Beyond Belief

Christos0_medium3“Peace be with you,” Jesus said.  In Arabic, As Salaam Alaikum.  In Hebrew, Shalom.  In his own language, Aramaic/Assyrian, Shlama Lukh.  This was and is still a standard greeting of people from the Middle East.  Beyond this, however, Jesus was wishing peace to a people who were spiritually and emotionally distraught after running away to hide while their leader was crucified.  Finally, it was a wish of peace for a group of people who did not and would not get along very well.

Shortly after Jesus’s death, factions developed among the disciples.  Some people followed Matthew, some Luke, some Thomas, some John, etc.  Each group of followers, writing in their disciple’s name, recorded their version of the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:11-13: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”  This was his call for the disciples and those who chose to gather under their teaching to get along despite their different beliefs.

One particular rift existed between John and Thomas.  It is not likely that either John nor Thomas wrote their respective gospels, but rather their students.  Nonetheless, the writings reflect the teachings of their namesakes.  Thomas wrote his gospel shortly before John’s.  It came to be known as a gnostic gospel and some took this to mean that there was a secret knowledge to be attained from it because gnosis means “knowledge.”  The meaning, though, of gnostic goes even further than a simple understanding.  It reflects a “knowing” of God through experience rather than an intellectual assent to a certain set of beliefs.  Thomas stated that we are all made in the imago dei (image of God) and as such, contain the divine within us.  If we would but seek within, we would find the light of God and be transformed by it.

John strongly disagreed with this thinking.  John was the only disciple/gospel writer that expressly called Jesus God.  He firmly pushed the idea that a belief in Jesus as God was essential to individual salvation.  We can see this in John 3:16-18.  John (or John’s students) wrote his gospel as a response to Thomas’s gospel and intentionally painted Thomas as one without belief.  When Jesus said he was “the way, truth, and the life” in John’s gospel, this was in response to Thomas saying he didn’t understand how we could know the way.  In John 20, after Jesus’s resurrection and subsequent appearance to the disciples, John inserts his “doubting Thomas” story:

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

The chapter finishes with another call to belief: “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.”

With many different beliefs about who and what Jesus was and what his crucifixion meant, early church fathers felt it was necessary to create an orthodox belief set.  Heterodoxy was unsettling to them as it allowed people to believe what they wanted and not have to subscribe to a single catholic (universal) understanding.  One church father who was most perturbed by this loose doctrinal cohesiveness was Irenaeus.  Since there were four directions, four corners of the universe, and four pillars of faith, he believed there should be four gospels.  So, he chose Matthew, Mark, Luke, and his favorite – John – for the gospel canon.  He encouraged other believers to draw their faith from this set of books and to destroy the other books that existed: The Gospel of Philip, The Acts of the Apostles, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Judas, The Acts of John, The Secret Book of John, and many, many others.

While many obeyed and destroyed the books, some buried them to preserve them and keep them safe from destruction.  Among these were those found at Nag Hammadi in 1945.  Even going with four gospels that now exist in our Bible did not stop the wide divergence of beliefs in the early church as many interpreted the four gospels in their own ways.  It didn’t help that the four gospels say different things about the person of Jesus and record the narrative differently.  One example is how in the synoptic (same source) gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’s overturning the change table at the temple and upsetting the money changers is the straw that broke the camel’s back leading to his crucifixion.  In John, this event happens first in Jesus’s ministry and it is his raising of Lazarus that scares the Jews (John the most anti-Semitic gospel of the four) and leads them to demand Jesus’s crucifixion lest “the people believe him and come to realize he is God.”  Irenaeus encouraged church folk of the time to ignore the differences and difficult to understand passages and just focus on the clear and common aspects.

(I encourage you to do a comparative study of the four gospels and read them side-by-side.  Note that Luke and Matthew mention a virgin birth while the other two gospels do not.  Also note how the synoptic gospels start with Jesus’s birth as a human, while John starts “In the beginning” with the logos dwelling with and being God.)

The church today is no better, if not worse, than the church of early times.  Even within a single congregation, we all hold different beliefs around God and Jesus and myriad interpretations of the Bible.  For many denominations, these differences lead to a freeze on cooperation with other denominations or even congregations within their own denomination.  But do we really have this luxury?  I don’t think so.

As long as children are still dying of starvation and our youth are being gunned down in the streets and people are freezing to death in the cold because they have no home, I would opine that we don’t have the right to be deterred by our beliefs.  Beliefs are important.  They are our own.  We can embrace them and hold them dearly while still working together for the mission of God.  With so many churches in the U.S. alone, it is a travesty that these horrors still exist.  It’s time to put aside our differences and get to work together, and so experience God in the mission itself.  Then, when our work is done and the kin-dom of God is realized, let’s sit down with a pint of cold brew and have ourselves a friendly theology pub as we discuss belief in a light-hearted and civil manner.

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