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January 2017

Who Is Jesus According to the Non-canonical Gospels?

Carissa Herold, Presbyterian Women marketing associate, on Lesson Seven

Oh the Internet. So many wonderful opportunities to unearth treasures! One treasure that brought a smile I happened upon while visiting Pinterest. See if this brings a smile to you:

In a child’s handwriting:

Dear God,

Mommy says all babies cry. But I don’t think Jesus did. You must [k]now the answer, so please write back. We have a bet.

Angelina

I love this note! Any adult who has spent more than a few minutes with a young person (or can remember one’s own early days) often encounters stories and questions from children as they try to decipher the world and the world of faith. For example, when I was about five, I visited a Roman Catholic church with a friend’s family. I still vividly recall that the lofty ceiling of the church was painted the most amazing, celestial blue; golden vessels and amazing stained glass windows also graced this astonishing holy space. I was, at five, perfectly awestruck. By comparison, my church was plain—white walls, pastel-hued windows (no stained glass), a large wooden cross, and unadorned wooden pews. Having been told that the church was God’s house, I remember being very unsettled that God decorated God’s other house (that is, not the one we visited every week) with such beautiful things. I had never been in such a building. In my young mind I truly believed that church furnishings were carefully selected by God; indeed, that the signs and windows were supernaturally made and installed.

As I read this lesson about the non-canonical gospels, and later viewed the Companion DVD*, I found myself truly empathizing with Christians of and from every age who try to make sense of Christianity by pondering the gaps in the Christian story and the life of Christ. In our age of abundant and readily available information, we can easily unearth papers and tomes and sermons and studies about the Christian story and the life of Christ. But let’s face it. Libraries may brim with books and monographs and scholarly articles, but during sleepless nights and maddening commutes, who doesn’t ponder great truths on her or his own? Sometimes I drift from what I (think I) know in the canon and ponder the gaps. Did Jesus enjoy the craft of carpentry? Did he ever suffer from an illness? I am not alone in these imaginings. In the study, in the section about the infancy gospels of Jesus, Judy writes, “However unusual we find these stories, we recognize that the gist of this infancy gospel [the Infancy Gospel of Thomas] is to affirm the power, wisdom, and divine blessings of Jesus—even in his boyhood” (page 72).

I didn’t fully grasp until I read this lesson that the canon as we know it came together not over decades but centuries. Judy writes, “For the first two centuries, it seemed to matter little whether there were lines drawn around the material that was authoritative and the material that was not” (page 70). For humans, stories matter. That’s why, I think, the Christian community eventually had to codify, if you will, our common faith story as this would link us, one to another, over generations. In this new century, we, through a shared canon, grapple with and continue to be sustained by these same texts. Modern readers like me are indebted to all who undertook this massive undertaking. Vincent Branick wrote: “Carrying your Bible under your arm implies being inserted into a tradition and a network that ties us to the earliest Christian communities selecting the books of the Bible, the bleary-eyed copyists passing the books on, and the community of faith today reading and celebrating these texts.” (Vincent Branick, Understanding the New Testament and Its Message: An Introduction, Paulist Press, 1998, p. 33)

How do we know what we know about Jesus? As a child, I relied on sensations like sight and sound and kindly Sunday school teachers to help me make sense of faith. As an adult, I still use my senses to broaden my experience of faith, but with my years, I can now rely on scripture and community (and well as scholarly pursuits such as studying church architecture) to understand. But even with an authoritative canon, our experience of scripture and lives of faith are not static or monolithic. Church historian Elaine Pagels puts it like this at the conclusion of her book about the non-canonical gospel of Thomas: “What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions—and the communities that sustain them—is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to ‘seek, and you shall find.’” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Random House, 2003, p. 185).

As I conclude this blog, I wish to lift up the opening prayer (found on page 68):

O God, enable us to marvel at all who have traveled before us, seeking your face, longing to understand. May we discover the joys of being in the company of those who wish to know you, and may we greet others with humility. We are all on a journey. Walk with us, we pray. Amen.

*The Who Is Jesus? Companion DVD is on sale until April 15th! Order your copy from PDS and save 25%! Order item #HZN16103 from PDS by calling toll free 800/524-2612 or online at store.pcusa.org.

Other editions on sale include the English edition (HZN16100, now $6), Spanish edition (HZN16110, now $6), ecumenical edition (HZN16102, now $6) and large-print edition (HZN16150, now $9).


Who Is Jesus According to Hebrews?

Carissa Herold, Presbyterian Women marketing associate, on Lesson Six

I am a walker. I walk places. And thanks to seriously amazing technology, my steps are automatically tallied. As my walking routine becomes a daily ritual, something astonishing has transpired for this self-avowed non-athlete: I am not just a walker but now an occasional jogger. And during those amazing days when my body and spirit are delighted to take on the challenge, I can almost fly. But let me be frank. Too many days my walking regimen is a chore. Sleet stings. A mosquito bites. My patience wanes. A knee cracks. My companion canine strains the lead. The sun blinds. Shoes pinch. All I want to do on these cranky outings is quit to the nearest sofa.

Pondering this very blog on this morning’s walk I thought of Hebrew’s focus on perseverance. I honestly didn’t recall until I began typing this paragraph that the actual biblical text includes language about hands and knees and feet! Judy Siker writes, “Hebrews . . . seeks to strengthen and encourage this discouraged community. Perhaps Hebrews 12:12–13 puts it best: ‘Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.’ In other words, be of good courage! God is on your side! We all need to hear this word of exhortation and encouragement at times, and Hebrews provides it throughout.” (page 59)

Perseverance and hope definitely make life run more smoothly because, let’s face it, some of the usual things we do on a daily basis can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming or not as fun-filled as snacking on a tray of brownies in front of the television. Whether attending class, showing up for work, laundering clothes, paying bills, chasing toddlers, dragging out the recycling, or participating in session meetings—all of these tasks, if left undone, would have disastrous consequences. Perseverance means we actually do things that need to be done. And hope? Hope says we do these things and will continue to do these things because our effort matters for that child, our church, our bodies, our household, our neighborhood, and our concerns. As Presbyterian women we just have to glance at the remarkable legacy left by our foremothers in faith who had an abundance of perseverance and hope but little political influence or money. These faithful women, in community, found ways to send missionaries, build clinics, and give voice to matters of great importance.

Perseverance and hope are more than good things to have for making do, but for those of us in difficult situations, they are of consequence. Can you imagine living in the deep darkness of a war zone without the glimmer of hope and the resolve to continue? Or dealing with a grave illness or an abusive relative? Or coping with extreme financial duress? Or being imprisoned by force or addiction?

On the Companion DVD, Judy Siker suggests that the book of Hebrews—like Revelation—may seem a bit foreign to modern readers but both books are books of hope. That’s right, Revelation too! Neither book promises the proverbial rose garden—life is difficult and often unfair—but with Jesus on the sidelines, having run this race before and because of us, ultimately, with our steady and faithful perseverance, all will be well at the finish line.

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!” (Hebrews 12:1–3, The Message, Eugene H. Peterson)

I really respond to this imagery of a race! Reading further we are reminded that all of us on this path, no matter our situation or level of fitness, are called to cheer others on while making their way as safe as possible: “Clear the path for long-distance runners so no one will trip and fall, so no one will step in a hole and sprain an ankle. Help each other out. And run for it.” (Hebrews 12:12–13, The Message, Eugene H. Peterson)

“And run for it.” Let’s do this. Together. See you at the finish line!

***

I was honestly astonished how much I have enjoyed grappling with Hebrews. That’s why I’m truly looking forward to the 2017–2018 Horizons Bible study on the book of Hebrews, Cloud of Witnesses: The Community of Christ in Hebrews by Melissa Bane Sevier, with Suggestions for Leaders by Sung Hee Chang. Over nine lessons (with discussion questions, hymn suggestions, prayers, and “Cloud Witness” stories submitted by Presbyterian women) the author looks at nine major themes, relates these themes to our faith tradition, and ties them together with the overarching motif of community.

If you are a Horizons magazine subscriber, then you will receive your copy in March. If you are not a Horizons magazine subscriber, you may subscribe by April 1 to receive this study as part of your subscription. To subscribe, visit www.presbyterianwomen.org or call toll free 866/802-3635.