When I was a kid, I was an avid reader of Mad magazine. I was aware of Cracked magazine but it seemed to me a pale imitation. The art wasn’t as good, the humor wasn’t as funny nor the satire as sharp. So it’s odd that one of my favorite websites is cracked.com. But it’s nothing like the magazine. The website specializes in lists, like “5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Islam,” “6 Absurd Gender Stereotypes (That Science Says Are True),” and “5 Horrible Life Lessons Learned From Teen Movies.” The articles are factual; the humor is in the outrageous truths offered and the often hilarious way they are presented, although the language isn’t always appropriate for church. What I like is that the writers really do their research. So when they write an article entitled “6 Supervillains From History That Make The Joker Look Subtle,” they’ve got the facts to make their case.
One list that caught my attention recently was “5 Real Deleted Bible Scenes In Which Jesus Kicks Some [you know what].” Brian Thompson is actually writing not about the Bible but about the pseudepigrapha, works by people purporting to be apostles or other biblical folks. These were never seriously conidered during the 200 years that Christians debated which books to include in the New Testament. These books read like bad fanfic. The incidents to which Thompson refers include one in the "Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew." The Holy Family encounters a cave full of dragons (!) on their flight to Egypt. They are terrified until the baby Jesus hops down from Mary’s breast and cows the dragons into worshiping him. The "Infancy Gospel of Thomas" is full of more disturbing incidents. Jesus is making birds out of clay and bringing them to life when another boy splashes in the pool he’s using. Jesus causes him to age and wither away. Then there’s the time a kid bumps into Jesus, who pronounces a death curse on him. When the townspeople go to his parents to report Jesus’ reign of terror, he strikes them all blind.
Not to worry! Joseph grabs Jesus by the ear and makes him undo all the harm he’s done and resurrect those he‘s killed. Thereafter, Jesus chills and goes straight.
As you can see the reason the church didn’t include these fake gospels has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with their quality and fanciful nature. For the same reason that fans of the first “Highlander” movie reject the second one, Christians saw that these pseudo-gospels blatantly contradicted the content and spirit of the original four. In trying to emphasize Jesus' divinity, they went way too far. And since we know these were written a hundred years or more after Christ’s earthly life, there’s no good reason to consider them valid sources for information about the historical Jesus.
In fact the earliest writings about Jesus are Paul’s letters, which date from the 50s A.D. And since most scholars date the gospels later, you’d think they would say our best source for data about Jesus was Paul. Oddly enough, they don’t. Part of that is due to a bias against Paul’s Christology, his theology of Jesus Christ. Even biblical scholars like to be seen as objective, which they interpret as meaning not inclined towards the supernatural. So they really have problems with Paul’s portrait of Jesus as Christ, Lord, Savior, the last Adam, the Son of God, and the Wisdom of God. Ironically, they hope to find a more primitive, less developed picture of Jesus in the gospels despite their later dates.
Of course the problem is that Mark, the first gospel, usually dated in the mid to late 60s A.D., starts out with the words “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So his Christology seems to be as high as Paul’s. One finds the same situation whichever gospel one turns to. In Matthew’s first chapter, he links Jesus with Isaiah’s prophesy of child named “Emmanuel: God with us.” In Luke’s first chapter the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her child will be called “the Son of the Most High.” In Luke’s sequel to his gospel, the Book of Acts, Peter on the first Pentecost calls Jesus “both Lord and Christ.” And John starts out telling us Jesus was the Word who is God. You will not find Jesus portrayed as mere Jewish sage anywhere in the New Testament. The only way to take the deity out of the earliest writings about Jesus is to deliberately edit it out.
Why is this important? Because when we are dealing with Jesus, we are dealing with God. If Jesus was born a human being, it means God became a human being. If Jesus lived as a poor man, then God lived in poverty and want. If Jesus touched the sick and deformed and outcast, then God touched those considered unclean. If Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, then God wept at the grave of a friend. If Jesus did not resist when arrested, then God did not smite down those who treated him unjustly but endured the beating, the spitting and the lash. If Jesus went to the cross, then God suffered the most horrific and unrelieved pain we can imagine. If Jesus died, then God underwent the transition we most fear. If Jesus rose from the dead, then God has defeated death and is master over all that seeks to destroy and degrade us.
The earliest Christian creed was simply “Jesus is Lord.” In Sunday’s passage from Acts, Peter says, “he is Lord of all.” All is the most inclusive term possible. If we believe it, two conclusions follow from it.
First, if Jesus is Lord of all, then ultimately Jesus is in charge of everything. We can have peace of mind that Jesus has, in the words of the old spiritual, “the whole world in his hands.” At no time, in no place, under no circumstances, are we beyond his love and protection. We can have confidence and courage in any situation because Jesus is Lord of all.
The second conclusion is that, if Jesus is Lord of all, then we must obey him in everything. If Jesus were merely a moral teacher, we could nevertheless pick and choose among which of his teachings to follow. I'm a huge fan of C.S. Lewis but I disagree with his opinions on certain things. But it would be a contradiction to call Jesus master of all, if we do not obey him as our master in every situation. In fact, though some critics think the chief problem with Christianity is that Christians do not reject some of its teachings, it is a bigger problem when we opt out of various commandments. Because we are more likely to skip the things that are hard. Like the commandment to love others as we do ourselves. Or to love our enemies. Or to turn the other cheek. When Christians get into trouble it is usually because they have not followed Jesus commands to forgive, to be compassionate, and to be generous to those who cannot repay us.
It was when heresies arose, when people started writing down distortions of the truths of Jesus, even misguided attempts to make him more awesome, that Christians began to discuss which books were inspired by God and which weren’t. If you read what they rejected, it’s hard not to agree they did a good job. The capricious and violent Jesus depicted in the pseudepigrapha was not even a candidate. It wasn’t consistent with the radically loving and forgiving Jesus found in the oldest and best attested writings about him. If that is the Jesus who is Lord of all, what have we to fear? And if Jesus is truly Lord of all, why should we balk to obey his gracious words?