Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Sermon

Below is the sermon I preached today. I forgot what hard work it is. I imagine it's a lot easier when done, as is my practice, approximately once per year... I've even heard some do it every week. The readings I chose were Acts 11:19-30, Isaiah 45:11-13,18-19; John 15:9-17.


It has fallen on me to preach the Sunday after the DaVinci Code movie came out. And though I'm not interested in giving the movie any more than attention than it has already has received, I thought it worth bringing up if only because of the contrast it can give us to today's reading.

The DaVinci Code is not all bad news. For some the book's fantastic claims have led to a fresh investigation of the Bible and church history, an investigation which can lead to a renewal of forgotten faith. But unfortunately it seems that for every one person who may have been inspired by the DaVinci Code to examine the truth about Christian history, there are at least two people who are interested in actually believing the lie. The situation is not entirely unlike the events that took place not far from here in 1938, when a science fiction novel about a Martian invasion called the War of the Worlds was dramatized for radio by Orson Welles. Perhaps it had something to do with the climate of tension in the years leading to WWII, but when the broadcast aired as a Halloween special in 1938, people thought the Martian invasion was real. Newspaper report that some even claimed to smell the poison gas that the broadcast said the Martians were pumping into the atmosphere, or to see the flashes of aliens tripods wreaking havoc in the distance. Police had to be called to calm the crowds that had gathered at Grover's Mill near Princeton, because that was where the broadcast said the Martians had landed. These people wanted to see the aliens. And now people are traveling all around Europe to see the where the events from the DaVinci Code "actually took place."

The War of the Worlds broadcast, for effect, was made to sound like a real newscast (which it wasn't) just as the DaVinci Code novel, for effect, claims in its first page that all its descriptions are accurate (which they are not). But such embellishments caused people both then and now to lose, perhaps to intentionally forsake, their ability to discern between fact and fiction. And though being led to a faulty belief in Martians isn't entirely harmful and can be easily corrected, a faulty belief about Christ is of much more serious consequence, and needs to be addressed.

The Bible says that "stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the one by whom they come" (Luke 17:1). And Mark Twain said, "A lie is half way round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on." So as this DaVinci Code continues to sell (as of today, over 3 years since it came out it's number 1 on the NYTimes bestseller list) and as the movie is played worldwide, lets make sure we at All Saints' Church have our boots on.


One of Dan Brown's shrewdest moves was to merge his novel with the recent interest in the Gnostic Gospels. The Gnostic "Gospels" are alternate accounts of the life of Christ, written about a century after Matthew Mark Luke and John. Gnosticism is a complex phenomenon, but contrary to what the DaVinci Code tells us, Gnostics don't teach that Christ was a mere man, they teach that he couldn't have been a fully embodied man, because physical matter, the Gnostics taught - is not as Genesis teaches "very good" - physical matter is evil. So, according to the Gnostic Gospel of Judas for example, Jesus was so pure that he hailed not from little town of Bethlehem, but from the immortal realm of Barbelo. Bethlehem I guess was a bit too earthy.

Also contrary to the DaVinci Code, the Gnostic accounts don't teach that Christ was a proto-feminist. Allow me to read you the last verse from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Peter says to Christ,
"'Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.' Jesus said, 'See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become a living spirit that resembles you males. For every female (element) that makes itself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.'"
If you're interested in a Jesus who respects women however, you might consult the non-Gnostic Gospel of John, where Christ breaks social taboos to speak to a Samaritan woman in chapter four, to defend the life of an adulterous woman in chapter eight, and where the first to whom he reveals his Resurrected glory was Mary Magdalene in chapter 20.

But the power of the Gnostic Gospels is not in what they have to say, what they say as we've seen can be rather bizarre. The power of the Gnostic Gospels is that they claim to be letting you in on a secret. It's their secrecy that gives them their allure. I was listening to an interview with a popular scholar who specializes in Gnosticism, and she made a very interesting observation that I thought perfectly encapsulated the Gnostic message. She said, and she is right, that these accounts were "not meant to be read publically, but were an advanced teaching only for the few."

The fact that the Gnostic secret gospels have a selective audience is the key to understanding their difference to our public Gospel for a universal audience. In the Gnostic Gospel of Judas Jesus says to Judas "Step away from the others, and I will tell you the secrets of the kingdom of heaven..." The Gnostic gospels appeal to our pride, our desire to be in on something that no one else knows about.

"Can you keep secrets?" Sir Teabing says to Sophie in the DaVinci Code. "Can you know a thing and never tell it again?"

The Readings

"I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness" the Lord said through Isaiah in our first reading for this morning.

The context of the Isaiah passage is that the chosen nation of Israel had been deported to Babylon, but God was now ready to announce their homecoming, to gather them back to Jerusalem. Their long exile was over, and to deliver them God had chosen a non-Jewish named Cyrus of Persia. When Isaiah told this to the people they balked, how could God use a gentile king? And the Lord responded through Isaiah to their incredulity:
"Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands? I made the earth and created humankind upon it; I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight."
Isaiah rebukes the exclusively minded Israelites by reminding them that God's saving activity on behalf of Israel was a world-encompassing event, and God could use a Gentile King to grant Israel safe passage home if he so chose.

The oracle at Delphi was the pagan fortune telling factory of the ancient world, and they too made prophecies about Cyrus of Persia, but kept them secret - perhaps so that they could, if necessary, be reversed depending on the turn of events. But not the God of Israel.
"I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness."
God the Father doesn't do secrets.

The book of Acts this morning both preserves and expands upon Isaiah's international insight. The context of this passage is that the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem had been scattered after the great persecution that began with the stoning of Stephen. And as they spread out into greater Palestine, Acts tells us that these Jewish Christians "spoke the word to none except Jews." But some of them decided to take a risk. "There were some of them," Acts tells us, "who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus." What happened? "And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord."

Some Jewish Christians took the risk to proclaim Christ to the non-Jewish Gentiles and it worked - so much so that they had to call to Jerusalem Church for some from back up from Barnabus. And later, with Paul's help, so many people came to the Lord that the pagan population of Antioch had to find a name for this strange new group of people that cared not for traditional tribal boundaries - they called them Christians.

These Christians were not like the pagan mystery cults which were so popular in ancient world, with layer upon layer of secret rituals known only to the initiated. Christians instead proclaimed a public truth, open to all the nations, and proclaimed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit doesn't do secrets.

But what about Jesus. Didn't Jesus have secrets? For example, after the transfiguration, didn't he say to a rather exclusive group of disciples, Peter James and John, "Tell no one about the vision"...?

He did. But here's the entire verse "Tell no one of the vision... until the son of man has risen from the dead" (Matt 17:9). Jesus sometimes used a strategic secrecy, perhaps to conceal his identity so that he wouldn't get killed before his appointed time. But once he was risen from the dead Jesus instructs the disciples to share the Gospel with such vigor that even if the Emperor of Rome himself commanded them to be silent, to speak. They were to proclaim Christ, even if it meant their death. As of course, for many of the disciples, it would.

One of the more powerful religious services I've ever been to was the Good Friday Service here at All Saints' this year. In it we saw the Pharisees question Jesus, and Ned stood right there and sung the words of Christ which read:
"I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly."
Jesus doesn't do secrets. That message was so offensive that on officer struck him for talking freshly to the high priest. Things haven't exactly changed. You're liable to get struck yourself, or at least given the evil eye, if today you suggest that Jesus Christ is not a secret. If you suggest, following Isaiah and Acts that Christ is for ALL the nations, ALL tongues tribes and nations, even that Jesus Christ is for ALL religions. Many today believe Jesus is only for Christians. People name Christianity among the Western religions. But was Jesus a westerner? Those Magi so beautifully depicted in the open icon that hangs here to celebrate Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ of to the nations - were those Magi from the West?

A further example of the Gospel's scandalously non-secretive nature is in the John 15 reading this morning, where Christ says "No longer do I call you servants, but I call you friends." A temptation with this passage is to import our understanding of friendship into this verse. To perhaps think casually of Christ as our buddy. But that would be very unwise, for this is a friendship that is carefully qualified and defined.

For example, if you said to your closest friend, "I will continue to be your friend, if you do what I command you," chances are he or she would no longer be your closest friend. But Jesus says that to us in this passage. "You are my friends if you do what I command you." This is not an ordinary friendship. By calling us friends Jesus has one particular point in mind which he makes very clear. He contrasts servants, who don't have the whole story of what the Master is up to, with friends who do.
"I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
"I have made known to you everything." No secrets. We are the friends of Jesus Christ because He has let us in on the truth about what this Universe is for. We know that the fuse of the Big Bang was lit with the fire of God's love - love that would go so far as to become one of us, paying for each of our sins with his own blood, and then even overcoming an enemy powerful enough to defeat even Cyrus the great King of Persia - an enemy named death, which was destroyed by Christ's glorious resurrection. And we know that we're to abide in Christ until the day where we stand before him in judgment, where we'll be either rewarded for proclaiming this truth in word and deed, or shamed for keeping in secret. Hidden. Locked up in the safety deposit box of our expertly justified timidity. We may not know everything we'd like to know, but we've been told everything we need to know. And that is enough.

Youth Sunday

What does all this have to do with Youth Sunday? It is everything to do with Youth Sunday. Because if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not some secret, advanced teaching for a select, especially chosen few - if the Gospel is available to all, if it is a public teaching to be proclaimed to all tongues tribes and nations - then the Youth of this church are as able to access it as the adults. In fact, the youth of this church may be in a better place to access God than we adults, because often they haven't had as much time to build up the defense mechanisms that keep God out. Being young is prime time to draw close to God.

The Bible makes the point often. Certainly Mary was but a young maiden when she was called. And we don't know what the age of the disciples were when they dropped their nets for Christ, but tradition relates that the Gospel of John was written by the apostle John in his very old age, and therefore Christians assumed that he must have been but a youth when he drew near to Christ at the last supper.

And though Dan Brown has other ideas, that is why when Leonardo DaVinci painted his famous Last Supper, he depicted the Apostle John as a beardless youth. A beardless youth who was uniquely close to Christ. So no, it's not Mary Magdalene.

Right now all of us, youth and adults, are invited not to mutter a secret incantation, but to proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ in that ancient, universal and most ecumenical of Creeds. And then we're invited to draw near to him not through a secret ritual behind closed doors, but by communing with Christ in a holy feast, that has only one requirement - That you be a sinner seeking, in Christ, to be a saint. May that include us all.