Our sermon series this summer focuses on the four gospels and I believe we are having a speaker each week who will focus on each of the gospels individually. This afternoon, I am going to frame our thinking about the gospels by presenting an overview of some of the common themes and values that run between them.
As many of you know, I am a PhD student in the study of religions at SOAS the school of Oriental and African studies in London. At the moment, I am one of the only people studying Christianity in a department with a heavy focus on Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. In theory, this is a wonderful opportunity for me to learn lots about many elements of different traditions.
In practice, this means that I am often trapped for many hours in small rooms with people explaining the minutia of the Yupdipthika, the classical salafiyya tradition in Egypt or the important contribution of Ibn Arabi in defining the ubermensch tradition. While I am sure that one day this will cause me to dominate a pub quiz if the topic is small esoteric aspects of eastern traditions, it actually means that I have alot of time on my hands to sit and think about how my faith tradition, Christianity, and my denomination, Anabaptism, and my research is very very different.
One person in my program searches for appearances of a character named Kapila in hundreds of Hindu texts. Unfortunately for him, Kapila is one character among thousands and sometimes appears as a demon, sometimes as a cow and sometimes as a human teacher. (I can see the looks on your faces beginning to resemble mine in the midst of these lengthy Kapila lectures so let me just say this - )
The fact that we have a tradition in which the same basic story of the one person – Jesus – is told from four perspectives, is a very useful and interesting contribution of the Christian faith. The story is part of our continuity – the bridge between how it all began and who we are now. Our sacred stories remind us of how it began and what that means for who we are now.
As you are undoubtedly aware, we have four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but these were not the only gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. They are just the final four that made the cut in the 4th century. In the apocrypha we have other accounts: Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews and others.
Beyond these, we have a tradition which is rich with other popular retellings. We have thousands of icons, paintings and sculpture in a variety of artistic mediums. We have literature ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to Christopher Moore’s book Lamb: the gospel according to biff christ’s childhood friend. In movies we have The Passion of the Christ, Life of Brian, Jesus of Montreal among others. We have Clarence Jordan’s bluegrass Cotton Patch Gospels. We have Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell on stage.
As an amateur etymologist or simply word nerd – I find the word Gospel interesting as it points us back to the centrality of the story. Gospel comes from the words “god spell” or “good spell” – an English translation of the Greek euangelion. Good news. The story about god which casts a spell over us, which unites us and, at times divides us.....this is at the heart of our tradition. Some stories are so important, so powerful that we continue to retell them – to ourselves and to others. It is the Gospels that play this role in our faith.
As Mennonites, we believe that the story of what happens to us as a community is also important. We believe that what happens out there in the world, the way our stories intersect with other people’s stories is as important as our sacred story – so we take time each week to share stories, to create community, in our home groups and in church each Sunday. We don’t just rely on one of us – this is the strength of the Anabaptist tradition, we are a community of lay leaders. People from other traditions sometimes ask me, how it is that we trust people who aren’t the leader to tell the story each week and I think that the answer is that we trust multiple viewpoints of the same story. We believe that the story builds the bridge between the individual and the community, between the tradition and the present. We bear witness to the work of the Holy Spirit on earth by gathering each week to retell both our ancient story and the stories of our own lives.
Today, in the far off land of Wooster, Ohio in the United States, my ten year college reunion is taking place. I am not there obviously but this landmark anniversary has been the cause of much rumination for me lately. It’s ok that I am not there – the important thing about reunions is the chance to retell the story – the story of who we are and how we got that way. Sometimes it’s easier to tell it when you can smell the same cut grass, hear the same library chimes that help cast the spell of who we all were ten years ago. But sometimes it’s just the retelling of the story that carries us through.
So, as Mateo and I drove down the Eastern coast of the US last week, we dropped in for a visit on a variety of friends from my college days. Seeing dear friends again was a great joy and as we bask in one another’s presence, our conversation took a familiar path.....we told and retold many of the key stories in our history together. My friend Morgan and I sat on her porch in North Carolina and retold the story of the night we had spent outside in Palestine watching Israeli rockets overhead and pondering whether our optimism and pacifism would see us through the night. As Mateo and I attempted to calm her two hysterically crying twins, my friend Amal and I retold the story of the torturous joint book project where we met. The contexts of my friendships with these two women have changed but the joint story of our friendship has not. And so, as we attempt to catch one another up on the years that have come between, we keep returning to some of the same themes – the stories of how we met, the setting, the times that tested us, defined us. The stories are the measure of our friendship. We become connected when we tell and receive the stories of one another’s lives. We co-create common stories with our friends through shared life with them.
This is also the function of the four gospels. Our most sacred text is about co-creating a tradition by telling a story. Remembering the beginnings and the endings, marking the miracles, preserving the details. In telling the story we re-create our community. When we hear and retell the stories of the life of Jesus, we act as participants in a larger story that includes us too.
As Chris has very artfully demonstrated in pulling together a theme for today’s service – the setting of the story matters. Our Gospel writers were almost certainly based in different contexts with Matthew writing for a predominately Jewish audience, Mark writing for Romans, Luke for Greeks and John for Gentile Christians. And the settings between the four Gospel accounts do not always match – some have Jesus appearing after resurrection in Emmaus, others in Jerusalem. There seems to be a dispute as to the location of the Last Supper as where the bulk of Jesus’ ministry took place. But the four accounts do take place in concrete geographical space and the singular story takes this sense of place into account.
While the power of the psalms often recall more generic space – our psalm this afternoon recounted mountains, rivers and seas; the gospel accounts are typically quite specific. Our reading from Luke specifically locates the action in Jerusalem and the Mark passage notes both Jerusalem and Bethany. These details help to ground our experience of the story.
Each Sunday afternoon we gather in this space, this point defined by particular sounds, smells and, I would hasten to add, particular (cold) temperature. This locality is also part of who we are – our joint story specifically recalls this place. This space in this community and our LMC in Highgate are interwoven in the story of who this community is. In our liturgical intercession this morning, we concentrated on the context of our urban environment – recalling the spaces of community, the spaces of suffering and praying together for the wholeness and healing of this particular context. This too is part of the story of who we are as a congregation.
Our story as Christians and our story as a congregation is rooted in both an ancient story and a contemporary story – we are suspended between these two narratives, trying to live lives that are compatible with each.
Points of View
Many biblical scholars have made much of the significant differences between the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Gospel of John. Again with the background on words – the word synoptic literally means “seeing with the same eye” and refers to the fact that the gospel accounts of the Matthew, Mark and Luke seem to have much more in common than the account of John.
Depending on your particular upbringing, political orientation, literary preferences, you probably have your own favourite gospel. Some of the accounts focus more on parables, others take a more expository slant. Some emphasize the humanity of Jesus while others seem to concentrate more on his divinity.
Styles aside, the gospels cannot seem to agree on several points of data regarding Jesus....He performed either 29,23 or 10 miracles. He retold either 31,13, 37 or 3 parables. It is unclear exactly who carried the cross and who was there to witness the empty tomb. We are not sure exactly how involved Jesus was with exorcism or with interacting with scribes – accounts vary dramatically.
And all of this is really ok I think. Even the stories with which we are most intimate and familiar look different from different contexts and different storytellers. I think that a few of you may have been around to hear Mateo and I recount the story of how we met – a story which is consistent only in the most obvious of ways. We agree on who the central characters are and we agree that we met in a Spanish language class. Beyond that, there is discrepancy. We have not yet agreed on the canonized version of our story. And since Mateo is not with us this morning to guarantee that you hear his side of the story, I will just tell you this – in one account, the character of Mateo offers, with unrelenting enthusiasm, countless invitations to go on dates – all of which are soundly refused by the character of Emily who feels both burdened and secretly thrilled by the flirtation of this British stranger. In the other account, the character of Mateo helpfully and professionally points out a number of venues and public events which would be of mutual interest to both parties given their common interest in international public policy. Purely professional.
Two accounts – one story.
And more recently we have had to acknowledge a few other voices. On our most recent trip back to the States, we were attending the wedding of our friend Jenny. Jenny was actually in the class where we met – the only person that had a front row seat to our courtship back when we were (mateo) and (Emily) not (mateoandemily). Hearing Jenny’s account of our meeting story is therefore very intriguing to us. When I recently asked her what she remembered – she dramatically rolled her eyes and commented on how INCREDIBLY irritating we both were. “Mateo was constantly flirting with Emily” (I like this detail as it affirms my account of the story) but she continues “and Emily was pretending to need help in Spanish so she could keep leaning over and asking Mateo questions” (not my version of events). But Jenny, looking radiant in her wedding dress, brightens up and says “who would have guessed you would be married and here for my wedding? The whole story is just so unexpected!”
Indeed. And hearing Jenny’s account of the events enriches our own story. This is the value of the communal storytelling project.
The New Testament is a grand communal storytelling project – attempting to retell one of the most riveting and pivotal events in history. In a sense, the Christian story is a written account of the early community telling itself the story of itself. For there to be discrepancies in details is not an inconvenience, it is a richness, adding texture to the events. The Gospel of Matthew is the “thinking gospel” and concentrates on law, logic, order. The story of Jesus is the story of fulfilment of Jewish prophecy. The Gospel of Mark is the gospel of grace – the disciples are portrayed as hopeless, fumbling idiots and it empowers us by helping us to believe that if the disciples manage to be good followers of Jesus, so can we. The story of Jesus in Mark is the story of a person of action, Jesus acts in history and the disciples try to make sense of what it all means. The Gospel of Luke is the solidarity story – the place in which the most stories of solidarity with the poor occur. Jesus in this account is a philosopher and a teacher, an engaged activist on the side of the oppressed. And finally, the Gospel of John is the mystic story with high Christology and Jesus is the divine incarnation, the embodiment of God on earth.
This week, as a church community, we expect to hear news that will significantly shape our story. We are bracing ourselves for a twist in the plot; we are aware that there may be a possible change in the setting in our future. Regardless of what we hear, I believe it will be ever more important for us to keep telling each other the story – the story of who we are, the story of what we believe. And I know, we are up to the task.
Something I like about this congregation is that you appreciate a good story – and we have such rich story tellers amongst us – we have writers, and bloggers, we have film reviewers and theatre reviewers, we have people who sell books, we have actors. We are people who tell stories, people who can appreciate the power of a well told story.
I want to leave you with a poem called The One Certain Thing by Peter Cooley, poet from New Orleans, writing about the importance of language, words and stories. The poem is addressed to his children and is his attempt to explain how words preserve moments and people in time. When I first read it, I was struck by how this poem might also be applied to what might have gone through the thoughts of the gospel writers as they penned the words that became our canon. So when you hear it, I want you to ponder both of those directions.
The One Certain Thing
A day will come I’ll watch you reading this.
I’ll look up from these words I’m writing now—
this line I’m standing on, I’ll be right here,
alive again. I’ll breathe on you this breath.
Touch this word now, that one. Warm, isn’t it?
You are the person come to clean my room;
you are whichever of my three children
opens the drawer here where this poem will go
in a few minutes when I’ve had my say.
These are the words from immortality.
No one stands between us now except Death:
I enter it entirely writing this.
I have to tell you I am not alone.
Watching you read, Eternity’s with me.
We like to watch you read. Read us again.