The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] A Different View of Jesus [Chalice]
What Christianity Could Have Been

Presented October 16, 2005, by Carol Nichols

OPENING WORDS

Logion 97, Gospel of Thomas 1
(All logia taken from the translation by Dr. Marvin Meyer 1).

97 Jesus said, The father's kingdom is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She did not know it she had not noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.

WORDS FOR MEDITATION

Logion 50, Gospel of Thomas 1

50 Jesus said, "If they say to you, 'Where have you come from?', say to them, 'We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established itself and appeared in their image.' If they say to you, 'Is it you?' say, 'We are its children and we are the chosen of the living father.' If they ask you, 'What is the evidence of your father in you?', say to them, 'It is motion and stillness..'"

READINGS FOR THE TALK

Selected Logia, Gospel of Thomas 1

13 Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to something and tell me what I am like." Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a righteous messenger." Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher." Thomas said to him, "Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say that you are like. Jesus said, "I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended." And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?" Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and consume you."

14 Jesus said to them, "If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits. When you go into any region and walk through the countryside, when people receive you, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them. For what goes into your mouth will not defile you: rather, it is what comes out of your mouth that will defile you."

24 His disciples said, "Show us the place where you are, for we must seek it." He said to them, "Whoever has ears should hear. There is a light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world. If it does not shine, it is in the dark."

25 Jesus said, "Love your sibling like your soul. Protect that person like the apple of your eye."

26 Jesus said, "You see the speck that is in your sibling's eye. When you take the beam out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your sibling's eye."

"A Different View of Jesus - What Christianity Could Have Been"

Imagine growing up in a small town or village, many years ago. The countryside you have been familiar with all your life is rural, poor and occupied. You live in a world where your religion, nationality and polity are those of a conquered people. Best left to your own local customs and affairs, you and your family have little to do with influencing the regional theocracy around you and even less to do with your foreign overseers. You are a Jew of the first century Christian era. Your rulers are scribes, Pharisees and the Romans: soldier, centurion, tax collector and governor.

There are landowners, merchants, middle men and those wealthier than either you or your nearest relatives and neighbors. You fish, farm, shepherd or work your small crafts far removed from the privilege of your rulers. Among you is an itinerant: someone self-schooled, a wandering speaker, a person without an immediate family or trade to anchor him, someone on the fringe of society. Yet, he speaks with an eloquence and insight that shakes you. He talks of enlightenment, of finding the Divine within you, of being equal to the creator, himself, if you were to only take the time to deeply realize and understand your real origins.

Soon, crowds are increasing in number wherever he stops to speak. A band of dedicated individuals follow him, look to his needs as he moves from village to village, and some, those who are able, begin to write down what he is saying.

Each life is brief and ephemeral. Most humans are only remembered for a short time by those who loved or hated them. A few humans are remembered for words and deeds long after their passing. Such was the case for this holy and peculiar itinerant, this charismatic teacher who inspired others to dwell upon him long after his physical lifetime was over.

You watch as the legend begins to grow. Mythos, the symbolic weaving of details and story to reinforce the underlying meaning of a life, swells beyond the realm of normality. The man, a direct and somewhat cryptic teacher, becomes a healer, a miracle worker, an other than human entity who, some say, defied the finality of death itself.

Conflicts arise. Groups splinter. Each group keeps a rendition of the teacher's words. And the words are copied again and again over the course of several hundred years. Each group claims authenticity and attributes to its historian or writer a special place, as one of the early follows of Jesus the teacher. The earliest group, whose writings managed to survive despite multiple attempts to destroy them, came out of Syria. These followers were poor, landless, tenants and workers, who were subjected to the rents and rules of their landlords. They were peripheral to the power centers of the day, and they called their writer, Thomas the Twin. Others emerged: the group that followed Mark; then, the cohort who claimed Luke as their recorder. Both of these groups kept the words of Jesus focused upon the Jewish people. Some eighty years after his birth, Jesus' words were again written down by someone who claimed to be Matthew and who attempted to open membership and belonging to the gentiles. Of those writings that survived with the blessings of a newly organized Church, only John, the last officially sanctioned gospel, emerged as uniquely different: philosophical, tainted with Greek and Roman thinking and steeped in logos. For John had written as if presenting a philosophical treatise. He used definition, schema, and a set identity of Jesus, not as man, but as Only Begotten, and as God.

Now, you are long gone, as a survivor and witness to this Jesus. And with you, have fallen away many variants of his words and his life. There were too many, the options too varied and too free. Leaders felt the danger might have come from potential chaos and an inability to survive. So, along with Thomas, Mary, James, Peter, some pieces attributed to John and multiple works assigned to no one, many writings were cast aside. Precisely 367 years after the birth of Jesus, Bishop Athanansius, speaking as a leader of the infant Church, condemned all but Mark, Luke, Matthew and John, and named the other works to be false witnesses for the Life and Teachings of Jesus, now the Christ, the anointed one of God.

In the hills surrounding the monastery of St. Pachomius, in the Upper Nile Valley, a handful of dedicated monks carefully responded to the Bishop's edict. They took their books, hand copied onto papyrus, and lovingly wrapped them in leather. They placed 12 volumes inside large clay jars and sealed the jars against time and decay. Buried in a hillside, the jars rested undisturbed for 1,600 years, while all around them, unorthodox words and ideas went up in flames. The burning of many manuscripts would nearly destroy a separate and very unique view of Jesus. But, for these hidden few, an unexpected miracle was yet to be performed, and time would transport Thomas and others to a place in the future where the power to destroy another view would no longer reign.

What had been so wrong with this view of Jesus? Why obliterate someone's notes, another's musings or the elaborated variation of an inspired follower?

Dr. Elaine Pagels states "Orthodoxy tends to distrust our capacity to make discriminations or acts of choice, sometimes called heresy, and insists on making them for us." So, orthodoxy became a weapon used by the early Church leaders to help solidify followers, to prevent the Church from splintering and falling into chaos, while it was assaulted by the opposition and persecution of Roman rule. A fledging religion should speak with one voice and have one authority handed down from the Roman bishop, and reinforced through a hierarchy of bishops and priests. That was the formula for survival. Furthermore, the followers needed a story of hope and renewal: someone persecuted just as they were, who had suffered, died and risen to triumph over his enemies. Thomas had written no such story.

His Jesus was different. He was a man who rejected any reference to himself as the one and the only way to an end. And the end was not salvation, it was enlightenment. Instead, he said that once we understood what he spoke of and truly reached a spiritual awareness of who we actually were, we become Jesus. We become his twin. The essence of divinity, that humans had sought so hard to discover in creation within their god, was actually housed within them. The early doctors of the Church fought this idea fiercely. What, they asked, would happen to the unity of that which is sacred if each one of us had a spark of the divine within our souls? And how did one arrive at this awareness? How did Thomas record the process of becoming enlightened? What were we supposed to do? Are we simply to ignore the trappings of that which doesn't last? Thomas recorded that consumption and indulgence in the things of this world would cause us to fail. We would not see that what we seek is right before our eyes. "Become passers-by," he recorded of Jesus. Do not let yourself be trapped by materialism. Work harder than you could ever imagine. Don't follow senseless rules about religious diet, prayer or fasting. "For what goes into your mouth will not defile you: rather, it is what comes out of your mouth that will defile you." The enlightenment we were to seek in epinoia is insight or to see the self as light. Paul of Tarsus said it well enough, "Now we see through a glass darkly or mirror. Then, we shall see even as we are seen." For Paul, that time would come after death. For Thomas, it was now.

The little group from Syria, early on, attributed the act of writing down Jesus' words to one of the original followers, called Thomas. His name actually means "a duplicate." We are called to know, not in the intellectual sense, but as one would truly know a life-long lover through and through, or as we might settle in to a familiar, infinitely sacred and special spot, realizing that "We know this place." It is then that we duplicate what Jesus claims to have done: to realize that the infinite is within us, not simply surrounding us or in a place and time beyond our present lives.

Resurrection was never spoken of as an historical event. Time was not secularized into an actual human history. Resurrection, if anything, is a metaphor in Thomas. The meaning of resurrection (although Thomas never uses this word) is not physically literal. "I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard." (saying 17) Further, "If the flesh came into being because of the spirit, that is a marvel, but if spirit came into being because of the body, that is a marvel of marvels." (saying 29). We are housed in a body, have existence in the world, are consumed by it, held by its desire, obligated to family, isolated as individuals - all these distractions make self-realization all the more difficult. So, when we actually recognize our true spiritual origins, it is as if the soul has found its true boundaries, which are contiguous with the divine. To Thomas, it would be as if one were to watch a lamp grow old with use, to tarnish and eventually to break down. The realization (like a resurrection) is that we are not the lamp, but the light within it.

Thomas' notes about what Jesus said often talk of overcoming dualism. The epiphany is precisely that: we are not separate, temporal or bound by time and death. To the extent that we realize our grounding in something larger than a particular time and place, to that extent we are enlightened, and we are one.

The early Church was seeking a formula: a step by step sacramental approach to holiness, dogma-driven conformity, and a ritualized path with consistency of thought and practice. Thomas' notes mark out a much more difficult approach. Salvation is a process, not a formula. One teacher did not bear the burden for all. We are all obligated to seek for ourselves.

The task seemed nearly impossible, fraught with potential failure, and beyond the grasp of simple folk. The Church saw literacy, learning, the written canonical word as the proper path. An early and vehement critic of Thomas, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, called the unwritten word, agrapha, like trying to make truth out of ropes of sand. It is better that learning would be strictly supervised and reserved for the clergy and those who studied within the monasteries and under the fathers of the Church.

And they were definitely fathers. The enfolding of women as early learners and twins, so evident in the gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, disappeared under the patriarchal rule of a Roman-based institutional Church. As late as the twentieth century, Pope Paul VI decreed that women could not serve in the ordained ministries of the Church because Jesus was a man. But, Thomas' writings remained metaphorical and in keeping with the inferring nature of a parable. In fact, several of his parables were of and about women, stories eliminated from the accepted four gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. The followers in Thomas' group were poor, and women had to hold their own and contribute on an equal footing with their men, if all were to survive. They contributed in the same way when it came to writing and thinking about Jesus. This did not sit well with the Roman upper middle class who eventually endorsed Christianity. So, the accident of gender became a real issue. For Thomas, gender was associated with a body that had no real significance in an eternal sense of a kingdom realized in every moment. For the early Church, gender reached a significance of undeserved importance.

What Jesus spoke of in Thomas was too hard to achieve, or so the Church thought. It allowed for too much personal interpretation. One week, in a gathering of followers, a woman might be the minister, a man the speaker, and one of lower class, a leader. The next week, the configuration might change. Such arrangements would be like eating in a Chinese restaurant: too much choice, too much variability and potential chaos. So, stability was promoted by those who wished to survive.

In Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, there is a wonderful chapter called "The Grand Inquisitor", where a cardinal, who heads the Inquisition, argues with Jesus about the security net the Church has provided for Christians. Assurance and safety are given in lieu of freedom, or instead of a sense of personal divinity and empowerment. The cardinal is almost convincing. Jesus says nothing in response to his argument, but leaves the cardinal with a kiss. The kiss burns the old man's soul for the rest of his days, but he continues to lead the faithful without change. The author knew nothing of the Gospel of Thomas, but his insightfulness is remarkable.

It is hard to say what would have happened to the world and its version of Christianity had Thomas' Jesus been allowed to survive and to be honored as a legitimate version of religion. Would the Romans have never adopted the fledging Church as its own, giving it survival and its current legacy? Would less dogma and control have meant less war and division? Would the origin and perpetuation of heresy and orthodoxy, those coupled animosities forever locked in persecution and suffering, been non-existent? What would the world look like today? Maybe we were not ready for such words, such challenges to the individual self. Maybe, knowing ourselves to be inherently divine is something that needed the miracle of a 1,600 year burial to survive.

The mystics of every religion have echoed the thought of Thomas' Jesus again and again over the ages. And many times, we have managed to listen to these peculiar saints and sages. Maybe the time of ancient Israel and Rome was not right, not yet. But today, certain voices would have us believe that the present time might hold some promise for Thomas' version of Jesus. If we are in some ways, maybe the best of ways, all mystics, then Joseph Campbell reminds us again of what Thomas' Gospel also says. "The critical social problem of the mystic everywhere is to abide in God, either as a manifestation of God or as God's devotee, and at the same time to abide in phenomenality, as a material, social phenomenon. For the dualist, this remains difficult: God and world for him are apart. For the non-dualist, however, the difficulty exists only at a preliminary stage of the mystic way, antecedent to the realization, since for him, finally, all is found to be in some manner God."

The Gospel of Thomas is a genuine, alternative approach to the quest for spirituality and communion with something larger than our singular selves. It lacks the polish and literary beauty of the canonical gospels and is probably more of a diverse collection of loosely related sayings than any forceful rendition of "the greatest story ever told." It lacks the drama and religious fervor inherent in the story of a crucified Savior, but it demands more than simply faith from its readers. It speaks to the power of human perception and awareness, as a mini-version of the same force or power, which may truly permeate all of creation. Whatever its truth, it speaks to the sentience of humans to recognize themselves "as the eyes and ears of the universe."

The Gospel of Thomas stands at the beginning of a long tradition of mysticism in Christianity and is worth careful study as an important source document, despite its long burial. Dr. Karen King states "It may very well be the case that the basis for salvation is the fundamentally spiritual nature of humanity, but if so, such salvation requires enlightenment and moral practice." The words of a teacher named Jesus found in Thomas may just be the version of Jesus best suited to our own time. And this time, we may be ready.

CLOSING WORDS

Logia 3, Gospel of Thomas 1

3 Jesus, "If your leaders say to you, Look, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, it is in the sea, then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty."

©2005, Carol Nichols

  1. Meyer, Marvin. The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of the Mystical Gospels and Secret Books About Jesus of Nazareth. San Francisco: Harper, 2005.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Nichols, Carol. 2005. A Different View of Jesus, http://www.uuquincy.org/talks/20051016.shtml ( accessed December 11, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.