By Louise Merriman
Even though I attended Harvard Divinity School for a year, I feel like I only have a limited understanding of Christianity. As history of religion major at Bowdoin, my focus was always on Hinduism and Buddhism, so it is an honor to delve into the concept of peace and correlate it with my life.
Although there seems like a vast divide between Buddhism and Christianity – one is a philosophy; the other is a religion. The historical Buddha lived 500 years prior to Jesus, but in terms of peace they are aligned. The Buddha and Jesus ushered in a new way of being in the world. The Buddha would have called Jesus a bodhisattva, a sentient being who has the choice of nirvana and instead- in his infinite compassion- shows people another way. Jesus would have said Buddha is a Prince of Peace.
The Buddha and Jesus both said that hate and aversion spring out of a fundamental ignorance. The Buddha said that we err because we think of ourselves as separate beings. He said none of us can define ourselves separate from the context we find ourselves in.
We solidify and reify our likes and dislikes – The Buddha called them mental formations and it is through this that we divide, dislike and diminish others. In the Dhammapada -a sort of Sayings Gospel that outlines how you can follow the way of the Buddha, he said hate never dispelled hate – only love does. This is the law eternal.
In his life, Jesus faced situations that did not engender peace. He was born to an unwed mother. He was thrust into volatile political situations where the expectation was that he would encourage violence and yet he didn’t.
Why do people hate? Jesus said that people hate because they aren’t seeing with their hearts. They are blind and don’t see. Jesus was able to look beneath the surface of a person’s life. He saw their fears, suspicions, and jealousies, but he would not be blown off course by others’ weakness. He knew the difference between what seemed true on the outside and what was true on the inside.
As we celebrate arrival of Jesus on earth, let’s look at a phrase from Isaiah in the Old Testament and the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament. Born in the 8th century BCE, Isaiah (who Scripture says) actually saw God and although he felt unworthy, he agreed to be conduit of God’s words. He believed that God cared about how people lived their lives not their rituals and gifts. Even though Isaiah may have been an aristocrat, his sympathies were with the unprotected – people who truly needed help.
Isaiah said the message from God was “Console my people, give them comfort.” In my view, Isaiah shared much in common with Jesus whose sympathies were with the disenfranchised and those who were denied a voice. Like Jesus, Isaiah faced tremendous opposition, but God was his North Star and he was honored to speak God’s words.
Scholars believe that Mark is the earliest gospel – closest to the historical Jesus, his life and ministry. It was likely written in Rome in 70 AD and while it is unclear who wrote it, (but) it became one of the canonical gospels. It was written for those who already believed and its purpose was to strengthen their faith. Mark says – “I send my messenger before you to prepare your way of our God. Clear a straight path.”
Perhaps even earlier than Mark were many other non-canonical gospels – two of which I will mention here (The Gospel of Q and the Gospel of Thomas) 325 years after Jesus’ death, the First Council of Nicea was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine. At these councils, the canon known as the New Testament was established and those bishops who believed otherwise were banished and the non-canonical gospels destroyed.
I first heard about the Gospel of Q at Harvard Divinity School back in 1983. Q is short for the German “Quelle” meaning Source and back in the 1830s a German scholar said Matthew and Luke are referring to some of other source. Through academic unearthing, scholars arrived at the Gospel of Q, a sayings gospel.
Although it lacked the narrative on Jesus’ birth and death, it focused on Jesus’ teaching and encouraged those in the first century and us in 2023 to help to usher in a new age where we all can have a revolutionary change of heart. In Q, Jesus says, “Father, may your name be honored, may your reign begin. Grant us the food we need for each day. Forgive our failures, for we forgive everyone who fails us.”
In 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, early codices were found – one of which was the Gospel of Thomas. It was written in Coptic but scholars believe the original language was Greek. Like the canonical gospels, it was derived from an oral tradition that sprung up after Jesus’ death – between 70 and 100 AD. In this gospel, Jesus says people behave a certain way – selfish, judgmental, vain and easily led astray because they have forgotten who they are and where they come from. In Thomas 28, Jesus says, “I took my stand in the midst of the world and in flesh, I appeared to them…My soul ached for the children of humanity because they are blind in their hearts and do not see, for they came into the world empty, and they also seek to depart from the world empty. But meanwhile they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, then they will change their ways.”
Sometimes, peace requires us to be cleared out. We need to take off the blinders. We need to let people fail us. And we need to let people go. As the beloved father of Sufism from the 12th century, Jalaluddin Rumi said negativity is there to “clear you out for a new delight.”
In this past year, I had to let a few people go who engendered a lack of peace in my life. Despite valiant efforts to tolerate, sometimes it is way better to let these people go.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus reminds us to remember who we are. In the Gospel of Q, Jesus encourages us to “forgive everyone who fails us.” There is a special grace in forgiveness. I have forgiven those who failed me. There is also a special grace in no longer putting energy into people that take us away from what really matters
And here is the miracle. After all this anguish – in some cases made worse since it happened on the day that I lost my beloved uncle –wonderful people have shown up in my life.
Some of these people are my beloved friends from college who knew me when I was 18. Some are some of the amazing members of this church. Some are people who have been there all along who have come into sharper focus.
To all of them, I am thankful. Peace reigns.