Before the sermon, I offer this prayer or meditation. It is selections from the The Thunder: Perfect Mind. In December 1945, local farmers in Nag Hamadi, Egypt found a sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices, together with pages torn from another book. It is believed that the documents found at Nag Hamadi were texts used by various sects of early Christians, but the texts had been deemed heretical once the church began to formalize the books of the Christian New Testament. The Thunder: Perfect Mind was contained in those thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices.
I invite you to open your mind, heart, and spirit to these words:
(music from the steel drum begins)
I was sent forth from the power,
and I have come to those who reflect upon me,
and I have been found among those who seek after me.
Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,
and you hearers, hear me.
You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.
And do not banish me from your sight.
And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing…
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am <the mother> and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who begot me.
I am the mother of my father
and the sister of my husband
and he is my offspring…
I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name…
For I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me…
Hear me, you hearers
and learn of my words, you who know me.
I am the hearing that is attainable to everything;
I am the speech that cannot be grasped.
I am the name of the sound
and the sound of the name.
I am the sign of the letter
and the designation of the division.
One of the symbols of early Christianity was not a cross; it was an anckor. This symbol was used to encourage hope in a time of persecution, and got its meaning from the Hebrew scripture: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
As we begin our journey I thought I would start with this from the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text, “Jesus said: “Let the one who seeks continue seeking until he finds. And when that one finds he will be disturbed, and once that one is disturbed he will become awed, and will rule as a king over the all.”
We are all seekers here; that it the very essence of our faith, to seek truth and meaning individually and collectively, to share with one another and be enriched and disturbed by one another. To look more closely at ourselves, each other, and the universe around us, and be awed by what we see. We will find that life is not static, belief is not static, the universe is not static. If we believe in the divine, perhaps we will find even the divine is not static. We are all co-creators, integral parts of the beauty and wonder that surrounds us.
As we look at early Christianity, let us keep this in mind. And let us also keep in mind as we explore early Christianity that the writings of those early Christians continue to be explored by people today. These modern non-traditional Christians are seeking a deeper, more complete view of Christianity and developing new insight and meaning from these old writings; many of them, like Theodore Parker so many years ago, are seeking the permanent rather than the transient in Christianity. Here is another quote from the Gospel of Thomas.
“Jesus said to his followers: ‘Compare and tell me whom I resemble.’ Simon Peter said to him: ‘You are like a righteous angel.’ Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’ Thomas said to him: ‘Teacher, my mouth will not permit me to say whom you resemble.’ Jesus said: ‘I am not your teacher—you are drunk. Because you drank from the bubbling spring that I have measured out.’ And he took [Thomas] and departed. When Thomas came back to his companions they asked him: ‘What did Jesus say to you?’ Thomas said to them: ‘If I told you the sayings he told me, you would take up stones and cast them at me. And fire would burst out of those stones and burn you.’”
Whatever Jesus said to Thomas must have blown his mind. What I take away from this text is that each of us has the opportunity to make meaning from what we hear; that is, we don’t have to simply soak in whatever we hear. We have the opportunity to use our minds and hearts to test what we are hearing. Jesus is also saying to beware of possible bias when teachers/preachers/other’s share their beliefs. They may be presenting their beliefs in a in a way that is measured out, in other words, they may be leading you to a certain idea, belief, or understanding that they want to convince you to hold or believe in as well. If you wholly embrace their ideas or beliefs, without question or self-reflection, then you are not thinking or making meaning for yourself. You are not taking the opportunity to use your mind and heart.
Also we need to keep in mind that when Jesus preached, no one was there writing it all down, at least as far as we know. Theologians believe that the books in the New Testament and other early Christian writings were not written until 40 or more years after Jesus’ death; some were written hundreds of years after his death. And much of what we have today has been both intentionally and unintentionally altered over the almost two thousand years since they were written down.
When Jesus was preaching, each person heard and made meaning of his message for his/herself. Then these stories were passed on by word of mouth, and changed a little depending on what had resonated with the storytellers when they first heard the tales. The same thing happened when the various texts came to be written down. From these sharings and transcripings and various meanings, many different groups formed to explore Jesus’ teachings. There were many different forms of Christianity before 325 ACE, more than we have today, due to this unstructured, unencumbered sharing and exploration, before there was a formal Christian religion. This next text is from the Letter of Peter to Phillip: “The ambassadors worshiped again, saying, ‘Lord, tell us how shall we fight against the rulers since they are over us?’ Then a voice called out from the appearance saying, ‘you all will fight against them in this way: the rulers fight against the inner part of humans, but you will fight against them in this way—come together and teach salvation in the world with a promise. Strengthen yourselves with the power of my father and offer your prayers. The Father will help you as he helped you by sending me. Do not be afraid, I am with you forever—as I said to you before when I was in the body.’”
This letter was also discovered at Nag Hamadi. It is believed that this letter was written by and for the early Christians who were being persecuted for their beliefs. This letter starts out with the conflict between Peter and Phillip, two leaders in the church who are having some theological differences. The letter encourages the listeners to the need to work through differences for the greater good, building beloved community. This was an important message, particularly because they needed each other to cope with the persecution they were experiencing.
There were early Christians who were considering a counter-insurgency, rebelling against the Romans. Again it is believed that this letter was an attempt to keep this from happening, encouraging a more peaceful opposition—strengthening each other’s resolve by gathering in community, affirming their beliefs, and praying together. Perhaps these were the first nonviolent protesters.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla was discovered at Nag Hamadi, and also gives us some sense of the persecution of early Christians, and how some of those early Christians tried to cope. Thecla was what we might call a Feminist. She bucked the social systems of the time, choosing her own spiritual path regardless of the consequences. And there were consequences, threats, jail, even being put to death—or at least trying to in Thecla’s case. Many women of the time followed her—developing a community of support, and affirming the rights of women to be spiritual leaders and ministers in the Christian faith. There are artifacts and paintings that lead theologians to believe her sect was active at least into the 5th century.
Some of these Nag Hamadi writings are giving us a different, I believe more complete look at the early Christians. This is from The Gospel of Truth, another Nag Hamadi text. “That is the gospel of him whom they seek, which he has revealed to the perfect through the mercies of the Father as the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ. Through him he enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and gave them a path. And that path is the truth which he taught them. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross. He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father. He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it. He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.”
This is an unfamiliar view of Jesus’ death on the cross. Rather than focusing on his dying so our sins would be forgiven, Jesus’ life and teachings were the central messages in some early texts. People did not stop from exploring his teachings after his death. In fact, people continued to be enriched by his life and teachings. It’s easy to think that Christianity has always been the religion we’re familiar with today. But if anything, I hope you have heard today that Christianity is anything but static. Early Christianity was dynamic; it is just that most people don’t know this. Unfortunately, early Christianity has been contained in footnotes in theology textbooks that almost no one reads, until very recently. Increasingly through writings like the Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels and the writings of theologians like Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg and others, more people are learning of these early texts and the lives of these early Christians.
Back to the Gospel of Truth for one more moment. In this text “the good news of truth is joy for those who have received grace…” This is not a book about the consequences of not believing. It is a book about the joy of believing in something bigger than yourself, about love, forgiveness, and compassion leading to joy. Again, some of you might say this is not the central message you receive when you attend a traditional Christian church, and you would be right. It isn’t. Here is a passage from the Gospel of Mary, another Nag Hamadi text. “When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all, saying, ‘Peace be with you! Bear my peace within yourselves! Beware that one lead you astray saying, ‘Look over here!’ Or ‘Look over there!’ For the child of humanity is within you! Follow it! Those who seek it will find it. Go then and proclaim the good news of the realm.’”
The Gospel of Mary is the first and only gospel whose main figure is a woman, Mary Magdalene, who is portrayed as a confidante of Jesus. The focus of the teaching of this gospel is “enthusiasm for becoming a true human being.” What a radical gospel. Mary, a woman, is presented as a leader in the early church. Are any of us surprised that the Gospel of Mary wasn’t contained in the canonical books? Are any of us surprised that Mary has been presented by some in the traditional Christian churches as a prostitute, denigrating her and discrediting her significance? Read the Christian New Testament and you will discover that nowhere is there anything written about Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. Is it any wonder that many people today are exploring these ancient Christian texts?
Now I have a question to ask you. Theodore Parker asked this question in his 1814 sermon, the Transient and Permanent in Christianity. Would the Christian New Testament and the writing of these early Christians be equally true or false even if it could be shown “that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived?” Whether or not you believe Jesus existed is up to you. Of course, we really don’t know if Lao Tzu or Buddha really existed either. If we focus on the teachings, the parables, the poetry of Jesus and his followers, would these writings still hold meaning for you, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually if it was found that Jesus had never existed. My answer is they would, at least for me. And I believe there are others here who would also answer in the affirmative. For some Unitarian Universalists, this might be a way to begin exploring and perhaps reclaiming of these texts and this religion. Approach it like you approach the Tao Te Ching—does it matter whether Lao Tzu existed?
Unitarian Universalism’s foundation is Christianity; our forebears were Christians, yes, unorthodox, often considered heretical, Christians, but Christians non-the-less. Our forebears looked at Christianity with an open mind and open heart; they didn’t want others to interpret it for them. We can be like those early Unitarians, exploring texts with new eyes—opening ourselves to them as if they were something new and different. We can do this together and apart. This won’t change who we are—whether we are Atheist, Humanist, Jew, Buddhist, or Pagan, but like all books, it will open us to new ideas. Ideas we can struggle with individually and together.
Here is one last quote from the Gospel of Thomas: “His followers said: ‘Show us the place where you are, because it is necessary that we seek it.’ [Jesus] said to them: ‘Whoever has ears to hear, hear! There is light within a person of light, and that one lights up the entire world. If that one does not shine, there is darkness.’”
You my friends are the seekers, and you are the people of light, as were Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu and so many others. Your light comes from who you are in your heart of hearts and what you believe about this wonderful awe-inspiring universe in which we live. Go forth seeking, finding, and being the light that the world needs to hold back the darkness. So may it be.