Believing is seeing — gospels of Mark and Mary

Believing is Seeing – Mark 10:51-52:

… Jesus said [to Bartimaeus], “What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man said to him, “Rabbi, I want to see again!”
And Jesus said to him, “Be on your way, your trust has cured you.”
And right away he regained his sight, and he started following him … .

Sunday, October 29, 2006. First Congregational United Church of Christ,
“Open and Affirming/God is Still Speaking,” Santa Rosa, California.
Early Communion and Scripture Reflection with the Rev. Bob Cramer.

As my new adult class on lost scriptures and continuing heresies meets on Sundays in Room 7 – which folks may begin calling The Heretics’ Haven – I believe I’m sensing, in our group, a growing understanding of the extreme varieties of Christian belief today.

One already stands out. Prof. Bart Ehrman, beginning two full semesters of a college course on orthodoxy and heresy, shows two completely different “heavens,” the harder to understand turning up in our gospel reading for this morning (the excerpt above). It promises new life to those whose senses become transformed.

There’s an old standby that has kept many folks slogging through earthly misery – a belief in a distant heavenly reward, “Pie in the sky bye and bye, bye and bye,” exemplified by the Revelation of John.

I don’t think that’s anything at all like Jesus’ gospel. For Jesus, the Realm of God is here and now. Seeing it requires taking a journey in the mind, and in the heart, not waiting for a different time and place. The gifted Anne Lamott with her penetrating, sometimes withering, blunt wit, conveys the kernel of Jesus’ deep gospel – already within sight (or, rather, in renewed sight) – like this:

“Eternal Life
is not so much a change of address
as a change of glasses.”

One of the things I have learned to appreciate is how very often the gospels tell us Jesus taught this. I’m almost certain Jesus might think, hearing Anne Lamott’s pointed summary, “I wish I’d said it that way!” Indeed, his gospel comes to us most forcefully in many bright modern paraphrases of the more formal canonical texts.

“Change of glasses” makes me think immediately about Eastern Orthodox Christians. For two millennia they – in virtually all of their regional expressions – have been transported toward the ultimate Realm of God by fixing their gaze upon their unique icons.

The icons appear to western minds as somehow bound up in very tight traditional forms and symbols. As gorgeous as they are, they require a believer’s penetrating attention to their function as a sort of window on heaven, a window to be seen through, not just seen.

And at the same time, I think of Mary Magdalene. She may now be something of a novel discovery to western Christians, but Mary has long been known to Orthodox Christians who treat her with reverence – not as towering as their reverence for the mother of Jesus, of course, but as the one who may have understood and loved Jesus more than anyone else (perhaps excepting his mother).

Mary Magdalene was pretty much written out of western religion. She lives in The Gospel of Mary, a sacred text to the Orthodox, which may date from as early as a century after the resurrection. And in that gospel, Mary says, “I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision’. He said to me, ‘Congratu-lations to you for not wavering at seeing me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’ I said to him, ‘Lord, how does a person who sees a vision see it – with the soul or with the spirit?’ The Savior answered, ‘The [visionary] does not see with the soul or with the spirit, but with the mind which exists between these two – that is [what] sees the vision and that is w[h…]” (remainder missing).

If this were a class, I’d enjoy going into that more deeply. For now, as we approach our Teacher’s Table, let me share a scholarly quote that helps me grasp some of what deeper, or renewed, sight can be. In The Gospel of Mary, the disciple, Andrew, complains that things Mary says the Savior taught her are “strange.”

One scholar says, “Strange to us, perhaps. But in the first and second centuries, they were firmly embedded in Christian debates about the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, the roles of women, and how to attain salvation. The Gospel of Mary reproduces the contours of those debates, most especially in the contention among the disciples themselves about whether Mary Magdalene’s teaching is valid and true. The gospel’s interpretation of early traditions about Jesus shows some of the fluidity and some of the passion with which such matters were engaged.”

Renewed sight is essential to salvation, according to Jesus. May the reading we’re doing today feed our understanding. Amen.