Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Some years ago in a lecture series on the Bible given at Pendle Hill, a speaker urged Friends to take back the Bible from the fundamentalists.With more than a decade having passed since that time, Quakers, for the most part, continue to forfeit our responsibility to interpret Scriptures in our particular way, through waiting for guidance from the same Spirit that brought them forth. For too long we have discounted the Scriptures’ use as a reality check for our theological meanderings. We have abandoned their use as a gathering and educating tool to be exercised in our communities, as well as an aid in our worship. We have spoken disparagingly of the Bible: “Anything can be inferred from the Bible.” “I don’t know why anyone reads it anymore.” These words were spoken at Quaker gatherings. Devaluation of the Bible is commonplace among us, and what has led to this devaluation is a loss of vision. Yet occasionally, we see in liberal yearly meetings that Friends are beginning to pick up the threads of our frayed heritage, sensing the Truth from which it has been woven. We as the Religious Society of Friends have a tremendous legacy and mission to claim yet once more.
The Scriptures are a gift. They map out the terrain we are bidden to travel on this most highly fraught spiritual adventure of humankind, providing signposts in an otherwise uncharted land. The land to be traveled is within, and like the wise men of the Christmas story, we move forward when we follow the star, that light of heaven that shines in the darkness. Through imagery drawn from unchanging nature, the Scriptures speak to us as they have spoken to generations before - of direction to take, of dangers to avoid and hardships to endure, of insights that are our provisions, and of that glorious completion toward which we move.
The misreading and misuse of Scriptures both within and without the Religious Society of Friends has often been the result of literal interpretation – by both liberals and evangelicals. When the Scriptures are valued, they are seen as a guide to ethical behavior or the center of blind “faith.” We have forgotten our original Quaker way of looking at Scriptures, and we read them “without a right sense of them” (Journal, 31). Isaac Penington wrote:
The Scriptures contain messages concerning God, concerning Christ, concerning the Spirit, the end whereof is to turn men and women to the power and life… (1:131).
By looking at passages from the 20th chapter of John, we can receive information about Christ as he is: risen and active among us today. We can also see how a flat, literal approach to this chapter obscures the information that is offered. Through examining the puzzles, those parts that defy reasonable explanation, we enter into the fruitful area where the devotion of a trusted writer and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit lead us into understanding.
One of the puzzling parts of this chapter is the inability of Mary Magdalene and the disciples to recognize the Lord when he first appears.
…she…saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master (14-16).
Why is Mary unable at first to recognize Jesus? In life, she knew him well. One could reason that Jesus’ face was altered by the ordeal of his crucifixion, or perhaps that her fear and sorrow interfered with her perception. These explanations make the events of the story conform to our experience of what is possible in the world; it is a mistake of literalism and stands in the way of receiving the message intended.
Inexplicable events are not hurdles to our faith; rather they are flashing signals to look closely for here the writer has an intent that breaks through the framework of realistic narrative with the power of meaning. Mary, looking at Christ, at first believes him to be the gardener. Only after hearing him say her name does she recognize him for who he truly is. This event tells us that there is now a new and different way to know the Lord.
Knowing Christ will no longer be done outwardly and visually, but hence forward inwardly at hearing one’s name (that is, oneself) called. Mary responds, “Rabboni!” which is Hebrew for “Teacher.” She acknowledges the nature of this relationship; he is to guide and teach; she is to hear and learn. The value of this story lies not in its factual veracity, nor because it portrays an event in the life of Jesus whom we revere. Its value, from a Quaker standpoint, is in its revealing something to us of ourselves and our movement toward a higher state of being than that which we now accept despairingly as the inevitable condition of human nature.
Fox reminds us that people read the Scriptures “without duly applying them to their own states” (Journal, 31). This scene in John is an outward depiction of an inward spiritual state known to Friends. The living Christ has called and continues to call the spirit of humankind to an exalted place where he is seen and recognized, a place he has prepared for us so that where he is in his understanding and power, there we may be also. It is a place to which we rise from meaningless, death-centered, grappling existence to exultant, abundant Life. Christ has come to teach his people himself. This is the continuing revelation we, as Quakers, have insisted is so.
Note that it is not a natural, spiritual essence that Mary experiences, but an interaction with one who is other than herself. This is a great difference between the Light of Christ as revealed to early Friends and the Inner Light as spoken of by modern Friends. God is not only immanent but transcendent as well.
The risen Lord appears twice more in this chapter. His disciples recognize him only after having seen his wounds.
Then…came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord (19-20).
And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them; then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God (26-28).
What does this problem with recognition tell us? Death to the worldly nature (wounds being the sign of that death) is the distinguishing mark of the risen Lord. To follow him, we too must essentially “keep in the daily cross,” as Fox exhorts. Becoming aware of the Christ Within, the new and living way, is such a radical change in sense of life, that only the death-followed-by-life metaphor will adequately describe it, and only the daily crucifying of the old worldly way of self-aggrandizement and egotism will precede it. Comparing this imagery, this language and vision, to that in Quakerism today, we ask: Does the life of our Meetings surpass the power presented in our biblical and early Quaker heritage? Is there not something deeper and more authentic generating the vision and language of our tradition than that which generates our contemporary practices? What excuse do we have for not availing ourselves of this gift of Scriptures?
Before Christ appears in this chapter, the disciples are disorderly and engaged in fruitless activity. Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, lack coordination in their approach to the tomb. Meaningless details of who arrives first, goes into the tomb first, believes first make this look like a petty competition between the two.
So they ran both together; and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulcher….Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie. …Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed….Then the disciples went away again unto their own home (4,6,8,10).
They do not find the Lord, and they exit, each to his own home. They become isolated individuals, unified only in their diversity. Does this lack of coordination, of shared vision and understanding, this forwarding of self-will and jockeying for position bear some resemblance to our experience in conducting business in our meetings? One thinks of the unity, the upright and generous spirit by which the early Friends were known, and one recalls: Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles (Mt. 7:16)?
In this chapter, Christ gathers the disciples to him and creates order among them with his words to Mary, “but go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (17). When he arrives in their midst, they are assembled as a unified group and receive from their Lord peace, guidance and the power of spiritual discernment (23); they receive the very thing we gather to receive in worship—the Holy Spirit.
Now they are fitted and ready to be sent out to do the work of convincing others of the presence and power of the living Christ among us. Thomas’s convincement, which immediately follows, shows them the work that lies ahead. The early Quaker community, unified and ordered under Christ their head, was guided and empowered to do this same work of convincing others. Their mission – above all else – was to publish the Truth to the world. What is our mission today? Our mission is the same – to preach the Gospel; to present the power of God to grieving, doubting Thomases and Marys who, if they do not harden their hearts, if they do not become insensitive, will feel inward confirmation when they are shown, when they have heard Christ, the Word of God, preached among us, preached by one who looks like you, or me or the gardener.