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The Secret Book of John


Genesis 1:1-5
John 1:1-5
Lynnewood United Methodist Church
Rev. Heather Leslie Hammer
July 21, 2013

A few of us have been fortunate enough to visit the Dead Sea. I was there in January. It's a
barren sort of place. I couldn't help but think, "Is this what it's like to walk on the moon?"
The earth was dry, the colors were dull brown, and the hills were dark and cavernous.
Your eyes descend from the rocky hills, to the vast sea—really a lake, full of salt, such that
nothing lives in it, no plants and no animals. It's dead.

Who would ever want to live there? Then you visit the archeological site of Qumran, on the
northwest shore of the Dead Sea. And you learn about the Essenes, a sect of Jews who lived
there, intentionally removed from the rest of civilization. Thousands lived in community,
collecting water in cisterns when it occasionally rained. How do we know about these
people? In 1947, a Palestinian shepherd lost his goat, and throwing rocks into a cave to
scare the goat out, he heard pottery breaking, and he went into the cave and found a jar. In
the jar, protected by the clay and the cave and the dry air of the region, was an ancient
scroll of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. This scroll and the others found in the caves
at Qumran became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Later, the community of Qumran was
unearthed, and visitors today can see the ruins of a dining room and kitchen where they
found over 1000 ceramic bowls, and an ancient scriptorium, a room where scribes copied
the ancient texts of the bible. More than 800 documents were found in jars in caves,
including all but one of the books of the Old Testament. Historians believe that the Essenes
meticulously copied and studied these sacred scrolls at the time of Jesus, and then they hid
them in caves when the Romans were expected to attack in the year 68.

The findings at Qumran tell us the story of a group of Jewish believers that may have
included John the Baptist. The Dead Sea Scrolls have given us tremendous insight into the
books of the Old Testament, this very early Jewish writing, that we believe was inspired by
God.

Another major archeological find at about the same time, though not as widely known, was
the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt in 1945. Two boys were traveling along
the Nile on their camels looking for fertile soil to dig up and take with them for their
families' crops. Their shovels hit upon something hard—it was a clay jar. The boys opened
the seal on the jar and found inside a leather-bound book, called a codex. Eventually
archeologists unearthed 52 documents on papyrus parchment at Nag Hammadi, 40 had
never been known before. These writings dated from the 2nd and 3rd century of the
Common Era and represented writings by early Christians that were not included in the
Bible, as we know it. We call these writings Gnostic Christian texts. Only since the 1970s
have they been translated and published.
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Last week I spoke about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, one of the Gnostic texts that gives
us insight into the role of Mary Magdalene and her spirituality in the community of Jesus
followers. Today I'd like to introduce you to the Secret Book of John, also called the
Apocryphon of John. The Gnostics believed that first a person learns from the testimony of
others and then later the person is able to learn by direct communication with God. I think
we might say this is how it often works for us. First we hear about God from our parents or
a teacher. Then we can pray directly to God. Those who are prepared may even receive
direct revelation or visions, or, we might say, they receive insight from God. The Gnostic
writers recorded such a revelation that came to John, which remained secret among the
Gnostic believers until it was dug up. Many Gnostic texts were destroyed in the 4th century
for being heresy, but the Nag Hammadi collection survived in a carefully sealed jar (Elaine
Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 20). Now the secrets of the Gnostic believers can be shared once
again with those who have “ears to hear.”

The first question you might ask is, "Which John received this secret revelation?" The
opening of the book tells us: "John, the brother of James,…[son] of Zebedee, had come up to
the temple." There "a Pharisee named Arimanius approached him," asking him about Jesus,
who had died. Then the book follows, with John in grief after the death of his master,
sharing his vision of Christ who came to him to tell him the nature of God and the nature of
Christ himself. It is as if John, a disciple, perhaps the beloved disciple, is trying to make
sense of this emotional time and its ultimate meaning for him. John turns away from the
temple and retreats into the desert. This is what the desert fathers did in Egypt at the
oldest monasteries in the world, much like the people at the Dead Sea. They went off into
the desert to be with God.

So, this is a time of grief for John. At such a time, we would all retreat. In mourning, it
would be natural to seek an understanding of the meaning of God, in order to have a sense
of accompaniment. When people are lonely or afraid, this is what people in the hospital tell
me: "No matter what happens I know I have God with me," they say.

The Gnostic writers begin with the resurrection and go backwards in their writing. They
often tell of a vision of Christ that explains the relationship between God and humanity.
They don't try to tell the life story of Jesus, as the four Gospels in the Bible do. They begin
with the end and explore its spiritual significance.

So first, John shares who God is, as revealed to him by the risen Christ. God says:

"I am the one who is with you always. I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son.
I am the undefiled and incorruptible one. Now I have come to teach you what is and
what was and what will come to pass, that you may know the things which are not
revealed and those which are revealed, and to teach you concerning the unwavering
race of the perfect Man. Now, therefore, lift up your face, that you may receive the
things that I shall teach you today, and may tell them to your fellow spirits who are
from the unwavering race of the perfect Man."
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Then Christ describes God:

"He is the invisible Spirit, of whom it is not right to think of him as a god, or
something similar. For he is more than a god, since there is nothing above him, for
no one lords it over him. For he does not exist in something inferior to him, since
everything exists in him. For it is he who establishes himself. He is eternal, since he
does not need anything. For he is total perfection. He did not lack anything, that he
might be completed by it; rather he is always completely perfect in light. He is
illimitable, since there is no one prior to him to set limits to him. He is unsearchable,
since there exists no one prior to him to examine him. He is immeasurable, since
there was no one prior to him to measure him…He is ineffable, since no one was
able to comprehend him to speak about him. He is unnamable, since there is no one
prior to him to give him a name.

"He is immeasurable light, which is pure, holy (and) immaculate. He is ineffable,


being perfect in incorruptibility" (http://gnosis.org/naghamm/apocjn.html).

How would you describe God? invisible? eternal? perfect? without limits? beyond measure?
without a name? Or is God in fact ineffable, (which means indescribable)?

Herein lies the mystery of God—we can think of many words, but none alone suffices. God
is all in all, "the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end," as in the revelation to
John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation (21:6).

This Gnostic description of God is especially open-ended. It is not the God of the Hebrew
Bible who speaks and acts. It is not the personified God to whom Jesus speaks and prays. It
is the God of mystery, to be known by each of us in a different way.

After describing God, John shares his revelation of creation. His account is different from
the two creation stories in Genesis. It shows us that some early Christian groups rethought
the Hebrew Scriptures and drew also from eastern folklore, especially from Iranian myth,
to understand the origin of the world.

Here is a highly abbreviated summary of the revelation that the risen Christ gives to John,
his disciple, recorded by the Gnostic writers:

The supreme deity, which is the ultimate Spirit of perfection (or God), sends forth a
series of light-beings, one of which is Sophia, the concept of Wisdom. Without the
approval of the Spirit of perfection, Sophia produces a monstrous creator-god called
Yaldabaoth, who carries in him some of his mother's light. Sophia hides Yaldabaoth,
and in his hiding he is ignorant of how to create a good world. Yaldabaoth and his
angels create man, but man is deficient and only comes to life when Yaldobaoth is
tricked into breathing into him the light-power left from his mother Sophia. The
powers of light from Sophia battle with the powers of darkness from Yaldabaoth,
now void of all light. The spiritual world of Sophia is superior to the physical world
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of Yaldabaoth. Finally Christ is sent down to earth to save humanity by reminding


people of their heavenly origin. John asks if some will be rejected, and the risen
Lord answers, "If the Spirit descends on them they will be saved. "For the power
will descend on every man, for without it no one can stand" (trans. by Frederik Wisse in
The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, ed., 120).

Compare this story to the story in Genesis. There is no fall, no original sin. And instead of
Jesus dying to atone for humanity's sin at the end of his life, Christ arrives as a light being,
spirit of goodness, to remind humans of their divine birth at the time of creation. Salvation
comes in the birth of Christ into the world at the first dawn.

This is a new twist, isn't it? Many people find it hard to understand original sin and human
depravity. It seems troubling, almost, that God had to kill his Son to bring about atonement
for humanity. This orthodox view of Christianity, when you think about it, is rather
negative. The Gnostic "take" is much more positive. It focuses on the good in God that in
the creature of Wisdom enters human beings. That divine spark in humans is light, and
light wins over the darkness, thus restoring humans to their god-like beginning.

Doesn't this remind you of the Gospel of John, especially the Prologue? "In the beginning
was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.…What has come into
being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the
darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (1:1-5). The writer has traditionally been
thought to be John the disciple of Jesus (son of Zebedee) and also the Evangelist and
beloved disciple. Now, scholars do not think the author is necessarily someone who
personally knew Jesus because the text was written probably at the end of the first century.
Perhaps the writer of this Gospel attributed his poetic writing to the disciple named John,
and then a Gnostic writer also attributed his secret book to the same disciple. In fact, it is
thought that the Gospel of John in the New Testament is a text the Gnostics would have
found very appealing. It may have influenced their writing about light and darkness and
the presence of Christ, the Word, at the beginning of creation.

The Hebrew people who wrote the very early scrolls of Isaiah found at Qumran liked the
idea of God as light. When the Israelite people crowned David, their new king, they rejoiced
after overcoming the Assyrians: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great
light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2b).
And they described the earliest moments of cosmic and human existence in Genesis in
terms of light: “Then God said, “Let there be light.”

Light is a metaphor for hope. It comes from the natural world—a new day dawning. And
we experience it as a relief from the darkness of grief, as John would have felt after Jesus
was gone. When we are lost and seeking God in the deserts of our lives, what a welcome
revelation it is to know that Christ comes to bring us light. Perhaps his spirit was here with
God at the first ray of light of the world. Perhaps his spirit is present to us in the light of
Christ each week in worship. I give thanks for the earliest believers who wrestled with the
big questions of existence: Who is God? Who is Christ? How do we find meaning and
wholeness in our living? How do we find light in the world?