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April 23, 2006 (Easter II)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
I John 1:1–2:2; John 20:19–31
Grace and Peace to you from God our loving creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. Maybe you’ve seen the specials on TV or read the new National Geographic on this subject, or perhaps you’ve had a coworker or a friend who knows you go to church approach you asking you your opinion of this new, supposedly controversial, discovery.
From what we’ve heard in the media, it would seem that the Gospel of Judas is an early Christian text that reveals hidden truths about Jesus’ time on earth. The specific controversial idea is that it says that when Judas betrayed Jesus, he was actually acting on Jesus’ orders.
That possibility is intriguing to us because it seems to give an explanation to a troubling part of the gospel story we hear in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And I think it’s appealing to the general public because, if a new idea or discovery sounds like it weakens the idea of faith, it gives them one more reason not to go to church.
Most of the media buzz that I’ve witnessed about the Gospel of Judas has talked about how this text is “authentic” and that is brings other Christian texts into question.
The Gospel of Judas is “authentic” in many ways...
...It is not a fake. It is indeed an ancient manuscript that dates from between 220 and 380 AD, and it was probably copied from an earlier Greek version. So in that sense it is “authentic,” but before people jump to conclusions about it being an “authentic” challenge to Christian texts found in the Bible, I hope they ask the questions: “Who wrote this text?” and “What was their motivation for writing it?”
If you ask these questions of the Gospel of Judas, you might be very surprised. The text comes from a real community of faith, but a faith very different from early Christian faiths that gathered around the Biblical Christian texts. This community that wrote the Gospel of Judas was likely separated from any direct contact with Jesus and the communities of Jesus’ followers, by time, location, and theological differences.
Essentially what seems to be happening in the Gospel of Judas is that the community that authored it was motivated to insert their faith into the established story of Jesus. It was written by a real community, and a real faith community, but one that believed among other things that rebellion against God should valued above all else, making heroes of characters like Cain, who killed his brother, and Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Essentially the opposite of what you’d find in Judaism or Christianity. The community also held to a form of Gnostic faith motivated by the desire to attain a secret knowledge through mystic interpretations of texts that could be used like a key to help them escape their bodies and get past the God of this world and into another secret heavenly realm. Their beliefs are full of some pretty interesting stuff.
Investigation into the community that wrote the Gospel of Judas and their motivation for writing it helps us to see its significance in a different light. By asking these questions about the Gospel of Judas, we see that this text’s significance to the Christian faith and its significance to your life and belief are probably not as dramatic as the media has made it seem. While the Gospel of Judas is the work of a faith community that developed certain beliefs about Jesus, it is also the work of a very different faith from the early Christian communities that gathered around the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
But it’s important to find out about our Christian gospel texts and to ask the same questions of these texts.
The Gospel of John and the Epistles of John, which are our texts for today, are good places to start. “Who wrote the works attributed to John?” and “What was their motivation?”
John was the last of the four biblical gospels to be written. While the date of its origin was considered to be as late as 200AD only decades ago, recent scholarship has shown it to be earlier and earlier, and most scholars now trace it back to the period between 80 and 90 AD, and many believe it comes from a community of the actual Apostle John or his followers who gathered in the city of Ephesus in modern day Turkey.
But whoever you believe to be the author, if you want to know the motivation for why these texts were written, all you need to do is read the texts themselves.
The first Epistle of John, our epistle lesson for today, begins with an account of why this author and his community were writing: “WE declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen or heard so that you also may have communion with us; and truly our communion is with the Father and with Jesus Christ, the Son. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
According to this author, who I am going to refer to as John, the motivation for writing was that the love of Christ for sinners, the gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Christ, was such great news that John couldn’t imagine not writing it down and sharing it. There could be many reasons to write his letter but John says it is his own Joy in sharing this good news that is his motivation.
At the end of his gospel, our gospel text for today, John says something similar. He makes it clear that he did not see his job as recounting every individual deed Jesus did in scientific detail but to give those that hear his account enough to believe. John says in Verses 30 and 31 of today’s gospel lesson, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
John says he is writing his gospel for a specific person: YOU! And for a specific reason: “so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It’s not secret knowledge hidden in the text, it’s Christ’s love declared to you!
According to his own account the motivation behind John’s writings is a) because it brings him and his community joy to share the news of Christ’s love for all people and b) so that you, the one who hears these words or reads these words, may have life in Jesus’ name.
So I would conclude that if this is a gospel passed down from a disciples first person account, it seems John is not worried about telling the whole story but telling enough of his experience with Jesus so that those that hear this account might believe.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It’s interesting, then, that John’s story which is supposed to inspire belief, ends with the story of Thomas, someone who doesn’t believe after hearing the direct word of the other disciples who tell him about Jesus’ resurrection.
Right at the conclusion of an account that he says was written to inspire faith, John puts the story of Thomas who asks for more than it seems John is able to give those that hear the testimony of his gospel.
Knowing John’s revealed motivation this seems strange. How can Thomas’ doubt motivate the hearer to have faith?
Well, I think the story of Thomas is in John’s gospel because it’s real. And by real I mean, yes I believe this event actually happened, but also it’s real because it’s true to who we are as disciples, because we know that faith is not always easy.
John could have spent his time giving an explanation for why Thomas did what he did, the same way the writer’s of the Gospel of Judas, try to give an explanation for why Judas did what he did. But this isn’t what John feels will motivate faith. What will motivate faith is belief in Christ’s love, even for a doubter like Thomas, even for the doubter in all of us.
Jesus does not even give Thomas a chance to explain himself but instead declares to him “Peace.” That word—declared to him from the one who is God, the one who went to the cross, the grave, to hell and back—is a word that declares all grace and the forgiveness of sins, including doubt, before we even have the chance to explain ourselves.
Thomas is so overcome with the presence of Jesus that he skips the explanation for his doubt, skips any guilt he might feel, so that all we hear is his response to that love and peace Christ shares with him. Thomas confesses his faith, saying, “My Lord and My God.”
At the Font and at the table of Christ, Jesus declares his peace and his love to you, before you even have a chance to explain yourself and account for our sins. What can we declare in the face of that love except what Thomas declares: “My Lord and My God”?
We often forget, when it comes down to it, it’s not about us. Our struggles can’t keep Christ from loving us. It’s about what Jesus is willing to do to get through to us. And when you see that gift of grace, even through your doubt, you will find yourself where Thomas did, declaring his faith, in response to Christ’s love.
I believe John knew what he was doing by telling us about Thomas. I think it does inspire faith in us, through our own doubt. I think the Spirit knew what it was doing through John: making him unable to do anything but share this good news, his testimony about Jesus with the world.
And I think the Spirit knows what it is doing in you, too: revealing Christ to you in a way that you can see Jesus as your savior, so that you see yourself as a beloved part of Christ’s body on this earth, even with your wounds and your doubts. That means you have a story to tell, too!
We have good news: the risen Jesus loves you enough to reveal himself to you, to bring you the message of love and peace. And I hope that gives you some pretty good motivation to share your gospel story with the world! So that your joy may be complete!
May the Peace that Passes all understanding keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org