Another View of Judas – Rev. Ann Schranz

revannLast Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend the Palm Sunday service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Riverside. Congregants were invited to meet in downtown Riverside half an hour before the service began. They were invited to process through the outdoor mall carrying palm fronds, then return to their cars and drive to the church for the service itself. Palm fronds decorated the entrance to the church, as well as the interior of the church. Palm Sunday marks the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week in Christian churches.

In place of a sermon, there was an extended reading from the book of Mark in the New Testament. I heard, once again, the story of the last week in Jesus’ life, from Palm Sunday through his crucifixion. Precisely what is important in the Easter story? In the communion portion of the service, members spoke these words of the Nicene Creed about the death of Jesus:

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

Is this orthodox Christian doctrine what is important in the Easter story? Or is the message of Easter about hope triumphing over despair? Or is it that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death? Or is it that the life of Jesus is more important than the death of Jesus? Or is it that worldly defeat does not have the last word? Or is it that human beings have celebrated the cycle of the seasons and fertility and abundance and spring since time immemorial?

In the religiously pluralistic and increasingly secular United States, what is the sense in which a liberal Christian (or a liberal Christian Unitarian Universalist) may authentically and enthusiastically celebrate Easter? How about a non-Christian Unitarian Universalist? How might that person (and I put myself in that category) celebrate Easter? I do not ask these questions in a vacuum. I ask them as someone conscious of the violent anti-Semitism over many centuries that was fueled by simplistic views about who killed Jesus.

This year, I made my way into honoring the life and grieving the death of Jesus by way of Judas. In orthodox Christian teaching, Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus is a troublemaker to the chief priests and a troublemaker to the Romans. In the game of intrigue between the Jews and the powerful Romans, Jesus, who is mockingly called the “King of the Jews,” is a pawn. The coming of the Kingdom of God, which was so important to Jesus, is interpreted by other Jews and by Romans as a threat to the unstable political alliances of the day.

In the book of Matthew, Judas is described as repenting after he found out that Jesus was condemned to death. Judas brings the 30 pieces of silver back to the chief priests and says, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They don’t care. He throws down the pieces of silver in the temple and commits suicide. The chief priests use the money to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. Judas is portrayed as a villain or as a tragic figure. Yet those are not the only ways that Judas was viewed in the generations after the death of Jesus.

The followers of Jesus expected him to return within their lifetime or within the lifetime of their children or grandchildren. As generation followed generation with no sign of his return, the followers of Jesus tried to make sense of this long wait. Jesus had power to inspire, but differences of opinion about his life and death divided his followers into several groups. It was not until the mid 20th century that the writings of some of these groups were discovered in Egypt.

Many writings were discovered near Nag Hammadi in 1945. The Gospel of Judas was discovered in the 1970’s near Beni Masar. It is known as the Codex Tchacos (named after an antiquities dealer). It was written in Coptic, around 280 A.D., give or take 60 years. Experts believe it was translated into Coptic from an earlier original in Greek.

This “Cliff’s Notes” version of the Gospel of Judas comes from Wikipedia: “In contrast to the canonical gospels which paint Judas as a betrayer of Christ who delivered him up to the authorities for crucifixion in exchange for money, the Gospel of Judas portrays Judas’s actions as done in obedience to instructions given by Christ. The Gospel of Judas does not claim that the other disciples knew about Jesus’s true teachings. On the contrary, it asserts that they had not learned the true Gospel, which Jesus taught only to Judas Iscariot, the sole follower belonging to the “holy generation” among the disciples.”¹

“Of crucial importance is the author’s understanding of Jesus’ death. The other Gospels argue that Jesus had to die in order to atone for the sins of humanity. The author of Judas claims this sort of substitutionary justice pleases the lower gods and angels. The true God is gracious and thus does not demand any sacrifice. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus’s death is simply a final way for him to leave the realm of the flesh and return to the luminous cloud.”

The Gospel of Judas is described by experts as being early Sethian Gnostic thought. I had to go back and read Genesis to refresh my memory about Seth. I remembered that Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel. I forgot that they later had Seth. Seth is considered the spiritual ancestor of what are today called the Sethian Gnostics. “Gnostic” literally, “one who knows,” is actually a complicated term to unpack. For this morning’s purposes, suffice to say that Gnostic texts did not make it into the orthodox Church canon.

According to expert John D. Turner, “Sethian Gnostic thought had its roots in a form of Jewish speculation on the figure and function of Sophia, divine Wisdom, whom the Jewish scriptures sometimes personified as the instrument through whom God creates, nourishes, and enlightens the world . . . In the hands of Sethian Gnostics, these biblical functions of Sophia were distributed among a hierarchy of feminine principles . . .”²
“The functions of these various feminine wisdom figures were interconnected by means of a myth that narrated the vicissitudes of knowledge (gnosis) itself. The potential thinking and self-knowledge of the supreme deity (the Invisible Spirit) initially achieves full actuality in the person of his First Thought (Barbelo), whose intelligence obediently extends itself into a plethora of intelligent spiritual entities called aeons, culminating in the figure of Sophia.”

“But at that point, the orderly unfolding of the divine thinking tragically enters a phase of decline and fallenness in Sophia’s rash attempt to imitate the supreme deity by conceiving a thought of her own. The independent willfulness of her creative thought results in the birth of the archon creator, who then steals it and infuses it into Adam’s mortal human body, where it is further weakened by fleshly and material concerns and undergoes oblivion.” Isn’t this interesting?

“The remainder of the myth narrates the steps by which the divine Mother restores this dissipated divine thinking to its original actuality. Appearing first as the spiritual Eve, she awakens Adam’s dim knowledge of his divine origin and image and bequeaths this enlightenment to subsequent humanity through Adam’s son Seth and his progeny, the seed of Seth . . .”

My key point this morning follows from this comment of John D. Turner: “The Sethian treatises divide themselves into two basic groups depending on the way one attains salvific enlightenment. One group . . . [the earlier group, including the Gospel of Judas] conceptualizes the means of salvation as a horizontal, temporally successive sequence of revelatory descents into this world by a heavenly savior, while another group [the later group] . . . conceptualizes the means of salvation as a vertically oriented ascent by which a visionary practitioner enters a succession of mental states in which one is cognitively assimilated to ever higher levels of being (and those beyond being itself).”

What does all this mean? Is it dusty theological trivia, feminist propaganda, or simply proof that people who lived 2,000 years ago were as goofy as we can be today? Is it sacrilegious – or at least beside the point — to talk about the Gospel of Judas? No. When I consider the history of Christianities (orthodox Christianity and the Christianities whose texts never made it into the canon), I marvel. I marvel at the human capacity to imagine, to empathize, and to use language (including imagery and metaphor) in attempting to persuade others.

Imagination, empathy, and language – Those human capacities give me hope for the future, in spite of the atrocities conducted in the name of religion. Imagination, empathy, and language – Jesus had those capacities in abundance. He imagined the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus imagined a shift from the ethos of “an eye for an eye” to one of “turning the other cheek.” Jesus imagined a society where people shared instead of hoarded. Jesus empathized with the vulnerable and with the marginalized. Jesus empathized with women and with gentiles.

Jesus used language persuasively. His culture was based on an oral tradition, and he used parables to rivet attention, to facilitate memorization, and to communicate more than one meaning at a time to his listeners. Some of his listeners no doubt interpreted the parables literally. Others no doubt caught the metaphor. Remember the evolution from early Sethian Gnostic thought to later Sethian Gnostic thought? Even back then, in the second or third century of the Common Era, we see move from literal to metaphorical.

The transition from reliance on an external God to exploration of a more comprehensive consciousness accessible to some of us (or to all of us) is a recurring theme in human development across time and cultures. As young children, we have no choice but to take things literally. With favorable conditions (including encouragement of imagination, empathy, and language), we begin to explore the realms of metaphor. It matters that we move beyond the literal because every religion has admonitions which, if taken literally, stifle freedom, if not stifling life itself.

Armor of GodNot long ago, I found this in my neighborhood Goodwill store: [show armor costume for children]

It is the Full Armor of God: a Christian Character-Building Costume,” copyright 2004, for ages 3 and up. It consists of the Helmet of Salvation, the Shield of Faith, the Belt of Truth, Gospel of Peace shin guards, and the Sword of the Spirit (which was missing). I paid $4.99 to take it off the market. I did not want to encourage a literal interpretation of Ephesians chapter 6.

I am not against “combat” for sport. I do not think that all human games need to be based on cooperation instead of competition. There is a place for rough and tumble engagement, whether it is comes in the form of wrestling, mixed martial arts, track and field, or an academic decathalon. There is also a place for “combat” in the realm of ideas.

However, lives are in danger when religious texts are interpreted literally, whether those texts are Christian or Muslim or come from any other religious tradition. Religious liberals, who often interpret sacred texts metaphorically, must not abandon religion. That will only make matters worse. The solution to violence fueled by sacred text literalists is not a secular society with a preponderance of atheists. The solution is lies in the contributions of liberals within each religious tradition.

Religious liberals should take a clue from Jesus. We should use imagination, empathy, and persuasive language to convey what we care about in all its depth and richness. We must not give up talking to religious conservatives but rather learn about them and their traditions. If we develop relationships of trust with them, we may have occasion to point out internal inconsistencies in their world view. That can lead to change because no one likes cognitive dissonance. By exploring internal inconsistencies in our world view, the view may change.

No Easter sermon is complete without a message of challenge and hope. In the “Centering Thought” in the Order of Service, Stephen Shick issues the challenge: The fresh return of the eternal demands our response. “It is not old, yet it comes through the wisdom of the ages. It is not young, yet it comes through the passion of innocence. It is not revolutionary, yet it comes proclaiming change. It is not solitary, yet it travels alone, seeking the open heart. It is not lonely, yet it seeks relationship. It is not attached, yet it connects everything. It is the fresh return of the eternal, and it demands our response.”

Hope lies in the human capacity for imagination, empathy, and persuasive language. Karen Armstrong, the distinguished scholar of religions, said, “We can’t think ‘God’ without thinking ‘human’ now. We can’t think ‘human’ without thinking ‘God.’ Because the sacred is not just out there. The sacred must be that to which we all aspire. It must become, in the best possible sense, deeply natural to us . . . But we’ve lost the sense that spirituality is hard work. It is often turned into a commodity to make us feel good . . . So we have to make a constant effort of imagination, which is the great religious faculty . . .We must exercise this faculty fully, whereby we apprehend, in a new way, the inscrutable and ever-elusive divine.”³

May the spirit of Jesus be welcomed among us. May we invest in relationships of trust with people whose views differ from our views. May the fresh return of the eternal be ours — and theirs. May it be so!

¹ See
² See “The Sethian School of Gnostic Thought” by John D. Turner, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, The International Edition, edited by Marvin Meyer, HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 786.
³ See

Boxing and Spirituality Rematch – Rev. Ann Schranz

When archaeologists discover the missing arms of Venus de Milo, they will find she was wearing boxing gloves.” — John Barrymore

Venus de MiloVenus de Milo – Where are your arms, hands, gloves? You are so beautiful, so vulnerable. How did you lose the signs of your competence? As if a woman could not be beautiful and boisterous, curvaceous and competitive.

Venus, who were you fighting? Was it one who, like you, chose to be there, agitated to be there? Or were you being humiliated and punished, the outcome impossible to slip or counter? I suspect you were punching out of your weight class, relying upon practiced reflexive movements, not brute force. I wish more than anything to know who trained you. That person was the game changer. It is as trainers that we have maximum influence for good or for ill. It is as trainers that we support the status quo or quicken its demise.

Venus, tell me, did you lose the signs of your competence because of envy, victory, defeat, reverence? I can imagine each of these as possibilities. Relics of the saints were collected, divided, and transported over hundreds of years and hundreds of miles. Did your arms, hands and gloves crumble into dust of their own accord? If they were helped by antagonists, may it give you sweet comfort to know that some of us see them still. Your spirit lives.

That is how I began a sermon on boxing and spirituality almost three and a half years ago. Now, from the vantage point of today, I will recap some observations I made then and share updates in this “Boxing and Spirituality Rematch.”

Boxing is spiritual in the same way that any exercise is spiritual. Through exercise I learned that soreness is not pain. Exercise (physical, mental, or emotional) is soreness, not pain. Re-framing “pain” has been part of my spiritual growth.

Exercise is about embodiment. Embodiment is not all about aches, pains, and limitations, though aches, pains, and limitations are virtually inevitable for all of us, sooner or later. Embodiment is also about joyful stretching, twisting, running, jumping, leaping, and sweating. Embodiment is also the mind having a chance to stretch, twist, run, jump, leap, and sweat by engagement with ideas. Through exercise, I learned that strength, balance, and coordination all improve with practice. Improvement is its own reward. That goes for spiritual improvement, as well as athletic improvement. Victory in a contest is icing on the cake. Pay attention to the process, and let go of attachment to outcome. I strive to approach spiritual life that way, too.

Boxing is spiritual in the way that any sport non-traditional for a particular gender is spiritual. Exploring non-traditional ways of moving expand the realm of possibility for everyone. The unfolding of talents and abilities in anyone is cause for rejoicing.

Boxing is spiritual in the same way that any of the martial arts are spiritual. Having the means to defend oneself makes it less likely (not more likely) that a person will get into a fight outside the ring. Someone trained in boxing or martial arts has nothing to prove and generally cannot be goaded into physical stupidity. Taking boxing lessons has largely cured me of wallowing in a “poor me” attitude on account of my bad eyes and bad bunions. So what? I have come to see. This bunionny, nearsighted body can do amazing things. Spiritual bunions and spiritual bad eyes need not hold us back either.

Then what is spiritually significant about boxing, in particular? Three years ago, I said that learning to take a punch was the most important thing that I have learned. Life batters us and bruises us, I said. Whether the battering and bruising is by other people directly or by forces such as the economy more generally, we take punches in life. Through boxing, I have learned that bruises heal. Scratches heal. Scars are decoration, not ugliness.

I have come to trust in my body’s ability to heal and my mind’s ability to heal from what feel like assaults against the self. Boxing has helped me recalibrate my internal spectrum of distress, and that feels spiritually profound. Before, I was like a hothouse flower, ready to call 911 with every paper cut. That is no longer true. It is helpful in congregational life, as well, to distinguish between the mildly annoying and the really distressing.

While distinguishing between the mildly annoying and the really distressing is helpful, indeed, I no longer believe that learning to take a punch is the most important thing that I’ve learned from boxing. Here are few lessons that are ascending the ranking as taking a punch is descending the ranking.

There is something to be said for having a “humility generator” in our lives. Three years ago, I reported that boxing revealed possibilities. Today I report that boxing has revealed limitations – and that is OK. Making peace with our limitations and developing a genuine sense of humility is important spiritual work. Week in and week out, I have gone to the gym, learned principles, followed instructions, had the right attitude, and some days it all came together and paid off.
Other days, my mind knew the objective and how to achieve it, my attitude was positive, and it seemed like my body belonged to someone else! It certainly was not doing what *I* wanted it to do. Generally speaking, I have been blessed to be able to grasp a new principle and apply it fairly readily. Not so with boxing. It has taught me that you can try and try and try – and sometimes it just does not click.

“My people” are the people who try and try and try – and what is hoped for and worked for just does not come together. Boxing has taught me the spiritual value of failure with grace and persistence despite failure. Boxing is a humility generator, and humility is a virtue for a reason. Humility makes room for the “other.” Humility does not use up all the oxygen in the room. Humility is not high maintenance. Humility maintains itself. There are few personal qualities as irritating as false humility and few qualities as welcoming as genuine humility.

Other more recent lessons learned . . . It is easy to get caught up in someone else’s rhythm. It is easy to lose touch with our own rhythm. We lose touch with our own rhythm to our detriment. This is the boxing experience that brought that home for me: For about two months, I have sparred twice a week for half an hour each session with a trainer. I am always decently winded after each round, even though a round for me at my age is only two minutes.

My trainer started varying the number of punches he threw. As the number of punches he threw increased and the number of punches I threw decreased, I got more winded, not less winded. It makes no sense! I was getting more winded as I was making less effort. How could that be? My trainer pointed out that as he was being more energetic, my breathing was increasing to match his breathing, even though I did not need to get so ramped up.

Simply being face to face with someone who was moving energetically increased my anxiety and my rate of breathing and my feeling of being winded. Spiritually speaking, it does not have to be so. We can be around someone with a different rhythm and remain true to our own.

Another lesson . . . I am prone to fighting the last battle. I have noticed that I am not alone in that habit. Fighting the last battle is a recipe for failure. What matters in boxing (and in life) is creatively responding to the current situation, not trying to prevent the recurrence of some past mistake. For example, after one sparring round, the trainer said, “You always waited for me to go first. If you want to go, go.”

In the next round, I took his feedback to heart. Afterwards, my trainer said, “You always went first. Don’t do that.” Not only might you wear yourself out, you risk giving your opponent too much information about your habits, making it easy for him or her to counterpunch.

How exasperating for someone like me who is stronger on rule following than improvisation! Yet the point is well taken. Accept feedback. Welcome feedback. Request feedback. It is just that we are not necessarily served well by reacting by rote to the most recent thing we have heard.
Speaking of opponents . . . Three years ago I underestimated the value of a worthy opponent. In a boxing context, by “worthy” I mean someone fair and motivated and appropriate in terms of gender, age, weight, and experience. We need opponents to help us develop, to help us see the flaws in our habits, to strive for excellence.

In spiritual terms, my development is more likely to be sparked by engaging with a worthy opponent than by hanging out like-minded friends. Worthy opponents force us to keep our eyes open. Keep your friends close and your opponents closer – unless you have a longer reach than your opponent. 😉

Those were a few of the recent lessons from the boxing and spirituality rematch. I will conclude with a few lessons that have stood the test of time. There are places in life for individual effort and places in life for collaborative effort. In positions such as ministry, which are primarily about collaborative effort, the spirit needs outlets for individual competition. Without healthy outlets for competition, competitive impulses can come out sideways. The converse is true, as well. In positions characterized by substantial individualized competition, such as sales positions, the spirit needs outlets for collaboration. Congregational life provides opportunities for individual effort and collaborative effort.

With skill and luck, we can punch outside our weight class. We can have disproportionate impact. Our Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales has observed that Unitarian Universalism punches outside of its class. We have an impact disproportionate to our size. That is occasion for spiritual humility and spiritual courage.

Finally, what I know is that you meet the nicest people while boxing – the trainers, the other boxers, and the bystanders who say encouraging words. We can leave our comfort zones and find rich rewards. May the world be a better place because we are out there. May we exert ourselves regularly – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. May our exertions benefit others, as well as ourselves. May it be so!