Sunday, April 09, 2006

Gnostics in the Gnews: The Gospel of Judas

A Sermon for Palm Sunday-Year B-April 9, 2006

Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:32-15:39

The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns, Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton


I have to hand to the National Geographic Society. Just when preachers everywhere are beginning to button up their Palm Sunday sermons and move into the Holy Week Preach-a-thon, comes news late in the week that there is a new, extra-canonical Gospel attributed to, of all people, Judas Iscariot. Thanks, guys!

But then something strange happened. People were starting to ask me about it at random where I buy my coffee and pump my gas. A member of our church who likes to tweak your rector with comments about the latest “UFO’s in the Bible” show on the History Channel, sent me an e-mail me with “you know, Father, it’s in National Geographic so it’s got to be true!

Thanks to The DaVinci Code hoopla, Gnostics are in the “gnews.” There is a kind of Gnostic “chic” these days. Gnostics are “cool.” And so this new-found gospel is too good to pass up. According to this text, Judas did turn Jesus over to the Romans for arrest and execution and he was paid for it. But it also says Judas was Jesus’ favorite disciple and that Judas turns Jesus in because Jesus wanted him to!

So here you have it: a hidden Gospel, lost for 1700 years! A story of betrayal and intrigue! A surprise, shocking ending! And the guy we thought was bad is, well, not so bad after all. Come home, Judas! All is forgiven! This story has everything!

[The idea of Judas as being apart of Jesus’ plan all along is a theme that turns up from time to time in literature. In the 1969 rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice Judas’ betrayal was somehow part of Jesus’ or God’s plan, and the contradictions this poses is what drives the drama. The theme appears in The Last Temptation of Christ (1951) by Nikos Kazantzakis. There have even been a few thrillers in the same vein as The daVinci Code one of which is called, you guessed it, The Gospel of Judas (2000). I even recall a similar book from the early 1970’s long out of print about a secret gospel that pins the betrayal of Jesus on Peter! The formula for the genre is basically the same: “man finds text, church chases man, man gets girl.” All of this prepares us to give Judas at least a contextual pass from betrayer to mistaken follower.]

So now what do we do with Palm Sunday and Holy Week? The whole passion story turns on the idea that Judas betrays Jesus, that Jesus is arrested, tried in a kangaroo court by his enemies, and simultaneously tortured and executed. Does this “new” gospel change any of that? Has the Gospel-as-we-know-it been tossed out?

I don’t believe it has, but the discovery of the Gospel of Judas does help us. Keeping the question about who Jesus is and why he died on the cross in front of us and the culture is a good thing. Let’s look at how these second and third century Christians wrestled with their faith, so we can better understand our own questions and hear the people who search today.

Dr. Elaine Pagels of Princeton, a scholar of the early Church who took part in the Gospel of Judas project, is right when she says that books outside the New Testament like The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas teach us that the early Christian church was very diverse. When you think about it, that is not really news, but we often forget it. We have this myth that everyone in the church once thought and acted alike until someone, somewhere messed it up.

Each of the four New Testament Gospels represents a different part of the early Church all with their own take on the work and ministry of Jesus. The remarkable thing to me is not so much what makes them different, which is important, but how much they share. But if you don’t believe the Bible about the diversity of the Church, open the yellow pages or type “church” into Google. You’ll see lots of expressions of “church. What is true today was also true then.

From the very beginning, Christians have been wrestling with who Jesus is and what he means for us. But imagine this: They did not have the benefit of a New Testament or Creeds or more than one Church council or two millennia of tradition to help them out. It was very much a work-in-progress. It was a messy, unruly process—a process that was animated by the Holy Spirit.

This process led to our being here today. If the Holy Spirit blessed and moved along their process, then I know that God is blessing and moving our experience along, too. We are shown once again that all of us together represent better the fullness of Christ and our Oneness in Jesus than any one of us (or any one group of us) alone.

The Judas Gospel came from a kind of Christian community who believed that the truth of the Gospel was essentially a secret that only the truly enlightened could understand. They were called Gnostics—ones who looked for “gnosis” or “knowledge.” The Gospel of Judas community believed that our true natures are trapped inside a weak, broken, and worse yet al dirty human shell and that we need to crack open like an egg to be one with God.

No one is saying that this book actually records Jesus’ or Judas’ words or actions, but reflect the teaching of a community that is using Judas to make a point about Jesus. And that is that Judas actually does Jesus a favor by helping him die so that his interior divinity can be freed from its human cage. I can almost imagine Jesus saying to his Roman executioners while being crucified “Thanks, guys! I needed that!”

The story in the Gospel of Judas turns the passion into a story of how Jesus becomes a more perfect being. It is not about God joining us, but about Jesus joining God. In this new “lost” gospel, Jesus wants to get as far away from anything human as he can, even if it means dying.

What a difference in the Gospel of Mark! In the Gospel of Mark, as with the other New Testament Gospels, is about God coming to humanity and our coming to know that God’s kingdom is happening right here, right now, where we live.

In Mark we see the people around Jesus discovering bit by bit who he is. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they jump to conclusions and sometimes they follow Jesus. But all along the way people are healed, people are fed; people begin to see life, creation and themselves in new ways—through God’s eyes. Along the way, people realize that they are living in the reign of God. Jesus’ teachings are not secret but it takes a while to sink in.

In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus was supposed to have taken Judas aside and let him in on things that no one else is supposed to know. The idea of secret teaching shows up in religions over and over again, in Mormonism, in Gnosticism, and in modern sects like Scientology. Heck, it what makes even Freemasonry intriguing! According to these followers, Judas gets to say “I know something you don’t know!” He becomes a heroic, if misunderstood servant. To make their point, they make sure their hero is brilliant!

Contrast that to, say, Peter in the Gospel of Mark. Peter is Jesus’ #1 student, the one at the head of the class; which is strange because, to put it mildly, Peter is shown to be at best a loveable oaf and at worst, something of a dunderhead. Why would Mark show the potential leader of the early church to be such a chowderhead? If Judas in his gospel is a misunderstood hero, Peter in Mark’s Gospel is a forgiven sinner.

In the Gospel of Mark, Judas is no hero. But he’s not alone because no one is a hero. Judas betrays Jesus. Peter denies him three times. And all of the other apostles run away and hide. The only person with a shred of dignity left at the end is Jesus himself. Still, there is nothing noble or beautiful about this death. When the chips are down, when the evil of world its greed, pettiness, fear, and hatred comes to turn its full force on the person of Jesus, everyone—from the highest official to the lowliest disciple—is out to save their own skin.

Judas’ betrayal—whatever his motives—Peter’s denial and the disciples’ abandonment remind us of the many great and little ways we turn our back on Jesus. All the time we put aside doing what is right, or we do something that we think is right that turns out to be hurtful, or run away from doing the responsible thing when the pressure is on. All of us at one time or another has caved in to sin. And Jesus never turns his back on us! He sees through the depths of what we have done and still sees the very image of God worthy to be welcomed into God’s reign. We are forgiven. We just have to hang around long enough to discover the truth of what God is doing.

So what happens? What comes out of Jesus’ death in the New Testament Gospels?

What is cracked open on the cross is our humanity. The Gnostics wanted humans to be something other that what we are…something better than human. The Christian Gospel is that in Christ we become more and more fully human. We become the people God made us to be. Our limits and our bodies and our need for each other and our creativity are the very things God uses to help us know God and serve the world. As we live, we learn to love. As we grow, we discover how to serve. We discover God at work in and through and around us as we grow in knowledge, and live in relationship, and create community.

Christ died so that we may live, starting now, as the people God made us to be. The Christian life is no secret, but it does challenge and stretch us. What Jesus teaches is not hidden, but it is always being discovered. God’s love is not far away, but very, very close to all of us.

This week our Lenten journey takes us to moments of profound servanthood and communion. Jesus will wash our feet and feed us with his body and blood and we will walk with Jesus as he is betrayed, arrested, abandoned, and crucified. And we will come to the tomb and we will find it empty because Jesus who was dead is now risen.

So, does finding this Gospel of Judas change anything? Not really. It’s fun to know about and is fascinating. It even helps us understand that Christian life is a growing thing. But it does not change us. What changes us is what has always changed us—the grace, love and power of God made known and available in Christ Jesus our Lord who died for us and rose again.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Jean Meade said...

Well said and gratefully received...
even printed out for further relection.

Happy Easter!

Jean Meade
Rector,Mount Olivet Episcopal Church
New Orleans, LA