Gospel of Thomas 1-6
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 19, 2014
University Baptist Church
According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus told him some secret things. When his friends asked him what Jesus had said he replied: “If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.” (#13) Doesn’t sound very comforting, does it? He also said, “I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred in to the human mind.” (#17)
Secrets. Our daughter Amanda has been home since Friday evening. And we’re really glad to have her home. It hasn’t been the same without her. But after 18 years with someone, the seven weeks away are more of a mystery. We are trying to find out what’s been happening. I just know there are secrets that she is keeping from us. And that’s appropriate. I don’t have to like it. I just have to get used to it, I guess.
Secrets are good if they protect you.
Secrets are bad if they hide something that will help another.
Secrets can be selfish or self-serving.
Jesus called us to be other-serving.
And when we are other-serving, we have found the secret to life.
For we have found out a secret source of the presence of God.
The Gospel of Thomas is known as the Secret Gospel. First of all,
The Gospel of Thomas contains “secret” sayings of Jesus, many of which appear in the synoptic Gospels. But others do not appear. One of my favorites is verse 6: “His disciples questioned Him and said to Him, "Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?" Jesus said, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate.” Sounds like good advice to me.
The Gospel of Thomas points toward a deep inner life from which we will find revelation. Someone once said that we are only as sick as our secrets. What secrets do we hold onto? What courageous action might we need to take to set someone free? What is the secret to the grace we have experienced?
The Gospel of Thomas was not included in the scripture when the cannon was finally closed in the mid fourth century of the common era. The book is made up of 114 sayings of Jesus. Two thirds of them appear in other portions of scripture. Scholars can’t agree on the date of its authorship, but many believe that it was written around the same time as Matthew, Mark and Luke, but before John.
The Gospel of Thomas plays a bit part in the The DaVinci Code but is the subject of the religious thriller, Stigmata that came out about fifteen years ago. The premise of this rather odd film is that the main character, a young Patricia Arquette, was miraculously channeling ancient writers and was writing words in Aramaic on the walls of her apartment. These words were from the Gospel of Thomas. The church leadership wanted to suppress word of this miracle, for God would obviously not have one of her servants really unveiling a supposedly heretical book. What would that mean to notions of power and authority?
Elaine Pagels believes that John was written to rebuff Thomas. And if the church had chosen Matthew, Mark, Luke and Thomas instead of John, then we would have a different world and church, indeed. Aside from lifting up the disciple, Thomas as a good guy instead of John’s doubting and disbelieving bad guy, the Gospel of Thomas also lifts up the ability for each person to see within themselves the light of God. The light of Jesus points us to the light of God within ourselves, says Thomas’ Gospel.
This light of God is within all of us. That’s the belief of Thomas’ Gospel. His Gospel is one among many books of Gnostic literature. Gnostic is another way of saying knowledge or insight. The Gnostic writers believed that there was a spark of light within each of us and that the pursuit of this light, this illumination, this insight, this gnosis was the meaning of life—the secret of life.
This whole thought pattern seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? Well, it is, unless you are trying to form a church based upon uniformity of belief. John is a better candidate for this. While Thomas affirms that we all have access to the light within, John says there is only one way, truth and life and that life is the external light of all the nations.
The true secret according to Thomas is that when we find that inner light, we become not Christians but Christ. Then we become the Twin, Jesus’ identical Twin. This is the secret quest. Of course this does not make for a good church program. Random sayings needed to be fit into a narrative and that’s what the other gospels did. Eventually, they said that the journey of a Christian was not only self-discovery, but discovering and acknowledging that Jesus was the savior. This makes less room for anarchy. It suppresses the seeker’s gnosis, their quest for knowledge, wisdom, insight, at least that which is found within.
Think about it, if one says “I have access to the light within,” then what happens when another says they have access to the light within and that light is revealing something different? This does not make for everything to be neat and in order. There is great liberating freedom on the one hand and the possibility of anarchy on the other.
Oddly, Baptists are good children of the light within. We believe that everyone has a competent soul, has direct access to God without a preacher as an intermediary, and each person can make their own decisions about the meaning of scripture, with the Holy Spirit acting as the guide and the community of faith acting as the sounding board. When Baptists first started saying these things in the 1500’s they were burned at the stake for being heretics and for causing people to think for themselves which has always been a threat to state control. In fact, some of the early Anabaptist movements were called the new light movements, or children of the light.
Bishop Irenaeus in the second century and later Bishop Apollinarus in the fourth century tried to expunge the church of all such thought. They called Gnostic books such as Thomas, Philip, Mary, Pisits Sophia, and others heretical and ordered them destroyed. Many were, except for those that were smuggled into clay pots and buried here and there.
The full manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas was discovered in 1945 in Egypt. It was one of 52 writings buried in the Nag Hamadi area. The texts were written in Coptic and give us a glimpse of the first centuries of the early church. They are dated from the 4th century, although most scholars believe the sayings in Thomas existed before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, since they all seem to borrow from the collection of sayings. A similar text was uncovered in the late 1800’s written in Greek, but it was shorter than the 114 Nag Hammadi verses.
That light within kept breaking forth. You can’t keep a good light down. It can and it will itch to break free. Thank God.
Hear again these sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas and see if any of them resonate with you.
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 ‘Who are you?’ say, ‘We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living God.’ If they ask you, ‘What is the sign of the God in you?’ say to them, ‘It is movement and rest.’” (verse 50)
Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all. From me all came forth, and to me all extends. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone and our will find me there.” (verse 77)
Jesus said, “The one who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be troubled; and when he is troubled, he will be astonished.” (verse 2)
Jesus said, "Images are visible to people, but the light within them is hidden in the image of God's light. God will be disclosed, but God’s image is hidden by God’s light." (verse 83)
Jesus said, “The heavens and the earth will roll up in your presence, and whoever is living from the living one will not see death.” Does not Jesus say,’ those who have found themselves, of them the world is not worthy”? (verse 111)
His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” (verse 113)
Imagine what would happen if we all recognized the divine spark within each of us. What secrets would be revealed? What would be liberated to be told to all?
Jack Smith was a member of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. He was a very active member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship. He taught many of us how to sing Sacred Harp and there is a Jack Smith memorial singing in Atlanta every May. Jack worked for the Centers for Disease Control way back in the 80’s and 90’s. He wrote the form letter that people received when they had been diagnosed with HIV. It told how to find treatment, stay healthy and keep your family and friends healthy. One day, he received the very letter that he had written. He had a choice to make. He could keep his HIV status a secret or he could let others walk with him. Of course, if he told that secret then another secret about his sexual orientation might come out too. At a Baptist Peace Fellowship conference in the San Francisco area in 1995, Jack bravely stood up at an evening gathering and said “We are only as sick as our secrets.” He told of his HIV status and received the warm embrace of the Peace Fellowship community. And for the next six years we walked together on the journey. And that liberated secret helped us to agents of change and healing with on another.
You know, I have seen the light within reveal itself in many of you. Compassion, generosity, standing up to powers and principalities, all of this is the manifestation of the light within. I know that each of you holds a portion of the divine spark.
The light within speaks to what is our greatest good. That’s the way God manifests God’s self these days. When we seek the greatest good for us and for our neighbor, then we are responding to the light that is within each of us. This light can and therefore is a light to all of the nations and it beckons to be lifted up for all to see.
Sisters and brothers, live in the light. Remember the secret that we each have a piece of the divine spark in us. Remember that our so-called enemies have a piece of that divine spark as well. We want the greatest good for all of us. This is the journey to which God calls us.
Spend some time this week reflecting upon the light that is within you. Spend some time as well recognizing the light that is in another. Recognize and celebrate the light within. It’s there, even if it is hidden. It is that part of you that is directly connected to God. It is that part of you that seeks toward health. It’s that part of you that recognized and celebrates beauty. It’s that part of you that motivates you to not only make life better for yourself but for others as well. If it’s only about making life better for you, then chances are it’s not God’s light.
Sisters and brothers, there is beauty inside of each of you. There is light within. Let it shine. Be a lighthouse. Be a beacon of hope. Be a source of joy. Let that light within fill you and spill out to a people in need. When you do that, then you have some knowledge not only of yourself, not only of God, but also of your unique Gospel.
Sisters and brothers, here is the secret, God is all around you. Even inside of you. Look closely enough and you will find it. That is good news. So use God’s presence wisely. Tread lightly on the earth. Live peaceably with the children of God. Give thanks for the blessing we receive in each other.
Why was the gospel a secret? Would finding the light within become a threat? Of course. Inspired people can’t be controlled. They’re too free. Too dangerous. And yet, they are the ones who can do the most good, too. Finding the way to unlock the secret of God within each of us unleashes God’s grace and power which cannot help but be for mercy, compassion, love, justice and peace. Because that’s who God is and that’s who we are called to be. It’s no secret. It’s good news.
So have the courage to unlock the secret of God within you. And then share that amazing grace. It will sustain you. And as Jesus suggests through Thomas, “do not tell lies. Do not do what you hate.” Rather, recognize that God dwells within you. That will save you.