Writing the Gospel

May 8, 2022

Series: May 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Writing the Gospel"


Acts 4:13-22
John 21:20-25     

            20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

            24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Writing the Gospel

            Here’s something that’s out of this world:  When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were becoming the first two to step foot on the moon, Michael Collins was left inside the command module orbiting above, a rather unlucky draw you might conclude—so close and yet so far.  When Collins died last year, articles went around recalling some of his stories. One featured Collins, who was a beautiful writer, recounting the experience of orbiting the moon by himself.   He described coming around the back side, the dark side of the moon we call it, and the moment when, in his words, “radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon.  I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it.  If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side.” He continues, “Outside my window I can see stars—and that is all.  Where I know the moon to be, there is simply a black void; the moon’s presence is defined solely by the absence of stars.  To compare that sensation with something terrestrial, perhaps being alone in a skiff in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a pitch-black night would most nearly approximate my situation.”[1]

            Can you imagine that kind of potential for loneliness?  Well, maybe you can.  Maybe you’ve felt a loneliness that can only be described by out of this world metaphors.  Maybe you have been at a point at which you had no idea what was next.  Maybe you’re there now.  Collins at least had a course charted for him. 

            If you’ve experienced that on some level, then you’re in a position to connect with the disciples.  Imagine how they experienced Jesus, his presence, then his crucifixion, then his somehow presence again.  Yet, even with the resurrection, things were not playing out as some expected.  They had to figure out how to carry on in faith in a world that was unfolding in a way that didn’t make sense.  Over time, they knew they needed to write down the gospels to help them navigate their own complicated lives and complex world. They did it to try and maintain touch with Christ, the mystery who animated them.  The gospels are the stories of the people trying to orbit around the one who reflected the great light of God. 

            Those who study those stories tell us they were written down in such a way that also addressed the particular questions and circumstances they were carrying.  Somehow, they found a presence, a spirit, and a memory that showed them the way.  As a result, there’s lots of debate about what Jesus actually said or did.  At the notion some of these stories may have been shaped, augmented, or even created by his followers, Matthew Fox, American priest and theologian, offered what some might find a surprising reaction. Good!  In essence, he said this was not a sign they had been unfaithful by refusing to only look for the strict transcript of what Jesus had said in his life. Rather they were faithful in their rightly imagining of Christ.  He said, “I have always marveled at how confident early Christians were in their own spiritual experiences that they did not hesitate to put words into Jesus’ mouth!”[2] These stories contained more truth than would simple factual accounts the kind of which you could get had the whole thing been videotaped.  You might call it holy imagination.

            The obvious question is, wait, does this mean we can just make Jesus say whatever we want because that’s what the gospel writers did?  Of course not.  These early Christian communities were so in touch with the Christ that the Spirit guided their story telling, conscious or otherwise.  Furthermore, don’t forget the community side of that equation.  Any one person entirely in charge of the story is dangerous.  This is why cults of personality are so problematic, why concentrated authority so misguided. We believe in our tradition that the Spirit is best discerned in community.  From Fox’s perspective, these early Christian communities faithfully imagined the Jesus story right into their own worlds, and we should too. 

            The Christian conviction is that Christ keeps showing up, and we need ways to talk about things we cannot otherwise put to words.  Have you ever had one of those experiences, profound, moving, but you can’t quite name it?  The gospels use the tools at the edge of language—image, metaphor, and narrative—to give these experiences form.  Do you remember that last line of the reading from John, that comes after the encounter in which Peter seems a little jealous about the “beloved” disciple’s access and closeness with Christ?  It seems we always want to possess for ourselves or control what has come for all. The author concludes, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25).  What do you suppose some of those unrecorded stories were?  Ever wonder that?  I bet we could imagine them.

            Beyond just dreaming of the stories of Jesus lost to history, like Fox I think John’s Gospel may be inviting us to imagine new ones about Christ even now. Remember how John’s gospel begins, by describing Christ as present since the beginning of creation, and as the story says, continues even beyond the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  So, this is not simply about uncovering lost stories of Jesus.  It’s “finding” new ones, noticing how new ones are being divinely written.  What would it look like if you all took as homework an assignment to write a new gospel? 

            If you think about it, this is an incredibly democratic, or non-hierarchical, spirituality.  Yes, the tradition has boundaries, forms a container to hold you and hold you safe, andor buttrue religion is fundamentally about opening, expanding, and freeing, not controlling.  In the Acts reading you heard earlier, as the early apostles continue the work, trying to follow the movement of the Spirit, the authorities seem rather taken aback that Peter and John were “uneducated and ordinary” yet companions of Jesus. Christ is available, and accessing the Christ is what enables these ordinary folks to do miraculous works. Notice, it’s not that Christ enables them to achieve worldly wealth and power.  Christ offers strength, wisdom, courage, and weakness for particular work, the work the nature of which we saw most clearly in the life of Jesus.  You can access Christ to do thatkind of work.

            Holy imagination, then, is a spiritual value, one worth cultivating. Sadly, the church has sometimes missed this.  Alexander John Scott was pushed out of the Church of Scotland in 1831 for refusing to sign on to the “Westminster Confession of Faith,” a confession in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. In the charges against him they excoriated him for his “novelties and imaginations.”[3]  They thought imagination belonged to the realm of suspicion and unreliability, but Scott recognized it as potentially sacred.  You might call it the “unwritten scriptures.”  Think of this imagination as the ability to detect and give voice to the movement of the spirit.  This is why a life of prayer, the kind where you are most focused on listening is so central to a life of faith.  We, who are the namesake of that confession, want to be a church that helps cultivate an awareness or receptivity to Christ in people’s lives that they are ready to listen, able to hear, and willing to act. 

            Thankfully, there continue to be those who show us how.  Father Albert Fritsch is a Jesuit who had an experience of listening and responding that changed his life.  Now, I know what you might be thinking, well, of course, he did.  He’s a priest.  But, I’ll tell you that religious leaders may have a strong desire for religious experience, but it doesn’t mean they’re automatically given special access.  He described visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where supposedly the body of Jesus was laid after he was crucified.  If you’re asking, is that really the stone, I kindly suggest you’re asking the wrong question.  Anyway, there is a hole in the display case protecting the stone that held Jesus’ body, and Father Albert stuck his hands through it.  When he did, he heard a voice that was as real as any he had ever heard.  It said, “Look what they’ve done to my earth.”[4]  He met a sacred experience with a spiritual openness and a new story of Jesus was born, just seven words:  Jesus said, “Look what they’ve done to my earth.”  The world could not contain all the stories of Christ. 

            Father Albert, who had earned a PhD in chemistry before being ordained, heard this voice as a message to protect the planet.  He went on to found the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington and Appalachia, where is continues to serve as a parish priest while operating a web site called “Earth Healing.”[5]That’s what it looks like to recognize and respond to the Christ.  I gather that ground for that moment was cultivated by study, and prayer, commitment and sacrifice, earnest desire, and also a good bit of mystery.  Then it took courage, wisdom, and, in a way, the same kind of openness and trust, to act upon the Christ message that had been received, as well as community, relationships, that can help you interpret the voice. 

            The part I left out about the astronaut Michael Collins’ describing his trip around to the dark side of the moon and his gaze at the expanse of the universe is that while he was, in some sense deeply alone, in many ways unchartered territory, he wasn’t terrified, and he wasn’t lonely.  Against all reasonable expectations, you might say, he found the experience almost invigorating.  “I feel this powerfully,” he said, “not as fear or loneliness—but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.” Think of that word, “exultation.” That’s essentially what the word Christians carry from the Greek doxology, praise.  “I like the feeling,” continues Collins.  “Outside my window I can see stars—and that is all.”  Stars, thousands of suns…The world cannot contain the stories of the eternal one.  Hearing that story again, in a new context, we realize it’s not an occasion for fear and terror, but openness and possibility and even, yes even there, presence.  The early disciples trying to make sense of the world after Jesus were not abandoned to a meaningless, connectionless universe.  They remained animated by him.  They practiced recognizing and hearing from Christ in their world and so can we.  Can you imagine what that would be like?  Can you? 





[3]John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul:  Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World (New York: HarperOne, 2021) p. 126.  Emphasis added.