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Message from July 12, 2009

Sermon – July 12, 2009 
Scripture:  2 Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b – 19;  and  Mark 6: 14 - 29

    The message today is intended to follow up on the message of the previous week about learning and taking ownership of what we believe about Jesus and God and the Christian life.  We are travelling back in hear about what people were doing only a few decades after Jesus was alive and walking in and around the villages of Palestine.
    “This week I imagine that I have come across a letter from a person living in the second century of the Common Era – previously known as “AD”... and I bring it to you this morning as a follow-up to the message from last week.”

My name is Joanna and I lived some 1900 years ago – I am now an old woman of 58 years, living in Palestine.  I am named after one of the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning – Joanna who gathered spices and cloth to wrap the body of Jesus for proper burial.
    My life is different than yours...much different.  But I am a Christian as you are. My message today is to tell you about what Christianity is like in my the year 106 A.D.  I live east of the Jordan River in a town called Amathus, in the valley north of the River Jabbok.  I’d like to witness to you what my group of Christians believes about Jesus.
    First of all, Jesus was a remarkable man – more righteous in the Jewish Law than any other.  And so he was chosen by God to be God’s son...and his adoption into sonship happened at the baptism in the Jordan River not far from here.  At that time, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus as a dove, while God said to him, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.”
    So, Jesus was a fully human person.  He was empowered by God to do remarkable miracles and to teach people the truth of God.  In the end, he was so empowered by God that he died as a willing sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world, and his sacrifice put an end to all sacrifices.  Afterwards, God raised him from the dead and Jesus reigns in heaven today. 
    Jesus was not born of a virgin, he was not God...but was adopted by God to be the saviour of the world.  There is only one God, and Jesus was not God.  This is our belief. We continue to practice our scriptural rites as laid down in the Hebrew books of the law – what you now call the “Old Testament”.  We also follow another Greek text that is very similar to what you now call the “Gospel of Matthew” without the first two chapters. We have never seen or read any of the other books you have in your “New Testament”.
In history, people will call us “Adoptionist” Christians...we believe that Jesus was “adopted” by God.  We remain true to our Jewish roots.  If gentiles want to convert to be followers of Jesus, they must follow the Jewish laws about observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher food laws, and all men must be circumcised.
    A few months ago, we had a number of visitors to our town...they came from Asia Minor – what you now call Turkey – and they called themselves Christians as well. They were followers of Marcion, a scholar and Christian evangelist.  These people had a very different view of Jesus than we have.  They read and follow what they call the “true teachings” which they get through writings of an apostle by the name of Paul.
    Paul was a devout Jew who was converted to a belief in Jesus through a mystical sighting of Jesus himself after he was dead and resurrected and Marcion says that Paul came to understand that Jewish Law should play no part in the divine plan of redemption...only Christ himself was the way of salvation for Paul.  These Christians who follow Marcion were trying to tell us that we should abandon the Jewish Law altogether!  And to top it off, they had the nerve to tell us that Jesus was not human at all – but another God!
    I’d never heard of such a thing!  It all had to do with their dismissal of the Jewish Law – it seems that they also dismissed our Jewish God as well!  It all came from Paul’s writings...for example they said that ‘whereas the Jewish God punishes those who disobey, the God of Jesus extends mercy and forgiveness; whereas the God of the Jews says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth:, the God of Jesus says to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies”.  These two Gods cannot be followed at the same time, therefore, they follow the God of Jesus.  And they said that Jesus had nothing to do with the God of the Jews, the God of creation....  And not having any part of the Creator God meant that Jesus was not born, and did not have real flesh and blood...he only LOOKED human...and that Jesus was God himself...come to earth to deliver people from the vengeful God of the Jews...they actually had the nerve to say that to us!!!
    So, we turned our backs on them...we say Jesus was totally human, they say he was totally divine.  They say there are two Gods – imagine, two Gods! – the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus.  We know there is only one God – Yahweh.  No wonder they weren’t able to evangelize us....
    After our meeting, I asked them where they got these crazy notions about God...and they told us that they got them from that Paul – and some writings that you now call the gospel of Luke – ... well not the whole of the gospel, because Marcion changed the writings.  He believed that some early heretics had made changes to the writings by inserting positive references to the God of the Jews and to the creation, so he cut out those portions...and kept only the parts that support his own beliefs!  Imagine!  We were happy when those Marcions left this region, I can tell you.
    And then, there are those Gnostics!!  They live in the big cities of Egypt and Syria, and modern-day Turkey and around here in Palestine too.  There’s all sorts of them.  They think they have the ONLY truth – gnosis means truth in Greek- and some of them agree with the total divinity of Jesus, and some of them agree with us that Jesus was least in the beginning.  They say that God entered into Jesus at his baptism and from then on he was two people a human being and a divine being ...and that’s where he got his powers of healing and teaching.  And then, just before he died, the divine part of him departed once again to return to live with the REST of the Gods!  They think there are more than one or two Gods ... so you can imagine what we think of them!!!  They don’t think much of this material world...and they can’t wait to escape it and get to heaven...and there they will be able to learn more of the great secrets of God.  Their scriptures include other books that even YOU may not have heard of: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of’ve now uncovered some of these books ... and people are writing about them and what they say ... but they don’t make any sense to me.  I know Jesus through the readings WE have and the teachings of our elders.  That’s enough for me.
    So, I guess I need to ask you – are you an adoptionist like me?  Or do you follow Marcion?  .... or perhaps you are a secret-loving Gnostic?  Which kind of Christian are you?  If you had to choose a book of scripture for your own understanding, could you point me to one or two only?  What is it that you actually trust as the truth of Jesus.
Signed:  Yours in Christ,  Joanna.

    There were several different groups who thought of themselves as followers of Jesus, and would be called “Christian” in the 100’s and 200’s (second and third centuries) have heard from Johanna of three.  There was one more group that was significant – this group became dominant and eventually they acquired more converts than any of the others. Therefore, because they were dominant, they could label the other believers as “heretics” – or people who rejected the “true belief”.  There continues to be great debates over how they developed and when they became the majority of Christian believers.  Their beliefs shaped our own – they believed Jesus was both human and divine...they agreed with the Gnostics when they said that Jesus taught the way of salvation, but didn’t see Jesus as two beings – the divine Christ inside of the human Jesus.  They used a mixture of scriptures but rejected the Gospels of Thomas, Peter and Philip because they were too Gnostic in nature.  They accepted and used the Gospel of Matthew which was used by the Jewish Christians AND the gospel of John which was well-loved by the Gnostics.  It was this group that eventually began to define and structure the Christian faith that we follow today.  By the early 400’s, certain scriptures were accepted and used, others were rejected and suppressed.  The work of shaping the Christian faith and the Church continued.
    I bring you this summary because it is important for all of us to know that there were many ways to think about Jesus even just a few decades after he was no longer on earth. The struggles to understand who Jesus was and what his work here was to mean for us did not begin in this or in the previous two centuries when many of our books of theology were written, but rather in the very first....and it continues today.  What we undertake when we begin to study and look for answers – as I spoke about last week – is work that began when Jesus was actually walking in the flesh among us...  We, as a group of Christians in 2009 continue to grapple with what we see in the scriptures of the Hebrew Testament – what we understand God to be...does it coincide with the so-called “Jewish” understanding or the “Jesus” understanding...or both?  We continue to have questions about why Jesus died as he did and what significance that death has to us now.
    For us the job is a little easier, because we have so many good writers who support different views...we can read the scholarly works and be fed or challenged by them.  For us, the job is also more difficult for the same reason.  Do we follow Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong or Gretta Vosper – the writers of the Progressive Christianity movement, or do we follow the current Evangelical writers – or perhaps the Cosmologists like Bran Swimme and Thomas Berry, or do we believe in the God we know only through our own experience?
    My last comment today will be about what David Krane calls the “tyranny of the OR” and the freedom of the “AND”.  We as humans like to have things decided – either its THIS or its THAT!  But, sometimes, there are no answers that fit neatly into THIS or THAT.  When it comes to God – and the fact that WE will never in this lifetime work out exactly what, who, or why God is – I would ask that you allow yourself the Freedom of the AND.  We don’t need a neatly packaged faith – what we need is a trust that allows for the differences that we encounter in our readings...and the grace to allow our reading to speak to our experience of God and of the Christ in our lives.  Jesus walked on this earth and left behind a hint of who God is for us.  So, let us begin there...