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Contra Gnostics

I haven’t published my sermons in a while (long while), mainly because I’ve been forgetting.
But I’m on vacation at the moment, so here’s the sermon from Sunday.

I should pause to note that summer is MUCH calmer than the school year, at St. Paul’s. I’ve been spending my time working to get things planned in advance for the coming year.

And watching the World Cup, which, if you follow me on Twitter, you already know. And for which I apologize. I’ve been tweeting about soccer A LOT.

(I’m probably going to add to it–I’m working on a post about the theological implications of soccer.)

Until then, however, here’s what I said on Sunday. I went old school, and preached against Gnosticism, using Paul’s letters. It’s possible I’ve been taken over by a pod person.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan
July 12-13, 2014
Ordinary Time, Proper 10
Romans 8:1-11

Sit back, everyone. It’s raining and it’s my birthday, so I’m going to explain some heresy.

So there was, around about the time the gospels were written, a theology that arose in the still-forming Christian community that went like this. In the beginning, there was God—perfect, all powerful, and all knowing. But then, God created lots of lower sorts of gods, which were not as perfect, because they were a step or two removed from God’s perfection. One of these lower gods created this whole material world—everything we hear, touch, taste and smell, and these mortal bodies we live in.

Us being confused humans, we couldn’t figure out the difference between the lower god who created our world, and the God of perfection. That’s where Jesus came in. Jesus came and gave us the secret knowledge—the gnosis!— that we were really descended from the one true God, and not the lower god like we thought, and who had imprisoned us in this world of material suffering. And through this revelation, we could escape this material world, and rejoin the true God. Hooray.

This is Gnosticism, in a really small and brief nutshell—though, granted, there were lots of variations on this theme. And once the Christian community got itself a bit organized, at the first ecumenical council, everyone took a vote, and decided that definitely, Gnosticism was heresy. Way back in the 4th century. So that was that.

But here is the funny thing about heresies—old heresies never die; they just reappear like zombies.

And, If you’ve been following the debates over women bishops in the Church of England, then you know that the donatist heresy—this idea that if you disagree with the person who administers the sacrament, then the sacrament itself is invalid– is alive and well, despite supposedly being settled in the 6th century.

These zombie ideas come back, in different guises, and so does this Gnostic one. Because parts of this sound familiar, right? Some of the language is still how we speak.

(And here’s the other bit with heresies—heresy, like orthodoxy, is a way of marking boundaries of a playing field. Basically, it’s an indication that you’ve taken a fine idea, and gone too far in one direction with it.)

But this is our language–There’s your soul, and there’s the rest of you. There’s your everlasting soul, that bit of God within you, and then there’s the icky stuff, which breaks down and decays and really can’t be trusted. (And I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me.)
Material world = bad. Spirit world= good.
It’s pretty black and white.

And here it is in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, he says, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Through this whole passage, it sounds a whole lot like Paul would really like nothing more than to consign his mortal body to the depths.

But then, there’s that last line. That pesky last line. In our mortal bodies, will we be resurrected.
Oh, yes, Paul’s not Greek. Paul, for his many failings when it comes to understandable grammar, decipherable sentence structure, and coherent theology, doesn’t trade in dualisms.

Paul isn’t angry with matter. For Paul, talking about ‘flesh’ isn’t a condemnation, it’s just a description of the material world. He’s describing creation as it is, in its pre-resurrected state. God hasn’t abandoned it—God’s just not done with it yet.
The ‘flesh’ as Paul sees it, isn’t inherently evil; it is just wrapped up in human rebellion and our fallibility and our propensity to wreck creation and to use it selfishly.

And for this reason, God comes to us in our very flesh. In our very materiality.
God saves us/resurrects us in our very flesh. Because our mortalness, our sin, our brokenness still needs help, the flesh needs help.  And that’s what we get through Christ.  

The idea is that Christ has come in the flesh, to root out and destroy the sin that lives there (it’s taken on therefore redeemed) and so we face no more condemnation, even though we remain conscious that we fall short of where we should be.  

And so what Paul is actually describing here isn’t the gnostic dualism scheme at all. He’s not sorting the universe into matter=bad! spirit=good!.

Instead, he sees all of it as intensely valuable, all creation as inescapably precious. So precious that God comes into this material world–this broken fleshly material world–to save it, save every part of it. To make it whole.

See, the problem with Gnosticism, and zombie Gnosticism, when it shows up in our day, is not that some council voted it down in the 4th century, put a stamp on it that declared it heretical, and that was that.

The problem with Gnosticism is that it’s a tricky thing to start to carve up creation like that. It’s a tricky thing, because it can lead to some dangerous places.

If the material world is bad. And God just want to get us to be spiritually free so we can get into heaven when we die, maybe climate change isn’t Such a big deal after all.
And the 152 Palestinians*** who have died in the bombing of Gaza over the last two days, that’s sad–but irrelevant.
the Gnostic gospel has nothing to say about that. No challenge to make. That’s the material world. The gnostic gospel doesn’t concern itself.

But our gospel argues differently. Our gospel talks about this world. It talks about the hungry being fed, the homeless finding houses, refugees finding a welcome. Our gospel insists that Christ came into this world because the suffering and the joys of this world–everything that we face here and now were important–that it mattered to God. That God came into this world of flesh to redeem our struggles and hopes and to take them on personally–not to give us an escape hatch. It matters to God, so it matters to us.

Matter, as it turns out. Matters.


***NB: This is what my manuscript said, and it was correct as of Saturday night. However, I checked Sunday morning, and the death toll in Gaza had increased prior to the 8am Service to 158, then 162 before 10:30.

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: SR: Gardening, P10 OT15 13 July 2014 | Theologybird Writes

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