The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 29, 2016 – Second Sunday after Pentecost
In September 2012, a small piece of ancient papyrus made headlines around the world when it was suggested that it might be from a lost gospel containing the words of Jesus.
The badly damaged fragment is about the size of a credit card and it contains eight incomplete verses written in Coptic – an ancient Egyptian language that we find in our earliest surviving copies of the books of the New Testament.
The snippets of writing on the fragment include the following phrases:
“My mother gave me life…”
“Mary is worthy of it…”
“She is able to be my disciple…”
But the fragment of text that attracted the world’s attention was this one:
“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...”
“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...”
Before the world’s leading biblical scholars had a chance to fully examine and authenticate the scrap of papyrus, a battle erupted in the media and in the midst of the faithful.
Was this proof that Jesus was married?
Was this a gospel that had been intentionally destroyed to cover up the fact that Jesus had a wife?
Is it possible that this is a fragment of a parable, or that Jesus was quoting someone else, or that the rest of the text actually read, “My wife, if I had one…”?
Beneath all the speculation was the fear that we had somehow got it wrong.
Or worse - that we’d been intentionally misled for thousands of years.
Could it be possible that Jesus had a whole other side to his life that we knew nothing about?
And for those fervently arguing that the fragment was NOT authentic and therefore NOT true, what is it they feared would be lost if Jesus did have a wife?
Would it make him too human, and less God-like in our eyes?
Would it elevate the role that women played in Jesus’ life and ministry?
(Would it mean that for thousands of years celibate priests had been modeling their lives on a standard that not even Jesus held to himself?)
When the experts weighed in, it was determined that the papyrus used in the fragment dated to the middle ages – not proof in itself that it wasn’t a copy of an ancient gospel – but the ink, handwriting, grammar, and style were all deemed nearly identical to a known modern forgery of the Gospel of John.
Therefore, most scholars believe it is likely that the Jesus Wife fragment is a forgery as well. But not all of them are convinced.
There is something alluring to the idea that there are gospels out there that are just waiting to be found.
Gospels that may expand or contradict what we know from the four gospels we have in our New Testament – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
In the late 1990’s, headlines were buzzing about the discovery of a Gospel of Judas.
The 31-page codex was originally found in a cavern in Egypt in 1970.
For several years it was traded among antiquities dealers and then it disappeared.
In 1999 it was rediscovered, believe it or not, in a safe deposit box at a bank in Hicksville, Long Island.
(Literally a mile up the road from where I was living at the time).
The manuscript had disintegrated into a 1000 pieces and 13 pages were missing.
Once scholars reassembled and translated the text they discovered a gospel that told a much different story than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
This gospel portrayed Judas as the only disciple to truly understand who Jesus was, and it proposed that Judas’ alleged act of betrayal was in reality an act of obedience, as Jesus himself had asked Judas to play that pivotal role and set the events of his death and resurrection in motion.
Many of the “lost” gospels that we’ve discovered over the years – the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Judas – were written a hundred years or more after Jesus’ death, and while they were left out of the New Testament because they contained unorthodox theologies, they are authentic in that they reflect the prevailing beliefs of particular segments of the Christian community during their time.
The four gospels we have in the New Testament were themselves written 40 to 70 years after Jesus’ death, to four different communities, by four different authors who each had their own interpretation of Jesus’ words, actions and presence in this world.
But all of these gospels share a common thread – they tell the story of how the good news of God’s unconditional love played out in our world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The word gospel means “good news” and the Good News of Jesus Christ is found in the belief that God did and is doing something extraordinary in our world.
God became one of us – or moved through one of us – to show us the potential we have to be good to one another.
To show us that each and every one of us has value – and is worthy of grace and redemption, no matter how broken we appear to be.
To show us that power and strength and resilience are just as easily found in the battered and belittled as in the exalted and elevated.
To show us that we’re all connected to each other and to all of Creation – and when we focus only on our own wants and needs we all suffer in the end.
The good news is that the world we live in can be changed for the better –
in small ways and in tremendous ways –
when we work together, with God, and help build the Kingdom that Jesus longed to see.
The Gospel of Jesus encompasses all of this.
But while this all sounds wonderful and hopeful the truth is that the gospel encompasses a lot of annoyingly hard stuff as well.
The “love thy neighbor and thy enemy” stuff.
The “give to God and to the greater good before you give to yourselves” stuff.
The “welcome the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee, even if you are suspicious of them” stuff.
The “beat your weapons into ploughshares and turn the other cheek even when you feel justified to retaliate” stuff.
The gospel is about hard, hard choices that do not come to us naturally.
So it’s no wonder that we have selective hearing when we encounter it.
We prefer a gospel that talks about peace and love without demanding that we change anything about ourselves to achieve it.
We prefer a gospel that talks about joy and hope without dwelling on the things that cause us to feel joyless or hopeless.
We prefer a gospel that soothes and comforts because we have enough things in our lives that cause us to feel anxious and discomforted.
And just so you know, when I say “we” I include myself as well.
With all the tragedies that I see unfolding in our world and the tragedies that I see unfolding in all of our lives – the illnesses, the injuries, the deaths, the addictions - the last thing I want to do is open the gospel reading for Sunday and find Jesus with a stick in his hand poking and prodding all the sore spots and urging us to do more to change ourselves and change our world.
I do think we’re all in need of a “Gospel Lite” every now and then.
A gospel that goes down easy and makes us feel good about ourselves.
One that tastes great and is less filling.
But a steady diet of Gospel Lite is not what Jesus intended for us to live on.
He didn’t risk his life, and give his life, so we could show up on Sunday morning and hear a 10-minute sermon that sends us away with one or two nuggets that help us to feel better about ourselves and lead a happier life.
The Gospel is not a Cosmo or GQ article.
As much as we may need it to be at times.
Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, because he was concerned that they were being taken in by a false gospel – one that limited entrance into the church of Christ rather than expanded it.
We can find examples of false gospels in our own time as well:
“The Prosperity Gospel” – the belief that God will reward us with riches and material goods if we live a faithful life – and send a check for $39.95 to the televangelist of our choice to be added to his prayer list.
“The Gospel of Sin Management” – the belief that getting saved and getting into heaven is all about controlling our personal behavior and getting ourselves right with God, and has little to do with serving others in the world.
And the aforementioned “Gospel Lite” – the belief that we have enough angst and anxiety in our busy lives and the church should be a place where we come to be soothed and refreshed rather than challenged and changed.
The reality is, Jesus was a master at challenging and soothing.
His gospel was designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
He told stories about Good Samaritans who stopped to help when most walked on by,
and rich fools who built bigger and bigger barns to store all their wealth,
and laborers who earned the same pay regardless of how many hours they worked.
He told his disciples to travel without money or food, to walk two miles when ordered to walk one, to pray for those who persecuted them, to forgive seventy times seventy.
Jesus did not preach a Gospel Lite.
The gospel he preached more often than not fell on his listeners with the weight of a ton of bricks.
But while those he offended plotted how they might go about getting rid of him, the people who longed to hear his message flocked to hear him speak.
As do we.
Because even though he’s always poking and prodding us to be better,
he does so while painting us a picture of what the world would look like if we were better –
if we were more compassionate, more loving, more merciful towards one another.
When we discover gospels that tell us that Jesus had a wife or that Judas was not such a bad guy after all it’s natural for us to react with curiosity and wonder.
These discoveries are often deemed controversial and provocative because in a culture that thrives on novelty and mystery we revel in finding what may have been previously unknown or intentionally hidden, especially when it comes to upending long held religious beliefs.
In comparison, the gospels we have in our Bible may seem too familiar, staid, static, dare I say, boring.
But in reality, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are teeming with controversial teachings and provocative stories.
Stories that decry inequities in wealth, power, and resources.
Stories denouncing xenophobia, racism, and religious intolerance.
Stories that plead with us to lean towards mercy, compassion, and love, rather than be pulled towards judgment, retaliation, and fear.
This is the gospel that Jesus gave us.
We may choose not to see it or hear it - because it makes the prospect of being a follower of Christ pretty daunting.
And if we’re wrapped up in our own pain, our own struggle, our own grief, then we may feel too overwhelmed to take on anybody elses.
But we don’t need to turn to Gospel Lite to find comfort.
We’ll find plenty of comfort in the full blown gospel, as it is.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
But as always Jesus preaches this gospel with a warning:
But woe to those who are rich, those who are full, those who are laughing, for you will be poor, you will be hungry, you will mourn and weep.
The sad news is that this world is unfair, unbalanced, and unjust.
The Good News is...in the Gospel, Jesus has given us the tools to change it.
The Good News is...God is with us through it all.
Thanks be to God.