A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Some Pastoral Reflections on the Gospel of Judas

As we are on the eve of Easter, when our devotion and worship turn toward the risen Christ, perhaps spending some moments thinking about Judas might be a betrayal of the season. Nevertheless, as I have been asked about the Gospel of Judas by more than a few parishioners and students, I figure it is time that I weigh in on the subject of this lost Gnostic Gospel that has captured the attention of so many.

I will not take up more space doing the "scholarly thing." There are others much more competent than I who have posted very helpful reflections, such as Scot McKnight (#1, #2, #3, #4, and #5) and Ben Witherington (#1, #2, and #3). What I want to think through is this: with the attention the Gospel of Judas has received, what opportunities does this present for pastors as they are involved in the teaching ministry of their churches? As one who spends his time with one foot in the seminary classroom and the other in the pulpit, this has been of particular concern to me. I spoke with someone the other day who asked his pastor what he thought about the Gospel of Judas, and the pastor responded that he couldn't care less. Well, he better care because people in his church care! So what opportunities does the Gospel of Judas present pastors in ministry?

First, it presents pastors with an opportunity to help broaden the horizons of their parishioners. Early Christianity was a vital and active thing with Christians arguing and debating amongst themselves and with outside groups and groups wanting to lay claim to the faith, but whose doctrine put them outside it. The point is that there was no pristine, wholly unified church and there were threats to the church's core doctrines early on. People who want to get back to the New Testament church are going to have to pick one; for there was more than one, and each had its own problems. It sort of makes us feel at home, doesn't it? Once we realize the larger environment of the early church, perhaps we can draw on that larger environment for wisdom today as the church makes its way through the diverse environment of the twenty-first century.

Second, the Gospel of Judas reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun. Questions of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, whether or not he performed miracles, whether or not Jesus is God incarnate, etc. are not questions that were raised for the first time in the modern world; they have been around from the beginning. It is important for the church to realize that the doctrinal issues it faces today are matters it has always faced. People who think that the denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is simply the result of modern enlightened thinking haven't met second century Gnostics. Denial of the resurrection may be a modern inclination in some circles, but it was an inclination in some ancient circles as well. The church needs to remember this when it is told that belief in such things is simply outdated.

Third, the Gospel of Judas reminds us that there is such a thing as orthodoxy and there is such a thing as heresy. To be sure, it can be messy at times trying to figure out which is which, but it is not the case that a movement that claims to be Christian necessarily is Christian. It has been the church that down through the centuries has worked through the orthodoxy question, and the reason it has been an issue not to be avoided is that the very issue of salvation rests upon it. The controlling question of the early christological debates was, "If we say 'thus and so' about Jesus, what will it mean for our salvation?" Because the Gnostics understood the person and work of Christ much differently, their understanding of salvation was much different to say the least. In a modern society where there is no end of opinion as to who Jesus was and is and what he means today, heretical movements, such as early Gnosticism, remind us that it not only matters that we believe in Jesus, but that what we believe about Jesus is also of paramount importance. Not all understandings of Jesus are created equal, nor do all interpretations deserve our attention (unless, of course, such attention furthers the mission of the church). We cannot make Jesus into whomever we desire him to be.

Fourth, the Gospel of Judas is one example of how the church got it right in reference to the books it deemed Scripture. I am well aware that the formation of the canon, just as the formation of orthodoxy, was a messy thing and that, in some ways, it is still not completely sorted out; but in general, the church knew what writings were a consistent and reliable witness because of what was preached and taught from the beginning; and by that standard, other works were rightly excluded, including the Gospel of Judas.

Fifth, the Gospel of Judas reminds us that we must celebrate Easter; for no one, not even the influential Gnostics, could suppress the claim that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead. Human beings seem so eager to believe in conspiracies, but there is no subversive plot to be found here. The Gospel of Judas did not make it into the canon because it didn't deserve to be there. It may or may not be true that only one person shot J.F.K. and it may or may not be true that Elvis is still alive; but there is one thing on which we can bet our eternity-- the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive!

If pastors can say something important to their congregations about the Gospel of Judas, perhaps they will find that they have something even more significant to say about Easter.

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