First Sunday After Christmas Day – December 29, 2019
In December of 1945, in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, two Egyptian brothers were digging for fertilizer in an area around some caves along the Nile River when they discovered a large earthenware vessel containing several papyri which are known today as the Nag Hammadi library. These codices contained forty-eight early Christian but mainly Gnostic treatises, along with four other ancient works. Written in the Coptic language, these documents date from the second to the fourth centuries, and they provide tremendous insight into early Christianity and Gnosticism.
The word gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” It is from this word that we get the English word “diagnosis.” The so-called Gnostics believed that God had imparted to them secret knowledge that only they possessed. Their writings flourished among certain Christian groups until the church deemed them heretical in the second century A.D. Some Gnostics adopted Jesus as one of the central figures of their faith, and some of our early Christian writings are polemics written against Gnostic claims about Jesus by the early church.
One of the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 is called the Second Treatise of the Great Seth and in it, the Gnostic version of Jesus retells the story of his crucifixion. I am going to read part of it to you now. Let’s see where it is similar and different from our gospel accounts:
“[Jesus said] And the plan which they devised about me to release their Error and their senselessness – I did not succumb to them as they had planned. But I was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me. And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I suffered according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death…Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was another upon Whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance.”
So in a nutshell, Gnostics believed Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross for Jesus, was the one who was actually crucified, and all of the people who witnessed the event merely thought it was Jesus who died. Meanwhile, Jesus is watching all of this, “laughing at their ignorance.”
Clearly, this is not what we learned in Sunday school. What is more, it is not even the strangest Gnostic claim about Christ. In another Nag Hammadi text, a second century codex called The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus reportedly says “Look, I will guide [Mary] to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
There are many people today, including people who just may be in this room right now who will tell you that they can accept that Jesus was a great moral teacher while they cannot accept that he was in any way divine, and certainly not the Son of God. C.S. Lewis famously confronts this idea in Mere Christianity, saying “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
However, from some of the earliest years of the Christian movement, the opposite was true. People like the Gnostics could believe that Jesus was divine, even God incarnate. What they could not believe was that Jesus could possibly have been human. The human body is corrupt and temporal and far too unworthy of a place for the God of the universe to dwell. As such, they clearly could not possibly believe in a God who suffers and dies like we do.
All of which brings me to this morning’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, whose author writes “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
It is an astounding claim, one we ignore at our peril, one we can scarcely imagine today what a scandalous claim it would have been in the ancient, pagan world— this amazing claim that the God who designed and created the universe and everything in it and spoke it into being would deign to share in our flesh and our blood, all for our sake. What is more, to think that this same God would suffer and die a human death so that you and I and all of sinful humanity may be liberated from even the fear of death, well, it is almost too much to comprehend.
There is a risk modern Christians can run, a risk that can so easily rob scripture of its amazing power to reveal to us the living God in our very midst. Many of us have attended services in the holy seasons of Advent and Christmas so many times that it is easy for us to take for granted the theology of an incarnate God. Of course God is one of us. We have heard the story a hundred times! “The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us,” as the Gospel of John proclaims in its prologue.
Which is why I opened this message by reading from an ancient heretical codex: because it shows us how bold, astounding, scandalous, and particular this morning’s claim about Jesus really is and how it reveals to us a God of such intimacy, a God so desirous of sharing our lives on earth that this God adorns Godself with this mortal coil with all of its pain, grief, loss, suffering, fear and even death itself. In this morning’s text, we encounter the God who in Jesus Christ, in a garden outside of Jerusalem called Gethsemane fears death, if only so that you and I can imagine a world where we do not have to endure such fear.
For centuries, it was believed that those pagan gods existed far above the fray, in their penthouse suites, high on Mount Olympus. And yet, into this world come the Christians, the disciples of a parochial God, born in a barn, laid in the straw, raised by a carpenter and his wife as a nobody from nowhere, in a rural town called Nazareth, a town so small that at its largest in Jesus’ day could fit its entire population in our sanctuary twice.
And to think that this same God was the God who risked childbirth in a prescientific age, who experienced hunger, thirst, exhaustion, temptation, rejection, poverty, grief, anger, frustration, fear, suffering and death, a God supremely revealed as one of us (of all things), well, to quote an old hymn, “I scarce can take it in.”
It is an astounding claim made about an astounding God, one who continues to surprise us, even to this day.
There is a reason that my conversations with my dear clergy friends, even ones in other congregations or denominations are so very different from conversations with my friends among the laity: there is just a difference in how they are able to get it when I am speaking to them. Likewise, there is a reason that people experiencing grief or illness or loss gather into support groups. These conversations do not replace conversations with friends and loved ones, but they are different, special, unique, all because those other persons in those covenant groups or support groups are walking a shared path that others who have not trod those pathways cannot fully understand. It is the reason my premarital counseling is different after almost twenty-two years of marriage then it was when I was doing that sacred work as an unmarried man who had not experienced married life.
It is the reason experiences of fearing for my own health made me a better pastor. It is the reason that holding my newborn daughters in my arms for the first time made me think much differently about a God who gives away God’s only son to be fostered by sinful humanity so that this world could have a hope of a life without the fear of death because we can hold fast without wavering to the hope of everlasting life, brought to us by the one who died and rose again to show us that it is all true.
In February of 1942, British author and English professor C.S. Lewis published a book titled The Screwtape Letters, a book he would later describe as the only book in his collection he did not enjoy writing. The novel is comprised of thirty-one letters written by a demon named Screwtape to an apprentice demon, a nephew named Wormwood, about how to keep his assigned human “patient” away from Christianity and the wiles of the “Enemy” who is Christ.
In the first letter, Screwtape bemoans what he refers to as “that abominable advantage of the Enemy.” By this “abominable advantage,” he means the incarnation. Screwtape remains eternally frustrated that Jesus has an asset that the devil and his minions never will: Jesus has actually been more than a “pure spirit.” Jesus, has actually been human, human like us, like you and like me. As such, Jesus knows better than the devil how to relate to us because Jesus, through his incarnation, through his life, death, and resurrection has earned it, earned the right to be heard from us in ways no other deity truly can, all by his experiencing the blessings of this life while also enduring its hardships, Jesus can offer to us the hope of one who truly walks alongside of us in all of our trials and tribulations, come what may.
In 1995, the singer Joan Osborne released her album Relish which included a song called “One of Us.” The song was a global hit, winning three Grammy nominations and peaking at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. The song includes the following lyrics:
If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?
And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?
The amazing Christian claim of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the claim that God is indeed “one of us.” God does indeed have a name and a face, and this God, because of God’s time amongst us with those who are the least, the last, and the lost means that God has dwelt amongst the slobs, the strangers, and the people just trying to make their way home. Our God is one of us, living our lives, fearing our fears, dying our deaths, and rising that we may someday rise.
It is the scandal of Christmas, the scandal of a God who so desperately wishes to be in relationship with us that this God would go to the length of impregnating a teenage virgin, being born like we are, living like we do, suffering like we suffer, and dying like we die, the God of lost sheep and lost sons and repentant criminals hanging on a cross. It is a God whose reality extends far beyond mere existence to include becoming real in the ways you and I are, knowing that none of it was too much to ask of this savior so that he could be our God, and we could be his people.
As today’s text so perfectly proclaims, “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”
It is good news for today, good news for you, good news for me, good news for us together, and good news for this broken and wandering world trying to find it’s way home, today, tomorrow, and always.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.