Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Wealth of the Light--A Sermon

The Wealth of the Light
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 22, 2013

The Secret Revelation to John
3:12-12; 4:5, 37-38; 5:11-20; 7:1-6, 12

Do not be faint-hearted!
I am the one who dwells with you always.
I am the Father.
I am the Mother.
I am the Son….  

[The Father]
It is the Spirit.  It is not appropriate to think about It as god or that It is something similar.  For It surpasses divinity….  It is the eternity who gives eternalness, the light who gives light, the life who gives life, the blessed one who gives blessedness, the understanding which gives understanding, the ever good one who gives good, the one who does good—not such that It possesses but such that It gives—the mercy which gives mercy, the grace which gives grace.

[The Mother]
In every way It perceived Its own image, seeing it in the pure light-water which surrounds It.  And Its thinking became a thing.  She appeared.  She stood in Its presence in the brilliance of the light; she is the power which is before the All.  It is she who appeared, she who is the perfect Providence-Pronoia of the All, the light, the likeness of the light, the image of the Invisible, she who is the perfect power, Barbelo, the perfect eternal generation of the glory.

[The Son]
Barbelo gazed intently into It, the pure light.  She turned herself toward It.  She gave birth to a spark of blessed light, but it was not equal to her in greatness.  This is the Only-begotten who appeared from the Father, the divine Autogenes, the firstborn son of the All of the Spirit of pure light….  He stood in Its presence, glorying the invisible Spirit and the perfect Pronoia, from whom he had appeared.

Secret Revelation of John 25:1-6; 26:21-33
Therefore I, the perfect Providence-Pronoia of the All, changed into my seed.  For I existed from the first, traveling on every road.  For I am the wealth of the light.  I am the remembrance of the fullness.  I traveled into the vastness of the dark, and I persevered until I entered the midst of the prison….And I entered the midst of their prison, which is the prison of the body.

And I said, ‘Whoever hears, arise from lethargic sleep!’

And he wept, shedding tears; heavy tears he wiped from himself.  And he said, ‘Who is it who calls my name and form where does this hope come to me who am dwelling in the fetters of the prison?’

And I said, ‘I am the Providence-Pronoia of the pure light; I am the thought of the virginal Spirit, the one who raises you to the place of honor.  Arise and remember that you are the one who has heard, and follow your root, which is I, the compassionate.  Fortify yourself against the angels of poverty and the demons of chaos and all those who ensnare you, and be watchful of the lethargic sleep and the garment of the inside of Hades.’

And I raised him up and sealed him with the light of the water with five seals so that death would not have power over him from this day on.

Today I finish the series of sermons on new texts included in A New New Testament:   A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.    Next week I begin another series of sermons on one of those new texts, The Gospel of Thomas.    In less than a month, on October 18th and 19th we will be hosting a Jesus Seminar on the Road.   Milton Moreland and Ruben Dupertuis  will be visiting with us to provide lectures and workshops on the Gospel of Thomas.    They will be able to correct all my heresies regarding Thomas.  They will also be on Religion For Life beginning this Thursday on WETS.   

So far we have explored, just whetted our appetites really, several documents in A New New Testament.  They include…

Two texts for which I didn’t devote sermons but used in liturgy are The Prayer of the Apostle Paul and and an ancient Prayer of Thanksgiving.    Today we will dabble into the mysteries of The Secret Revelation of John.  

A bit of background about this text.    It was discovered in the 19th century and is part of the Berlin Codex along with the Gospel of Mary.  It was also among the Nag Hammadi collection discovered in 1945.   I talked about those collections in previous sermons. 

Three different copies with significant differences among the texts were found at Nag Hammadi.   That suggests that A Secret Revelation of John was widely read and used in the early centuries of Christianity.  It was written before 180 at least.  We know that because Irenaeus, who was later recognized as a church Father condemned A Secret Revelation of John as heresy.    Before these modern discoveries we only had parts of this text, the parts quoted by those condemning it.   Irenaeus quotes A Secret Revelation of John 29 times.   Irenaeus had other texts on his radar as well.   Of the lot of them, he wrote:

"an indescribable number of secret and illegitimate writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish people, who are ignorant of the true scriptures."

Regardless of whether or not we might agree with him, what Irenaeus shows is that early Christianity was diverse and vibrant with many different visions at times competing with one another, at other times complementing one another, and each adding its voice to the chorus.  Now, thanks to these modern discoveries and thanks to scholars and interested lay people who have demanded to know these ancient texts, these voices that have been long silenced are again finding an audience.   Thanks to A New New Testament some of these voices are alongside familiar voices so we can get a sense of the breadth and depth of early Christianity.  

The effects of all of this might be to enhance 21st century seekers, whether these seekers are within Christianity, on the edges, or outside of it.   Questions of what it means to be human, and in particular, what it means to be human amidst forces that dehumanize, are raised for us as we interact with these texts.   I want to emphasize that this is not simply an academic or an historical exercise.  As the subtitle of A New New Testament implies, this Bible for the 21st century is an attempt to speak to us.   We are interacting with it and with each other. 

What is The Secret Revelation of John?  The Secret Revelation of John is not to be confused with The Revelation to John that has been in the traditional New Testament canon.   This is the book with the seven bowls of wrath and the mark of the beast and the four horsemen and all of the symbols that have had quite a run in the past two millennia.   It is not an easy read.   The Secret Revelation of John is not an easy read either.   I needed some guidance following the logic of the text and trying to keep the names straight.   It is helpful, necessary really, to have a guide.  I recommend Karen King’s The Secret Revelation of John.  Also, even though I haven’t read it, I have heard another helpful guide is by Stevan Davies, The Secret Book of John.        

The Secret Revelation of John is a mythological creation story.  It tells us who we are, how we came to be the way we are, and how we are becoming who we will become. 

The story begins with the Apostle John, the brother of James.  John and James are the sons of Zebedee in the four gospels.  According to the tradition they along with Peter accompanied Jesus to the mountain where he was transfigured before them.  John is an inner circle apostle.   There is a whole tradition of “John” theology that includes the Gospel of John and the letters of John, Revelation of John in the traditional New Testament and this Secret Book of John.   That doesn’t mean the guy John actually wrote any of this or experienced any of this, but he, like many figures of importance is used to gain authority for other authors.    In ancient times, tradition, not innovation is important.   If you are writing a text, you want to make sure it connects with what has gone before you.   One way to do that is to have one of the apostles as either a character or the author.    This counts for documents both within and without the traditional New Testament.

John goes up to the temple and he is confronted by a Pharisee named Arimanios.   Arimanios asks him where his teacher is.  John tells him that he has “returned to place from which he came.”  Arimanios tells John that his teacher deceived him and filled him lies. 

John is grieved.   He begins to doubt who the Savior was and who his father was.  He realizes there are things he doesn’t know.  As he thinking and grieving,

“the heavens opened, and the whole creation below the heaven was illuminated with light below heaven.  And the whole world quaked.” 3:1-3

A figure appears to John and changes shape, from a child to an old man to other  various forms and all is filled with light.  The voice said,

“John, why are you doubting and fearful?  For you are not a stranger to this likeness.  Do not be faint-hearted!  I am the one who dwells with you always.  I am the Father. I am the Mother.  I am the Son.”  3:9-12

There is an early version of the Trinity.   Then Christ says to John,

“Lift up your face to me and listen.  Receive the things that I will tell you today so that you yourself will them to your fellow spirits who are from the immovable generation of the perfect Human.”  3:17-18

Christ proceeds to tell John of the nature of the Father or Spirit with quite poetic language.   Father/Spirit is one that cannot be named, not God “for It surpasses divinity.”  

When “It perceived Its own image in the light-water that surrounds It, Its thinking became a thing.”  She, the Mother appeared.   The Mother is called Pronoia or Providence.  She is also known as Barbelo.   She is the image of the invisible.   She is the primal Thought.  She is the primal Human.  She is 

“the triple begotten one, the androgynous eternal generation which does not grow old…”   

The whole thrust of this language is beyond the beyond.   Then Barbelo, the Mother, the Providence-Pronoia “gazes intently into It, the pure light.”  In so doing, she gives birth 

“to a spark of blessed light... the divine Autogenes, the firstborn son of All of the Spirit of pure light.”  7:1-6

This is the Son or Christ.   This Christ creates everything.   Will and Thought and Life, Grace,  Understanding, Perception, and Prudence.    These are beings, and there are many of them.   They have genealogies and male/female pairs.   One of the creations is the “true perfect Human, the primal revelation, Adam.”   This is not the garden of Eden, Adam.   That comes later.  The perfect Human, Adam, is “up there” as part of this whole divine thing.

There is much much more.  I am condensing this down.  One of the Eternal Generations, as part of this Christ creation, who is important for our story, is Wisdom-Sophia.    This is where the story gets interesting.  Wisdom-Sophia wants to express herself.    So she “thought a thought.”   She didn’t think her thought without consulting first with Father/Spirit or in consultation with her male partner.    Her thought gives birth so to speak to this being.   This being is imperfect, ugly in fact.   She casts him away outside of the view of the immortals.  She gives him a throne and names him Yaldabaoth.   He is the Chief Ruler. 

Here is the bottom line.  Yaldabaoth is the god of Genesis in the Old Testament.   He creates all kinds of beings and eventually the world.   He says “I am a jealous God  without me there is nothing.”   This is of course not true.  He is a basically a low-level bureaucrat.  He is the guy who has his own little office that he thinks is his kingdom and he is paranoid and he bosses people around.   He thinks he is important.  You might know someone like that.   That is how The Secret Revelation of John portrays the god of Genesis.    

If you are finding this disturbing or offensive, we need to step back and look at the time in which The Secret Revelation of John is being written.    This is a couple of centuries before the Nicene Creed and Constantine and the narrowing down of Christian theology.    There are lively debates around Jesus and how he will be shaped in relation to the Jewish heritage.   These and other authors and perhaps even you have wondered if the god of the Old Testament is all there is to God.   You can imagine reading these stories of the god of Genesis doing rather small-minded, arbitrary, punitive, and violent things.   These early Christians say God has to be better than that.   So they take these stories of Genesis and elaborate and re-interpret them.  They aren’t alone in doing that.   The literature of the time is filled with rewrites and filling in the holes in the plot of Genesis and so forth. 

Back to our story.  Wisdom-Sophia realizes that she has created a monster and repents.    The immortals come up with a plan.  They say to Wisdom-Sophia, “The Human exists and the Child of the Human.”  Yaldabaoth and his minions overhear this but they don’t know where it comes from.  They look at the pattern of the image in the water and say,

“Let us create a human in the image of God and with the likeness.”

They create the human being but the being cannot move.  They cannot awaken it.  So the Father/Spirit uses this opportunity.  He sends Christ to tell Yaldabaoth to breathe into the being.  He does and the human becomes alive.   But the spirit he blew into the human is the power of his Mother.   In doing this, the Mother-power is extracted out of Yaldabaoth and now the human is superior to Yaldabaoth and his minions.    

Yaldabaoth and his minions are upset that the human is superior to them so they imprison him in flesh.   But the light is in him.   Yaldabaoth tries various tricks to contain the human and extract the light so he puts the human to sleep, but all this does is create Eve and enlighten the human.   The plot is too complex to recite here.   The point is that every action by Yaldabaoth to contain, control, even violently kill through the flood, is countered by the Divine Power.   

The bottom line is that everyone has the divine light within them.  The powers, Yaldaobaoth and his minions are always at work trying to make human beings forget who they are.  They do this through gold and silver, through lust, and every kind of temptation.   As human beings succumb to the temptations they become duller.   “Their hearts closed,” says the text.  

Enter Christ, the wealth of light.  Providence-Pronoia enters this world and wakes us up from sleep.   The Pure Light calls us to

“Arise and remember that you are the one who has heard, and follow your root, which is I, the compassionate.”  26:28-29

Thus the human struggle and the hope.   John after receiving this revelation relates these things to his fellow disciples and to all of us who will listen.

One could say this is crazy metaphysical speculation.   OK, but then again, what theology isn’t?  Some is your kind of crazy, some is my kind of crazy and some isn’t.   I invite you to withhold a judgment on that and ask what is a possible takeaway from A Secret Revelation of John as well as some of these other texts?     

Here is one thing I take away immediately.   The Secret Revelation of John is a critique of the powers of this world.   This was written in a time in which the Roman Empire was God.   It said it was God.   Its Imperial theology was everywhere.    Remember, from the perspective of The Secret Revelation of John, Yaldabaoth is the creator of all those Roman gods, too.    This book is a critique of all gods and all powers in the known world.   All are puny bureaucrats in light of the Divine Light that glows in each human being.   It is a critique of Rome’s arrogance and all earthly powers.    

The struggle the humans have in A Secret Revelation of John is to discern among all the voices, whose voice is the voice of the light.  It is deceptive, because the powers use half-truths and use divine images but distort them.    What is the voice of compassion, of true light, of goodness?  What is the right thing to do, the correct attitude to have, the just way to be in the world?

How do we evaluate the voices who tell us they have the answers?   It is almost parody because it is so obvious, but a quote from the Project for A New American Century is in order.  Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bill Kristol are all part of this.   Here is their statement:

The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.

Is that the voice of Father, Mother, Son, the Light or is it the voice of Yaldabaoth?    There is a purity of  raw arrogance in that statement from "The Project for A New American Century."    But that statement is one of many arrogant and false voices.     Messages from advertising, economic theory, political theory, all come at us.   They tell us who we are and what we need to do.

Who are we?   Are we defined by a certain kind of militant patriotism, by a political party, by consumption?   Is the goal of education to get a job, to be a cog in the marketplace?   Who are you and what will you do?  According to A Secret Revelation of John, the task is to develop discernment so that we can follow the root, the core of who we are…that is compassion.    To become a Human Being, not a cog in some power’s machine.

In A Secret Revelation of John there is no violence on behalf of the Divine realm, the one above Yaldabaoth.  All violence comes from Yaldabaoth and his minions.   There is no myth of redemptive violence for A Secret Gospel of John.   Salvation comes not from dominating others or from revenge, but from knowing who we are and by nurturing the light within.    

This is far more than metaphysical speculation.  A Secret Revelation of John provides a second-century mythical framework for ethical action.    

When you hear that you that you are weak or powerless or idealistic or wrong or a heretic or bad or a cog or hopelessly violent, you can join the voice of this hopeful text and

“Arise, and remember that you are the one who has heard…”


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