beloved.  And that depth of knowledge — knowing something by heart — is what Jesus calls ‘love’.  Love yourself, that unique and marvelous person whom God has made.  Love yourself and you will be at peace as you love your neighbor and even, as Jesus also commanded, love your enemy and, ultimately, love God.  If, in turn, you cannot love yourself, you’ll never love your neighbor and, in fact, you’ll only blame your neighbor and scapegoat your god and find every fault possible with your enemy.  You’ll always be looking beyond and to others for their faults.  And life, then, will not be life-giving, not to you nor for others.  And you, then, will not ever find peace.

But be at peace with yourself, with your understanding of the world, as limited as it may be, and you will, in turn, know God.  And, even more so, you will find yourself at peace with God while God goes about doing what God does – loving those whom you and I might rather not like; redeeming those whom some of us might see as enemies; bringing into his Kingdom those whom we might rather exclude and keep out.  But if your religion is true and your spirit refreshed, that won’t mean a thing, for you will keep following the God who is changing you, at that very moment, from the inside out.

 

__________

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Sunday, 4 Nov. 2012.  For the full text of the sermon, click here.

WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST US IS FOR US & THE GOSPEL OF JESUS’ WIFE

What’s now being called ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ is a piece of papyrus with eight statements, written in Coptic and dated to sometime in the fourth century.  One of those sayings has gotten the most attention in recent days: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”  The other lines are also intriguing.  One reads “…she will be able to be my disciple.”  Another refers to a Mary; unclear whether it’s Jesus’ mother or Mary Magdalene or another Mary.  Jesus does mention his mother in one phrase. And in another he seems to say something about cohabitation: “As for me, I dwell with her in order to…”  All in all, it’s an interesting find and it’s got people talking.

Here’s what it’s not: it’s not a definitive answer as to whether or not Jesus had a wife.  That will go unknown, now and always.  (As for me, if there were a Mrs. Jesus, it wouldn’t change the story.)  The interesting take-away from this papyrus, for me, is that it shines a light onto early Christianity, and says a lot about how they lived – and we still try to live – with different people, divergent opinions and theological diversity and, yet, at our best stay true the union of which Christ spoke.

The community from which this tiny shred of an ancient papyrus emerged had something to say about affirming the place and role of women in the church, at least this one Christian community.  Obviously, there was a relatively dominant strand in the early church, most likely a byproduct of its Graeco-Roman environment, that sublimated the place and role of women and exalted that of men’s leadership.  The household codes in several New Testament writings (Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7) mimic similar codes that would be easily identifiable in the Roman Empire of the first century, placing women subservient to men – just as slaves are to masters, and children to fathers.  The New Testament codes, unlike those of secular Roman society, do not give men absolute power, however; but insist on some level of mutuality and responsibility.  We know that that dominant strand exercised, in time, almost unilateral prominence as Christianity turned from a movement to the Empire’s organized, institutionalized and, eventually, official religion.  One needs only to look at the norm of an all-male priesthood, for instance.

But that was not the only strand of Christian thought and practice, certainly not in Christianities earliest days.  One doesn’t need a newly uncovered papyrus to know that.  That alternative strand is in the pages of the New Testament.  Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, for one, is filled with women who are named and lifted up as leaders in the early church – Lydia, a wealthy patron of early Christians, is named (and her husband isn’t!) in Acts 16:14-15; a woman named Priscilla and her husband, Aquilla, were leaders in the early movement and have been traditionally listed among the 70 Disciples (Acts 18:26).  In John’s gospel, for instance, the first person Jesus tells of his Messiahship is a Samaritan woman (Jn. 4).  And even Paul, whom many think of as the ultimate mysoginistic, patriarchal pig, turns out to be quite egalitarian: affirming that “…there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28); addressing Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1); writing glowingly to Timothy about his grandmother’s (Lois) and mother’s (Eunice) faith, notably saying nothing about Timothy’s grandfather or father (2 Tim. 1:5).  The New Testament is fascinating, to me, because it seems to preserve arguments, encapsulate disagreements, and lift up a varied story of the earliest followers of Jesus.  In spite of the attempts of some Christian communities to normalize and regularize this new faith, there was, looking at the whole, a divergent and diverse collection of Jesus-followers, many of whom, if they were ever together, would disagree passionately about a lot of things, including the role of women.  To me, this newly uncovered Egyptian papyrus suggests that that conversation or, rather, argument continued.  Even centuries after the dominant, male-leadership strand of Christianity became relatively normative, there were still followers of Jesus who said, “We disagree…”  And this papyrus, if it’s authentic, is a wonderful witness to that diversity.

We make a mistake when we talk about “the early Christian church” or “early Christianity”, as if it was a singular, monolithic entitity.  We’d be better to talk about the early Christian churches, or early Christianities.  Likewise, we make a mistake when we back up our arguments by claiming, “The Bible says…”  The Bible says a lot of different things, and that doesn’t make it less holy or less credible.  In fact, it makes it more credible and, indeed, more holy because I can see through its human words and broken understandings and philosophical attempts at comprehension (“…through a mirror dimly,” as Paul said) and see the hand of God, gently and profoundly keeping our focus on the main thing and away from the nagging, divisive details.  Christianity, then and now, is a very big tent, for we’ve never done a great job at getting everybody on board doctrinally.

Turns out Jesus had something to do with this.  Mark’s gospel preserves an interesting snippet in which John approaches Jesus and proudly affirms that they stopped a local healer from using Jesus’ name since “he was not following us.” (Mk. 9:38)  Interesting that even in Jesus’ day his very disciples were drawing lines and making determinations about out who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’, and whether the name of the Galilean wonder-worker was copyright-protected!  Jesus’ response, in fact, is what led the early churches – and us – to this wild-eyed diversity.  Not only does Jesus tell John to back off, but he goes on to say that that “whoever is not against us is for us.”  Organizational theory experts and business consultants would say that that’s a downright terrible organizing principle – assuming, of course, that one’s goal is to make determinations about membership and privilege; assuming, of course, human standards.  But Jesus does not assume these things, and Jesus does not create borders and rules.  In fact, Jesus reserves his real judgment for those who do put up rules and restrictions and human interpretations.  According to Jesus, if my interpretation gets in the way of someone’s faith development, it’d be better if a great millstone was hung around my neck and I was tossed into the sea.  Yikes!

Jesus was not instituting a new religion.  Jesus was not a bishop who sought to organize the people around core beliefs and a Creed.  Jesus was not a systematic theologian who took biblical themes and developed doctrine and dogma.  Jesus was not a catechist who explained mortal and venial sins, and gave you a list of what you could or couldn’t do.   No, Jesus came to renew God’s Body in the world, to renew God’s kingdom within the ordinary, everyday hearts of women and men who had, over time, forgotten that they are special and created in God’s image, and that that is an indelible mark.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, became one of us to show us how to live and love and forgive and share, in the hopes that once we learned to do this we, too, would become one with Him, united in those things that matter.

And this is a message that matters, as much today as it did in the earliest years of the Jesus Movement.  What unites us, one to another, is certainly more profound and more lasting than what divides us, but you’ve probably heard that before.  You’ve probably heard it, and suspected that someone had a philosophy or governing principle or organizational theory that they were going to sell you – once they had convinced you of the shallowness of your particularities, once they had convinced you that you really wanted unity … their unity.

But what they didn’t convince you of was the depth of your particularities – the ways in which you and I, as wonderfully constituted human creatures with ego and pride and vainglory, hold on deeply to our standing and beliefs and man-made ways.  This is what’s called in the church ‘sin’, and it doesn’t go away by a simple sell or desire to wish it to disappear.  The divisions we erect are precisely that – our divisons, our made-up stuff – but they are not easily taken apart, not easily removed, not easily broken down and set free.  Sin is real and it is really within us, convincing us, day after day, that we are the lords of this world – that our politics is right (and others is wrong and, not only that, but evil); that our economic policy is the best; that our government is the only true one; that our demands are, of necessity, to be met; that our thoughts are brilliant; that our opinions are, by definition, wisdom; that what doesn’t satisfy me is bad, that what does is good, to be sought after and cherished.

This is not the way of God, obviously not the way God modeled when he became one of us and walked among us and lived and, yes, died as one of us, dying the horrible death of a common criminal, left hanging on a cross.  The way of God is to pour out himself, to pour forth in generous abundance for the salvation and redemption of the world.  This is not an easy way – note the cross – nor is this a self-learned way, nor is this inherent to us, we who are indeed pretty darn fallen.  Look at the myriad Christian groups, today, all the various denominations and groups, some of whom claim that they, still, are the one, true church and none others are like unto them – and they, alone, are like unto the Kingdom of God.  We are still as divided and fractured as the earliest followers of The Way, still as torn apart and diverse and divergent as they were thousands or years ago.

And isn’t that, then, a wonderful thing?  Look past the ideologues and the sinfulness and pride, of course, and look at the whole picture.  Look at the ways in which God is glorified in the fullness and completeness of human experience – liturgical churches, here, and praise and worship, there, and charismatic snake-handlers there, and bible-based preaching, there.  Store-front churches and grand cathedrals, hospital bedsides and underground bible studies in lands where Christians are persecuted, still.  People who may disagree about particular theologies or doctrines but who are, all together, members of Christ’s Body, serving the Risen One and seeking to give God glory, first and foremost.  No, we are not perfect, nor will we ever find the one, perfect church.  And in spite of ourselves and zeal for perfection, God is glorified, for whomever is not against us is, we remember, for us.  And that’s as true today as it was when a fourth-century scribe scribbled some strange notes about women and Jesus and begged to disagree boldly in faith.

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A Sermon preached at St. George’s Church on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 30 September 2012.

STREAMS TO REFRESH AND GLADDEN

Born in 1775 and consecrated Assistant Bishop of New York at the age of 36, John Henry Hobart’s life and ministry offers something of a model for our time.  Without him, who knows what would have happened to the church he served.  What did happen, we know, is quite a remarkable thing.  Or is it all that remarkable?

Most reports about Hobart focus on the High Church faction of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a strident spokesperson and advocate; most notably, his conviction in the importance of the apostolic succession and historic episcopate – set against the individualized, evangelical tendency he saw in his own church and fellow countrymen.  A man of integrity, charisma and consummate drive, Hobart is also remembered for the things he did – create The General Theological Seminary, revive Geneva, now, Hobart College, build up the clergy in his diocese, plant churches, and write hundreds of meaningful devotional manuals.  He was all those things, apparently, and he did all those things, and he happened to be a leader in the Episcopal Church.  But his vision goes far beyond the Episcopal Church, far beyond the nineteenth century, far beyond his time, and offers models for our own.

The world into which he was born was a world of dramatic, profound and, for some, sudden change.  Only one year after Hobart’s birth, the American colonies declared their independence from the mother country, leaving what was the Church of England on American soil  in a serious quandary and search for a reason to exist.  Some sided with England, and fled.  Others argued for revising their way of being church while staying true to their tradition.  We know what happened in the Revolution and we know what happened to that church, now called the Episcopal Church.  We know how this new nation established a Constitution and this new church established an American Book of Common Prayer, and we know that these new entities found their way forward, step by step, in the later decades of the eighteenth century.

But what we forget is the steady, dark cloud of fear and anxiety that surrounds any change, no less significant political and cultural change.  We forget the way, I’m sure, many remembered the good ole’ days, even though those days weren’t so good and weren’t coming back.  We seem to have forgotten that change doesn’t happen overnight, and history isn’t always linear, and even when people are on board with the idea of revision they don’t always act nicely.  We fail to remember that having your world changed right under your feet leads inevitably to anxiety and fear; most people either shut down or act out.  And even with great visionaries in the decades immediately following the American Revolution – leaders in the Episcopal Church such as Samuel Seabury and William White – ordinary folks and everyday congregations were left in stasis, extended paralysis.

Enter John Henry Hobart.  I’m sure he heard from countless members of his grandparents’ and parents’ generations all about the good ole’ days, but he never experienced that culture and he knew it wasn’t returning.  He also knew that the changed political and cultural landscape (even though he disagreed with some of it) meant that his church, which was the very definition of the establishment, was going to die unless it stopped doing two things and started doing two others.  First, stop denying the change and, two, stop looking at other churches (the rapidly growing firebrand Methodists, for instance, or the more culturally nimble Congregationalists) as if they had a better answer.  And they needed to start, for one, accepting the change (something his mentor William White established) and, for another, mining their own ‘Anglican’ tradition for ways to be true to their story and authentic in their environment.  What historian Robert Bruce Mullin has coined as the “Hobartian Synthesis” is precisely this – a compelling vision that isn’t just about getting over denial and beginning to accept but, rather, a new way forward that is, at once, entirely rooted in their story, the story of God in Christ acting through their tradition.

That’s our moment today, I believe.  I believe it because I’m living it, and I feel it profoundly most days of my own ministry.  I was born in 1975 – long  after the glory days of the post-war years, long after the Baby Boom ended, long after the mainline Protestant establishment realized it was on the decline, long after social and cultural and political shifts had fundamentally changed our country and world.  I never knew a world in which every mother stayed home all day, although I’m grateful my own mother did.  I never knew a world in which neighborhoods were all one color or race or ethnicity.  I never knew a world in which prayer was legitimate in public schools, nor did I know a world in which Sundays were set aside, solely, for Christians to go to church.   I never knew that world, and yet I was personally drawn to church – my neighborhood’s classic Old First Church.  Unfortunately, that church was in deep paralysis during my childhood years.  They fretted about the changing neighborhood, about white families moving out to the suburbs and “other families” moving in.  They remembered with fondness their church bowling league, and twittled their thumbs about numbers and a huge physical plant.  They told their story as one of bewilderment and loss, and I was growing up there, growing up in a church that was dying, and knew it.

What I learned in those years has become, in these, a priceless gift.  I learned to love Jesus, not the church.  I learned to become rooted in God, not this ever-shifting world.  I learned that a culture which supports church-going isn’t necessarily a culture that is Christian, faithful in the ways Jesus preached.  Since my church also felt like it didn’t have what other, more ‘hip’ Christian groups had, I was dragged to more 80’s Christian rock concerts and evangelical “Jesus-be-my-boyfriend” rallies than I care to recount.  And I wasn’t fed by emotional, charismatic Christianity; it seemed as shifty and unstable as anything else.  So I also learned that the subtlety and majesty and accessibility of what has become known as mainline Christianity is a wonderful thing, for it lets people go in and go out, it creates space for diversity (at its best), it’s built to change (at its best), it doesn’t force God upon anyone, and it’s solid, staid, beautiful.  I also learned that most people who have remained in mainline congregations have a lot of depth to their life and faith.  Even though they were never trained to be evangelical, they’re unashamed of talking about struggles and joys, and they’re not afraid to mention God or Jesus.

I learned that we have a rich tradition, and we don’t need a complete overhaul – we only need a new spirit.  I suppose, for starters, to believe that you also have to believe that God in Christ is acting in the world today, and that things of deep meaning are also things of constant revision and adaptation.  (Those are pretty big “starters”, and maybe you don’t agree.  You’d better stop reading, then.)  That’s what it means to be traditional.  From its Latin root, tradition implies handing down, passing on.  Things that are of the tradition are things that speak through the ages, and anything that’s powerful enough to be passed down from generation to generation is going to be expanded or, at least, have its original packaging altered.  We know, for instance, that “all men are created equal” in our political discourse has been expanded, revised, and changed.  I, for one, am not willing to go back to its original packaging just because it was, well, original.

So is John Henry Hobart’s work all that remarkable?  No.  Not at all, in fact.  And, moreover, it can be replicated by women and men today, in this time of significant cultural change.  Provided that there are people of faith who are unafraid of making a choice between being culturally acceptable or being faithful to Christ.  Provided that there are people who don’t care to “see and be seen” in a pew but, rather, be transformed by God.  Provided that there are people who know or want to know the power of the Holy Spirit, not the invitation of social convention.  Provided that there are people who will root themselves in Christ, and his story – which is a story about death, first, then resurrection.  Provided that we as the institution called “church” begin to deepen our conversation and formation, and seek to become what we receive — the Body of Christ in this world.  You bet we’ll grow, provided we make that one, simple turn.

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The sermon’s title is taken from Bishop Hobart’s address at the the opening of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City, held on Monday evening, 11 March 1822: “The event that calls us together is a subject of real congratulation. An institution, organized by the Church in her highest legislative council with a unanimity and cordiality that could not have been anticipated, has commenced its operations in this city under auspices that promise not to disappoint the expectations of its founders and patrons. Here is the sacred school in which are to be trained the heralds of the cross, we hope, to the latest generations. Here is the fountain, drawing, we trust, its living waters from the throne of God, whence are to proceed those streams of divine truth and knowledge that are to refresh and gladden the Zion of the Lord, the city of our God.”

Adapted from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Wednesday, 12 September 2012, being the Feast of John Henry Hobart, Bishop of New York